Local restaurants easing strain on servers with robots

Published: Aug. 12, 2022 at 11:05 PM CDT
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KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) — As restaurants start seeing demand go up post-pandemic, some are turning to an unusual source to help their staff. At two local restaurants, you might see a robot bringing your food the next time you dine out.

At Sayachi Sushi in Brookside, a sleek machine announces his move from the kitchen to the dining room with the phrase, “Here comes the robot!”

The tone is polite but playful.

“It’s the voice of the elevator in Japan,” said customer Nathan Riding, who once lived in Japan.

Sayachi Sushi co-owner Carlos Falcon named the robot Totoro, a giant, fuzzy chinchilla in a Japanese animated children’s movie.

“My husband named the robot that because that’s my favorite stuffed animal,” said co-owner Sayaka Falcon.

With four trays, Totoro can carry more than a human food runner.

“When we’re really busy or when we have a very large table, it helps,” said server Archer Wright.

Servers are usually just steps behind Totoro to remove the food from the trays to help customers identify what’s in their order and provide the human touch expected of quality service.

“He just has this delightful quality. He’s very human like. But a lot nicer than some humans that I’ve met,” said first-time customer Maddy Poletis, laughing.

Sayaka Falcon says they got Totoro to help out when they had trouble hiring, and he still takes off some of the burden when they’re slammed. but he’s also become a bit of a celebrity.

“Sometimes people call and ask, ‘Is the robot working today?’ And we’re like, ‘Well, the robot doesn’t have a day off.’ From an employer perspective, that’s the best thing, you know. No drama, no sick days,” said Falcon.

She chuckled at her own joke, because she appreciates her human servers and has no intention of replacing them. Though she notes it saves them money too because they don’t need to give this expeditor a portion of their tips at the end of the night.

She says Totoro cost the equivalent of six months pay for a server.

He plays a little melody while in route. It can sing happy birthday, but it’s currently set to a mellow keyboard tune to be unobtrusive. Customers remarked on the sound as cute and charming, but Wright says it also acts as a warning to servers to stand clear when the round a blind corner from the server station into the dining room.

If you get in Totoro’s way, his sensors know, and he’ll try to get around you. But if you play a stubborn game of chicken, he’ll speak up.

“Excuse me. I have to go there,” he said to KCTV5′s news crew when we tested his patience.

His third remark goes from polite to pleading.

“Don’t block my way. Please. I have to work. Otherwise, I’ll get fired.”

That’s Wright’s favorite.

He says customers notice the dots on the ceiling, each with a different design, and ask, is it braille? Is it art?

They actually correspond to a table number, programmed into Totoro’s, whose upward facing camera can match it to the table he’s assigned to deliver to.

He even has a slower “steady” setting for ramen orders.

“I mean, I think it has spilled less ramen on itself than I have on me,” says Wright.

Totoro’s second remark when blocked is, “Don’t be obsessed with me too much. Please.”

Poletis repeated the phrase, giggling, then added, “I’m totally obsessed with him. I wish I had a Totoro at home.”

Sayachi Sushi is not the only restaurant in town with a robotic food runner. Lulu’s Thai Noodle Shop in the Crossroads has had one since late June and will be adding a second at their new location in Overland Park when it opens this fall. They too use their robot just to carry food. The human servers do all the interacting with customers.

A manager there said it was less about any shortage of staffing than just trying to give them a hand, but it’s also been a novelty that gives customers a kick.