Kuala Lumpur – A server robot, namely PuduBot S stands ready beside the kitchen counter of OldTown White Coffee, Malaysia’s largest coffee shop chain. The server robot patiently awaits its human server to load up three table orders of hot coffee, Nasi Lemak, Hainanese Chicken Chop, and Chocolate Pop Freezy topped with whipped cream on its three-layer trays. Every layer can support a load of up to 10kg.
After keying in the table number, the charming automated server happily (imagine a smiling expression on its screen) gracefully glides across, stopping in its tracks with any obstructing traffic, whether a fellow robot or human, before making its way to the tables. Customers would then pick up the food from the trays.
Blame the arrival of drones and electric cars, but a future with robot waiters is all but inevitable. Post-pandemic, the F&B industry is amongst the hardest-hit sectors facing severe challenges, with the acute labour shortage estimated at 40,000 restaurant workers. With foreign worker approval rates at a meagre 0.55% out of over 470,000 total applications, it’s no surprise that many business owners have decided to shutter their restaurants.
Gradually, automated server robots are trickling into the Kuala Lumpur food scene, even at late-night mamak chains. The company behind the best-selling commercial robot PuduBot S, Shenzhen-based tech enterprise Pudu Robotics recognized the need to develop performance-driven delivery robots as early as 2016. Since its inception, Pudu Robotics has heavily invested in R&D, obtained multiple awards, raised over 155 million dollars in funding and applied for hundreds of core patents.
Led by a young and dynamic entrepreneurial team led by founder Felix Zhang, Pudu Robotics is fast becoming one of China’s leading tech-enterprise in global markets, supplying robots to over 60 countries and 600 cities worldwide. Their presence is in hospitals, schools, offices, shopping malls, hotels, and factories. Notable global clients include Hai Di Lao, Ding Tai Fung, McDonald’s, Tim Ho Wan, Marriott Bonvoy, Sheraton Hotels and Resorts, to name a few.
“In China, we saw an uptake in using our robots once we signed a global strategic cooperation with Haidilao Hotpot. Often, people have a misconception that robots are replacing human staff. That is not the case. Robots are here to complement the service team by offloading the menial tasks, leaving room to upskill workers. The pandemic has sped up the rollout of robot servers in the hospitality industry as more consumers become more sensitive to the risk of physical interactions,” says Eva Hu, Regional Brand Manager. Robot servers may indicate a reduced perceived infection risk as there is lower physical contact, which could increase visit intent.
Pudu Robotics has proliferated in recent years to become a “leader” in the global service robot markets. With their accolades, it is only natural for them to collaborate with local distributors who share their mission of utilizing robots to improve the efficiency of human production and living. Secure Robotics, Malaysia’s number one leading provider of modern technologies, is one of the local distributors who exclusively introduce PuduBot S, their latest server robot to the market.
“We were approaching potential restaurants two years ago, even before the pandemic. During the pandemic, we see an uptake of interest from establishments considering service robots. One of our clients, a popular BBQ Chain restaurant, was so satisfied with the trial that they immediately signed up to have service robots for all its outlets,” says Benjamin Chong, Director of Secure Robotics. “The goal of introducing robots is not to replace human labour, but to address labour shortages and upskill the current workforce. Hiring robot servers is unquestionably more cost-effective in the long run. With limited resources, “hiring” robots is an option for reducing the workload of your restaurant’s existing servers.” he adds.
Service robots will no longer be a marketing gimmick to attract diners to a restaurant; they are here to reshape the dining experience,
Not as expensive as you think
The initial investment in automated servers might be a hard pill to swallow. A robot server can range from RM40,000 up to RM80,000. This can be seemingly a mammoth initial investment but is it? Let’s do some quick calculations.
In Kuala Lumpur, the average annual pay for a human server is approximately RM21,600 to RM30,000, excluding EPF, health insurance, injury claims, time invested in training, sick leaves, no-shows and emotional well-being aspects that come along with it.
Secure Robotics offer monthly rental plans as low as RM1,800 for a one-year contract to rent PuduBot S. “Server robots do not take leave, show up every day and are always punctual to work!” Benjamin Chong, Director of Secure Robotics, shares. Eva adds that Pudu Robotics first generation robots are still in the market five years on, and restaurant owners are still using them.
Human waiters typically make numerous trips from the kitchen to the tables. These tasks can be performed automatically by robot servers, freeing up human servers to focus on higher-value tasks such as conversing with customers and attending to their needs. When human waiters have more time on their hands, they naturally feel happier and provide better service.
Another reason for increased visit intention is that robot servers are a crowd favourite with a crowd. “Our serving robots are a huge hit with young children. It attracts attention with its blinking LED lights, adorable upbeat voice over and interactiveness, and we see an uptake in families with children coming in to dine,” says Kelvin Tan, Project Manager of Black Canyon, a Malaysian chain restaurant serving family friendly, affordable Thai-fusion dishes.
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Black Canyon lost 40% of its staff last year during the pandemic. When the lockdown started to ease, Black Canyon started to use BellaBot, another premium product from Pudu Robotic, in all its 25 outlets across Malaysia and plans to have at least 2 per outlet to overcome labour shortage. Kelvin confidently responded that robot servers are here to stay as it eases the menial workload of their current staff, where they can focus on serving customers’ needs.
The emphasis is on something other than replacing humans with robot servers but on using technology to improve the industry’s service level. After all, the hospitality industry is a people’s industry. Furthermore, hiring a robot waiter helps cut costs because it is more cost-effective in the long run. With robot waiters, workplace injuries, theft, and staff not showing up at the last minute will be significantly reduced, resulting in lower costs.
When robots were first unleashed in the restaurant industry, customers flocked in awe at the novelty of non-humans’ presence serving them. But in decades to come, it will just be commonplace in chain restaurants that robots are the ones serving your Egg Fried Rice. Service with a smile? That, you will surely get.