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Can Autonomous Technology Power the Future of Restaurants?

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Fifteen years ago, the first-generation iPhone hit the U.S. market. The sleek, paradigm-breaking design captured the imagination of consumers. Touch screens, apps, and other features would soon become a standard for mobile technology.

Today, innovation is advancing at an even faster clip. And it’s particularly evident in foodservice—a sector long considered a laggard to tech evolution—where futuristic solutions are popping up on the back-end of a global pandemic. Autonomous delivery being one of them.

Driverless delivery vehicles, drones flying through the sky with pizzas and groceries, and automated robot servers gliding through dining rooms, are all now realistic functions, as much as it might sound like an episode of “The Jetsons.”

“It’s going to become very ubiquitous,” says Juan Higueros, chief operating officer of Bear Robotics. “You’re going to see automation playing a huge role in the foodservice and hospitality space, both inside and outside of the restaurant. If automation was a baseball game, I’d say we’re just now entering the second inning.”

Bear Robotics is a California-based company helping to lead the charge toward automation. The company, which creates hospitality robots, is one of several brands focusing efforts and resources on reshaping the restaurant landscape.

Bear’s hospitality robots act like servers by delivering drinks, dropping off food, and helping bus tables. Higueros says there are several advantages associated with using these, but none more important than the time it frees up for employees to be, well, more hospitable.

“It allows the employee more time to be more creative,” he says. “It gives them more time to spend on the people their serving and it creates a much more embodied working environment for the employee. It creates better culture, which results in more return customers because they’re getting that true customer experience through customer service.”

From an operator’s viewpoint, there are other advantages to consider as well. Bear’s hospitality bots can save employees miles of walking during shifts, leading to a more rested, focused staff. Higueros says servers at many restaurants can walk upward of 20 miles per week, adding physical stress to an already challenging occupation. By using automated servers in a collaborative nature, operators can increase productivity while simultaneously making their employees’ lives easier.

Another plus: ROI.

“There are significant, significant savings,” he says. “It’s a slam dunk.”

Owning one of Bear’s hospitality bots requires a one-time purchase. Compared to the investment associated with recruiting, training, and retaining talent, the upfront fee can save operators plenty of capital, Higueros says, especially in today’s climate where turnover continues to soar and labor costs in general have skyrocketed.

There’s also the ongoing topic of wage inflation. As minimum wage in many states climbs and competition to bring in staff drives up starting salaries, tapping automation can make the difference between a business scraping by and one experiencing comfortable margins.

“Whether it’s in California, where minimum wage is $15.50, or Texas where the minimum is $7.25, there are significant savings from the jump,” Higueros says, adding the hourly cost of one of Bear’s hospitality servers runs about $2.50.

Hospitality bots are just one part of the automated delivery conversations. Brands like Nuro, a California-based robotics company focusing on driverless vehicles, are also making headway.

Nuro specializes in driverless vehicles and is partnering with some major players in the space in an effort to shift delivery fulfillment. At the end of 2021, Nuro announced it would partner with 7-Eleven on an autonomous delivery pilot using Nuro’s fleet of Toyota Priuses, with plans of later introducing Nuro’s R2 bots, the company’s autonomous custom-built robots designed to transport products and goods without any occupants in the vehicle. The test is in Mountain View, California, and is accessible through the 7NOW app. Nuro was the first autonomous vehicle company to receive a deployment permit from the California DMV. Autonomous delivery services like the one offered by Nuro solve several problems operators are running up against, including the lack of available delivery drivers.

“We are seeing demand for autonomous delivery across all types of industries and businesses, and we’re working to address that demand across food, grocery, parcels, convenience, prescriptions, and more,” says Cosimo Leipold, head of partnerships at Nuro. “The demand was there before the pandemic, and it’s only growing. People want things quickly and at an affordable price.” 

“We believe this technology will increase the overall market, while creating more fulfilling jobs inside restaurants and in other roles besides delivery––and at the same time, lowering the cost of home delivery for consumers,” he adds. While convenience and cost-effective business practices are paramount today, one of the biggest benefits of automated delivery, Leipold says, is the impact it has on the environment. Partnering with brands like Nuro, he says, can go a long way in transforming an ordinary business to a sustainable one.

Leipold adds Nuro’s occupant-less delivery helps eliminate unnecessary trips to stores and restaurants, which he says make up roughly half of the errands Americans run.

“The fact that the transportation sector is the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., it’s frightening to realize how much pollution is created by these short trips,” he says.

According to Steer, a global transportation consulting firm used by Nuro, autonomous delivery services can protect the environment by avoiding up to 407 million tons of CO2 over the course of a decade, which is equivalent to the residential emissions from the four largest cities in the U.S.

Nuro uses 100 percent renewable energy generated from wind farms in Texas to power the brands’ battery-electric fleet, meaning the entire operation is sustainable. “Ultimately, we believe the future of delivery must be zero emissions, which is why we are so excited about the potential of our battery-electric vehicles,” Leipold says.

Futuristic technological advances in the space don’t stop at hospitality bots or driverless delivery vehicles. Flytrex, a company specializing in drone delivery, is also breaking onto the scene and recently partnered with Jersey Mike’s. Customers within Flytrex’s delivery zone can order food through the Flytrex app from partnering restaurants. Then, Flytrex’s drones fly within the designated flight radius and deliver the food from the sky, lowering the product(s) with a rope and hook right into the backyard of the customer. Currently, Flytrex is only focused on suburban markets. Yariv Bash, CEO and co-founder of Flytrex, says this is because it’s more economically and strategically viable to service those areas. There’s also the issue of getting clearance from the FAA to fly the drones, which is much easier in suburban skies versus urban settings.

“This is a very nasty process,” Bash says of trying to get clearance from the FAA. “Only three companies focused on home drone delivery are doing what we’re doing.”

Like the driverless vehicles at Nuro, Flytrex’s drones are also completely electric, meaning they have a much smaller carbon footprint than other traditional delivery models. “It’s a lot faster and a lot quieter,” Bash says. “We offer a much better solution for the customer and the restaurant. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

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