61 Chili’s restaurants have been testing a robot server known fondly as Rita the Robot. Most of then are firing Rita.
Bear Robotics, the makers of Rita, call the basic model Servi. It’s a self-driving rolling cart that can speak and sing in a high, perky voice. Chili’s human workers say that Rita is not good at determining whether a table is clean or not, that it gets lost sometimes, and that it can’t always avoid children in its path. You can find online videos showing Rita leaving with a customer’s food and breaking down in the middle of the restaurant.
It’s also hard not to notice how much human help Rita requires. She has shelves, but no thumbs, so she has limited capacity for actually serving or cleaning.
On the other hand, the restaurant says that Rita lets the human wait staff spend more time with diners.
Even so, Rita the Robot will be retired from most Chili’s restaurants in the near future. The company explains that they are “pausing” their robot experiment.
Not the first robot waiter
Servi, or Rita, is not the first robot waiter. But industry experts say that robot servers are generally a gimmick in hospitality, not a timesaver.
Chili’s found that Rita didn’t make a difference to the bottom line.And even though staff and customers alike said she was cute and cool, she didn’t increase sales or save much money. Human staff could not be reduced.
We don’t know the price or the cost to operate, but if she was mostly a cart, we can feel confident that she was pricier than a non-automated cart.
Robots have made incredible differences in many industries — certainly in printing and manufacturing — but they haven’t fulfilled their promise when it comes to hospitality.