Robot waiters spread in restaurants

Revenge of the machines (Image via Byte for Bite)

Robot waiters from China are increasingly being used in South Korean restaurants, which are facing a labor shortage.

Restaurant owners are struggling to find staff as wages surge. And many Korean customers say they prefer service without contact with human servers following the coronavirus pandemic. South Korea has the world’s lowest birth rate, which means its labor force is expected to shrink a great deal by 2050. The typical South Korean woman has only 0.78 children.

Using robots as waiters means restaurants need fewer human waiters. “I don’t have to worry about hiring people anymore,” said Seoul restaurateur Kwon Hyang-jin. “It never gets sick or complains about its workload.”

However, Korean robot companies are not happy, because restaurants are buying cheap Chinese robots rather than more expensive Korean robots. “We are worried that cheap Chinese robots are dominating our market as it is difficult to compete with them on prices,” said an executive at a Korean robot distributor firm. “We’re trying to overcome our price weakness with higher-quality robots, but this is not easy.”

Although 5,000 robot servers were employed in Korean restaurants in 2022, up from 3,000 in 2021, seven-tenths of them came from China. 

“Restaurant owners prefer Chinese robots because they are cheaper and their functions are just as good as Korean-made ones,” said an executive at the Korean Association of Robot Industry.

“Technology-wise, the Chinese are not behind us,” he admitted. “But they commercialized server robots earlier than we did and they are more cost competitive.”

Restaurant labor shortages are not unique to South Korea. In other countries, too, restaurants have turned to robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to keep serving their customers. That includes some SweetgreenWendy’s and Del Taco restaurants.

A recent study found that 78% of restaurants do not have enough human staff to serve customers.

While many consumers prefer human contact, they will likely tolerate robot servers when human staff are so scarce that the result is bad service. Surveys show that nearly 75% of consumers prefer automation over interacting with human staff members in at least one aspect of customer service.

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