More than three decades ago, when John Soysal first started waiting tables as a young man, the restaurant industry was a very different place.
Online reviews didn’t exist, bookkeeping was done with actual books and – with no computerized ordering system available – food orders were scribbled by hand.
But the biggest change in Soysal’s career occurred last week when he began working alongside a fleet of cartoonish-looking robots from China at the oddly named Delaware restaurant he manages – Robot Captain Crabs Cajun Seafood & Bar. Now middle-aged, Soysal has seen a lot in his busy career working at restaurants across the Mid-Atlantic, from quarrels to spills to food poisoning to unruly customers.
But “never in a million years,” he said, did he expect to be working alongside a bunch of roving Chinese robots at a seafood restaurant about 10 miles southwest of Wilmington, Delaware.
“Everything has changed tremendously,” he said.
Though they are sure to unleash amusement, robots are no longer merely gimmicks, which partly explains why the restaurant industry, like so many others, is in the early stages of a robot revolution, experts say.
And while automated technology such as “self-service ordering” kiosks has become commonplace in chains such as McDonald’s, Shake Shack and Subway, restaurants such as Soysal’s are going a step further by adding interactive machines that take on roles normally filled by people.
In Boston, Spyce bills itself as “the world’s first restaurant featuring a robotic kitchen that cooks complex meals,” a distinction that appears to reference burger-flipping robots such as “Flippy,” who plied his trade in a California fast food kitchen before being temporarily suspended – because he wasn’t working fast enough.
Robots are also making customized cups of coffee and working as bartenders, not to mention taking orders while sounding increasingly human.
At Robot Captain Crabs Cajun Seafood & Bar, five battery-powered machines, which the restaurant’s website refers to as the business’s “robot family,” have been part of the operation for about a week. The machines – two hostesses in purple and white bellhop-like uniforms and three servers – cost $20,000 a piece and were imported from China, where the restaurant’s owner, Guang Chen, initially spotted similar devices working in local establishments, Soysal said.
The eye-catching machines, which can flash their lights and spin in circles, are not taking human jobs, according to Chen, who emigrated from China and owns another local restaurant. He told Delaware Online that some customers have expressed concern about human displacement.
“It’s a mixed feeling,” Chen said. “Some people feel like they are taking the place of humans.”
Soysal said the machines work in conjunction with the restaurant’s human staff. After being greeted by a human host, the party is registered in a computer that monitors open tables. Once a table opens up, a robotic hostess introduces herself to customers in a female-sounding voice before escorting them to their table.
Human servers take orders using a computerized system that alerts the kitchen, Soysal said. Once those orders are ready, the plates are delivered via the robotic servers, which roll from the kitchen to the dining room.
After a human server places the meals in front of a customer, the robot chimes in:
“Please enjoy your meal,” it says before returning to the kitchen.
“It’s not complicated at all,” Soysal said. “It’s very simple.”
“The kids love the robots and most customers are amused by them,” he added. “They take selfies with it because it’s a really different concept.”
Food reviews on the restaurant’s Facebook page are mixed, but reviews of the robot performance are consistently positive.
One recent customer, disappointed by the human service, wrote that the robots were the “only ones that were doing their job and entertained us during our long wait.”
“I will only be going back when the business closes and I maybe can buy one of the robots,” the customer added.