As a smooth-moving black and white robot glides through the dining room of Roger Bar and Restaurant in Mountain View, food and beverages director Jacky Li observes, "Right now, Servi is more of a Bus-i, I guess you could say."
Servi the robot pauses where people load it up with dishes after a meal. Then, the robot rolls away to the kitchen with a quiet, upbeat chirp.
Servi, from Redwood City's Bear Robotics, is like a sleek, modern hybrid of a "Star Wars" Stormtrooper and Rosey the Robot from the 1960s cartoon "The Jetsons." Unlike Rosey, however, Servi is not meant to be a "Jill of all trades."
"We tried to program (Servi) to serve, but it really lacked the — what's the best way to say this? It really lacked the service," Li says. "We were like, 'That's not really good.' We redesigned it to help with something else, like busing."
Since it opened in July, Roger, as with most restaurants across the U.S., has faced hiring challenges amid a labor shortage during the pandemic. Leveraging tech tools can help alleviate some of the pressure, Li says.
"It helps with the staff knowing that we have them in mind because of the shortage, instead of waving our hands up and saying, 'Well, it's not our fault, we're trying to hire.'"
Robots in restaurants and hotels were gaining attention in other locations, even before the pandemic. Robots have cooked hot pot in Beijing, made pizza in Paris and Mountain View, dispensed coffee in San Francisco and mixed cocktails in Las Vegas, so why not make greater use of them here, at Roger and the Ameswell Hotel where the restaurant is located?
"Obviously we're in Silicon Valley, (so) we wanted to combine technology and bring it into the restaurant," Li says.
Other tech tools found at Roger have become ubiquitous in Bay Area dining. On the customer side, since the start of COVID-19, people have started to use contactless systems with their smartphones to make reservations, view menus, order and pay.
On the restaurant's side, teams use appliances and tools that are sensitive to weight, volume and temperature to ensure food output is consistent.
"A lot of (this technology) has been developed before, and during the pandemic, it's been brought more to light," Li says.
Servi is one of the many tools that the Roger team is using to support a dining model that depends on moving high volumes of food and drink in a fast-paced environment. The team uses software like OpenTable for reservations and digital platforms like Toast for point of sale transactions, which has the side benefit of cutting back on paper use.
In the kitchen, the team has replaced Ice Wands with a blast chiller, and they have appliances like char-broil grills and vector ovens that control quality for perfect burgers and steaks, reducing energy and food waste.
"All of these are really at the press of a button. The great thing about it is that (food) comes out consistent — that's one thing that a restaurant has to do," Li says. "The real reason why everybody comes back (to a restaurant) is because you get the salmon, you come back again, and it's the same salmon."
Not all innovative technologies are totally new. For example, conveyor belts have long been used, but their application for banquets is creative. While plating dishes for big events, Roger's team uses a conveyor belt to move dishes down a line, from one person to the next. Executive chef Christian McCallion brought the idea back to Silicon Valley from a trade show in Colorado.
"(The conveyor belt) is efficient: It gets you into the rhythm," Li says. "When we're plating dinners, it makes sure we're not having any gaps."
Meanwhile, Servi the robot is great at making runs between the dish pit and dining room, but it can't do all that humans can. It can be programmed to say, "Excuse me," but when confronted with an obstruction in its path, Servi eventually gives up.
"I've had children run in front and try to block it," Li says. "It'll try to find another way and if it can't, it'll just stop."
Servi can also be programmed to chirp out a polite, "Happy birthday!" but it isn't capable of the finer interactions that make human-to-human interactions, well, human.
"(The robots) are never going to be able to serve, they're never going to be able to take your order," Li says. "If they even run food, they're not going to be able to drop food. And if you're a party of 10, Servi's not really capable of that."
That's why Servi is used as an amenity, a tool — the robot isn't a replacement for Roger's team. Instead, the team programs Servi to ensure a constant flow of dishes to the dishwasher in the kitchen, limiting holdups in the dining room. With Servi covering this ground, the staff has bandwidth to stay attuned to guests' other needs.
"We're definitely more in front of your face. We make sure you have your ketchup, we make sure you have your straw. We make sure that you have your extra fork. We're more on the floor, rather than having people constantly walk all the way back to the dish pit ... That's where the robots are able to help," Li says.
"I can only imagine what is next."
Roger serves brunch, dinner and drinks. Find it at the Ameswell Hotel in Mountain View.
Roger Bar and Restaurant, 800 Moffett Blvd., Mountain View; 650-744-1030.
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Sara Hayden writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.