“Can they [robots] replace a smile? You can have a robot, but you need that human touch. Customers like it when you ask them, ‘Are you okay?’” – Ravi Velu, owner of Velu’s Curry
Imagine patronising a restaurant where you are being served by ‘robot waitresses’. Well, this is not just a pipe dream, but a reality that is happening at Rong Heng Seafood Restaurant.
The seafood restaurant at 1202 East Coast Parkway is presumed to be the first F&B eatery in Singapore to hire ‘robot waitresses’. Dubbed Lucy and Mary, these robots are designed in Japan and manufactured in China, according to The Straits Times. As stated in another report by Zaobao, the robot costs more than $14,000 and can hold up to 15kg. Their jobs? To serve dishes to patrons and send dirty plates back to the kitchen.
Similarly, another robot was seen roving around Chilli Padi Nonya Café collecting dirty plates from diners. And ‘flying waiters’ or fully autonomous drones, known as Infinium Serve, are set to fly overhead at Timbre @ Gillman.
Developed by Singapore-based Infinium Robotics, these ‘flying waiters’, which navigate based on infrared sensors stationed around the restaurant, can each carry up to 2kg of food and drink. They will soar above diners on a charted path marked by a computer program, before landing at a docking station, where the ‘human waiter’ delivers the dishes from the drone to the tables.
As stated in a report by TODAY, Timbre Group has considered acquiring a total of 40 drones for “a seven-figure sum” to be brought into service at its dining outlets.
These autonomous server-drones are believed to increase productivity by about 25 percent. They are not deployed to replace human waiters; instead, these robots free up staff workload, enabling them to make cocktails or interact with the diners, enhancing the patron’s dining experience.
Currently, the Singapore government has not put in place restrictions regulating how drones are to be used indoors. As a matter of fact, the authority is endorsing this robotic operation as means to bolster productivity, Timbre Group’s managing director Edward Chia told IBTimes UK.
Likewise, global food ordering app Foodpanda has been testing drones for delivering meals in Singapore.
The aforementioned F&B operators are amongst the first in the local F&B industry to have considered robotic and automation solutions in their business models to address recruitment difficulties.
The local F&B industry has been struggling with the recent labour crunch as a result of the Ministry of Manpower’s cap on foreign workers. Additionally, soaring costs in rental and raw materials have also aggravated the situation.
A shortage of manpower and rising costs are F&B operations’ biggest woes, according to a survey conducted by DBS BusinessClass.
Scarce labour poses a major challenge in the local F&B industry due to the nature of its business, which necessitates long working hours and working on weekends – an unattractive option for most local workers. Presently, the F&B industry has a shortage of around 7,000 people, as mentioned in government statistics on job vacancies.
To support companies such as F&B operators to harness technology to manage the labour crunch, the government has announced the Automation Support Package, which helps companies defray the expenses of investing in automation projects by up to 50 percent, with a maximum grant of $1 million.
At Block 320C Anchorvale Drive, some students were queuing up to purchase their lunch from two ‘Chef-in-Box’ vending machines. One of them was Raynald Lim, a student from Sengkang Secondary School. “I think it is an interesting concept. I wish there will be more of such cafes in Singapore,” he said.
But Ms Rodziah, a security officer living in Simei, feels otherwise. “I still prefer the coffee shop because it has more ‘human touch’,” she said.
Officially launched on August 7 by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, VendCafe is the first automated café in Singapore – and there are plans to roll out more VendCafes in the future.
“It is very convenient as it is open 24/7. In Sengkang, it is very difficult to find a coffee shop, unlike in Bedok, therefore I am happy to see this Vendcafe. If I get hungry at 3am, I just have to walk five minutes to patronise the Vendcafe,” said Mdm Zaliah, a housewife living around the vicinity.
“This is more hygienic than dining at a hawker center,” echoed Mdm Murni, a housewife who came all the way from Woodlands. “The variety of dishes available is nice and the price is affordable,” said Mdm Zaliah and Mdm Murni in unison.
The machines, operated by JR Vending, offer local and western meals, including Grilled Salmon with Mixed Vegetables, Roasted Chicken with Mushroom Sauce, Salted Egg Yolk Pasta with Shrimps, Chicken Penne with Cream Sauce, Chicken Bolognese with Spaghetti, Mutton Rendang with Briyani Rice, Japanese Curry Rice, Claypot Chicken Rice, Vegetarian Bee Hoon and Yang Zhou Fried Rice with Brown Rice, priced from $3.50 to $5.
I ordered Seafood Horfun and waited around 200 seconds for the dish, which came piping hot from the vending machine.
So how’s the taste? Not bad, okay, said the interviewees. My take on the flavour? I still prefer food cooked by a human. There’s nothing that can beat a home-cooked meal, isn’t it?
Besides the two ‘Chef-in-Box’ machines, there is a cluster of vending machines in a corner selling snacks, muffins, cookies, sandwiches, canned drinks, freshly-squeezed orange juice as well as hot beverages.
As stated by JR Vending, meals are packaged and prepared in a central kitchen, hence there is no staff needed to man the café. For this reason, this concept can ease the problem of labour shortage in the F&B sector, said DPM Tharman at the launch, according to Channel NewsAsia.
Robot Can Cook, So Can You!
Nowadays, apart from robotic or automatic services, we can even ‘hire’ a robot to cook. The robot chef, invented by scientist Mark Oleynik with his start-up firm Moley Robotics, was first introduced in the 2015 Asia Consumer Electronics Show.
Built with 20 motors, 24 joints and 129 sensors, the robotic arms and hands are made to chop, stir, pour and grasp ingredients, utensils, pots, bottles and dishes.
The robot comes with a purpose-built kitchen, which is said to be equipped with an oven, hob, dishwasher, sink, a touchscreen unit and an iTunes’ style library of recipes. It has the ability to concoct up to 2,000 different meals with the finesse of a master chef as it is programmed to replicate Tim Anderson’s cooking movements consistently.
Sounds exciting? This robot chef is scheduled to be launched in 2018 and will retail at around £10,000 (SGD $17,679).
Even though the idea of a robotic chef has a certain ring to it, regardless of how smart the robot is, it lacks the astute judgment and skill of a human cook, which takes years of experience to achieve. Moreover, compared to robotic arms, the dexterity of human hands is almost unmatched.
Can Robots Replace a Smile?
In China, a restaurant in Guangzhou had reportedly ‘sacked’ robot waiters after receiving complaints for spilling food and drink on customers and the ‘bad’ service rendered as compared to a human waiter. The news was reported in The Workers Daily, a Chinese newspaper.
The robots were often faulty and incompetent in taking orders, pouring hot water for diners, or serving food steadily, the employees of the restaurant told the newspaper.
The newspaper also stated that those restaurants in Guangzhou that had implemented the robotic services had either closed down or ‘fired’ their robots.
And despite the novelty and popularity of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in restaurants, an accident involving the ‘flying waiter’ has raised concerns with regard to its safety. The mishap took place in 2014 at a TGI Fridays restaurant in New York. The mistletoe drone, on its maiden flight, had reportedly crashed into a photojournalist’s face, causing her to suffer minor cuts on her nose and chin.
Closer to home, Mr Ravi Velu, owner of Velu’s Curry, had also been exploring robotic solutions for the dire labour situation. However, after liaising with a robotics company, he eventually feels that robots cannot replace the human touch, as small details like enquiring about the customers’ well-being are difficult to automate.
“Can they [robots] replace a smile?” queried Mr Ravi. “You can have a robot, but you need that human touch. Customers like it when you ask them, ‘Are you okay?’”