Robo-waiter serves up a taste of the future Newest server at Korean eatery works well with others, never calls in sick

A Winnipeg restaurant’s newest waiter has four wheels and a battery life of 16 hours.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/03/2022 (188 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A Winnipeg restaurant’s newest waiter has four wheels and a battery life of 16 hours.

Dirk Wang hasn’t yet named his robotic assistant. Still, the automaton has become well-known at Hong Du Kkae, a Korean eatery, this winter. It’s creating an in-person dining presence that has lacked over the past two years, Wang said.

“(The) last couple days, since we have the robot, we’ve got some more traffic here,” he said. “I’m glad about that.”

Wang called the bot “easy to use” at his 2241 Pembina Hwy. space Wednesday.

Hong Du Khae owner, Dirk Wang and his son Ricky Wang, hang out with their newly hired robotic server. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

He presses a button on the robot’s screen — “table4” — and the machine rolls off to the corresponding table.

As it moves, it plays soft music and exhibits a digital face, complete with blinking eyes and smiling mouth. It can hold four trays, meaning Wang could program it to visit four of the restaurant’s 13 tables in one trip.

“Your delicious meal is here,” a woman’s voice announces as the bot reaches its destination.

It will wait for guests to grab their trays and press “OK” on the screen before wheeling back to Hong Du Kkae’s front counter.

Wang got the idea while on a family vacation in Vancouver last summer. He visited a restaurant with similar bots; the children he was with were thrilled.

Wang’s friend, who lives in Vancouver, offered to sell him one. Keenon Robotics makes the machines.

“I did some research, saw they’re working well, and we just purchased (one),” Wang said.

He had to shell out $26,000, so it wasn’t a snap decision.

The newest hire at the Hong Du Khae restaurant, delivers food to patrons Kyle Penner and Frances Magnaye. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Wang and his wife Michelle bought Hong Du Kkae in the summer of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. They own a nearby logistics store.

“When they (were selling), we just thought, ‘Well, OK, should we get it?’” Wang said.

There’s been little dine-in traffic over the past two years, he said. But, the robot seems to be creating a buzz.

The non-human server is about 4 ft. tall and has sensors near the ground. Hong Du Kkae also has sensors attached to its ceiling; GPS helps the bot get around. It will stop if something comes in its way, and if there’s space, it will manoeuvre around the object.

“If it’s busy, the robot can help (the waiter) to make his life better.”–Dirk Wang, owner of Hong Du Khae

Wang said it’s the first of its kind in Winnipeg. It was programmed last month, and it’s not a replacement for red-blooded staff, he said.

“We don’t have issues (with) hiring,” he said, adding there’s a crew of 12 people.

Often, only one server is working due to few dine-in customers, Wang said. They must answer the phone and take orders in addition to bringing out food, getting patrons’ bills and cleaning.

“If it’s busy, the robot can help (the waiter) to make his life better,” he said. “The robot can directly go serve the people.”

John Ru, who works at Hong Du Kkae, calls the automaton “a really good partner.”

“Especially in rush times, it’s really efficient,” Ru said.

John Ru, a cook at Hong Du Khae, loads up the un-named robot server to take an order to a table. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

He’d like to see the machine converse with diners in the future. It can be programmed to say different things — on Wednesday, it said “Blah, blah, blah, I am a robot” — and humans can speak through it by inserting a USB with their voice recordings.

Wang said he doesn’t plan to buy another bot of this kind — there’s no room. But, he has friends with bigger restaurants who are looking at doing so, he said.

“If (it’s) difficult to find people, (a) robot may be another option,” he added.

Automation has been in the restaurant industry for many years, but there will always be a need for human servers, according to Shaun Jeffrey, the CEO of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

“Automation will never replace the hospitality part of the hospitality industry,” he said. “Most people go to restaurants for that one-on-one interaction with a person you haven’t seen in a while, and a lot of times, you even have those favourite servers.”

Robots are more present in the fast-food sector, where an emphasis is on quick orders, Jeffrey said.

“I don’t know how or where I’d even start in putting this type of technology into some of the restaurants I worked in,” he said, adding some full-service spaces have too much bustle.

Still, it’s something to look at for the future, he said. Each business is different and would need to see if automation suits them, he added.

gabrielle.piche@winnipegfreepress.com

Gabrielle Piché

Gabrielle Piché
Reporter

Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.

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