Chili’s Is Expanding Its Robot Servers To More Restaurants. Here’s Why. – Forbes

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Chili’s is expanding its test of Rita. Rita, created by Bear Robotics, can guide guests to their … [+] tables, carry food, bus tables and even sing “Happy Birthday.”
If “The Jetsons” was made in modern times, George, Jane and family might visit a Chili’s instead of The Spaceburger Drive-In.
They’d feel right at home, after all, as Chili’s recently expanded deployment of Rita the robot to 51 restaurants, on top of the 10 in which the technology was already in test. Rita, created by Bear Robotics, can act as a sort of de facto server, guiding guests to their tables, carrying food, bussing, even singing “Happy Birthday.”
And while this type of automation is swiftly proliferating throughout the restaurant industry due (in part) to historic labor shortages, Wade Allen, SVP of Innovation at parent company Brinker International EAT , said Rita’s pilot wasn’t executed because of the “macroeconomic situation.”
“We’ve been testing this the better part of a year and a half to two years. It’s just taken us some time to harden the device for restaurants and making sure it functions at a high caliber of service for our team members and guests,” he said during a recent interview. “Now is that time to move to the next phase, and roll it out to an additional 51 restaurants.”
Chili’s expansion signals the chain’s vote of confidence in Rita’s early performance, particularly in two metrics–utilization and error rate.
Allen said Rita produced “great utilization rates,” based on whether employees were using–and engaging with–the technology. Adding seemingly frivolous functionalities such as “singing” provides more opportunities and higher utilization rates that are above 30%.
On the error side, Allen said Rita functions without a problem over 99% of the time.
“Both of those metrics are strong enough to show that we have an opportunity,” Allen said.
The technology has turned investors’ heads as well, as Bear Robotics recently secured an $81 million funding round, bringing its total to $117 million.
Of course, such technology could be seen as unnecessary bells and whistles to customers. And, indeed, there is a risk here as most customers have said they prefer to interact with staff even as this type of guest-facing technology increases. That said, Rita complements staff, creating a better opportunity for them to interact with guests, according to Allen.
“Rita’s engagement with guests is fun, but more importantly she allows team members to have more efficient and easier experiences,” he said. “We’re in a challenged macro environment and we can’t ignore that. But she is meant to improve the experience for team members, not replace them. It’s tough being in hospitality and Rita can offset some of those challenges by loading up 50 pounds of plates and carrying them to a six-top table 35-to-40 times a night.”
Allen said the company hasn’t delved deep into return-on-investment metrics to see if Rita translates to labor savings. The company also doesn’t have insight as to whether Rita’s presence has affected servers’ tips, stating, “We hope to learn more as Rita expands.”
For now, her expansion on its own is a major vote of confidence. Allen even goes so far as to call the technology a competitive advantage in the casual dining segment, as it is part of a multi-year technology investment that also includes things like handheld ordering devices and back-of-the-house solutions. Notably, Brinker is also in test with Flytrex to deliver the company’s It’s Just Wings products to customers via drone.
“My goal is not to take hospitality out of the hospitality industry; people are what make this industry. My goal is to make our employees’ jobs easier, and I absolutely think robotics is a service evolution. The future is a world where we still have amazing hospitality, but we can simplify and automate some of the difficult and unnecessary tasks,” Allen said. “We know Rita has purpose and adds value. We’re not toying with this. Our intention is to go broader.”

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