It’s lunchtime and Peanut, the restaurant robot host, greets Vicki and Troy Charlton with a digital eye wink and a cheerful squeak: “Here you are! Please follow me to your table!”
The four-foot-tall robot on wheels whirs around and rolls away to escort the Charltons to their dining table at Mr. Q Crab House, a Cajun seafood restaurant on State Road 7 in Hollywood. A calming, if bizarre, soundtrack plays on Peanut’s built-in speakers.
Once they order from a human server and their meals are plated, a second robot busser runs the food to their table, dishes of shrimp and broccoli stacked neatly on its three serving trays.
“Thank you,” says Vicki Charlton.
“You’re welcome!” the robot chirps back.
“I could use one of these at home, a robot maid that cooks and feeds me,” she says with a laugh.
Mr. Q’s owner, Joy Wang, takes the implicit nod to “The Jetsons” as a compliment.
For weeks she’s struggled to hire front-of-house workers to fill Mr. Q’s busy weekend shifts, when the restaurant is typically mobbed with big spenders from Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino across the street. Her former employees “would rather sit at home and collect unemployment,” she says.
Which is why, a week ago, Wang invested in three robo-staff. Total cost: $30,000.
Mr. Q’s Crab House has become one of the first South Florida restaurants to embrace dining-room robots for touchless, socially distanced ordering.
It’s also, perhaps, one of the last places you’d expect to spot three $10,000 robots. With its nautical décor, it’s the classiest storefront in this aging strip mall: Two doors down, an adult video store promises the “best viewing booths” in town. Next door, an auto garage performs oil changes 10 feet from Mr. Q’s front entrance.
The robot trend has also spread to downtown Miami. In late-March REEF, a company that creates virtual, delivery-only restaurants called “ghost kitchens,” partnered with the robotic startup Cartken to launch Miami’s first self-driving delivery robots.
REEF’s chief technology officer, Matt Lindenberger, says the electric-powered robots work in a half-mile radius and can make deliveries throughout downtown Miami in 30 minutes or less. So far, two robots – each roughly the size of hot-dog carts – can roll up and down sidewalk curbs and avoid car traffic and pedestrians, he says.
“Think of it like a rolling food container,” Lindenberger explains. “It saves on labor costs. Rather than having five humans delivering five things, I can use three robots and one human.”
Nationally, fast-food chicken franchise Chik-Fil-A signaled plans to start testing semi-automated robot deliveries in California, while pizza giant Domino’s announced it would roll out a robot car-delivery service in Houston.
Mr. Q Crab House, for one, welcomes its new robo-coworkers. Servers say they’re worth the big expense because, unlike humans, robots don’t carry the coronavirus. They can’t get fevers. They don’t cough on your food or, for that matter, ask for minimum wage or take work breaks – unless they’re recharging. They are, instead, relentlessly cheerful bots, never pushy, always keen to mindlessly shuttle dishes to and from the kitchen.
OK, well, sometimes pushy.
Once, server Michael Salcedo stood in Peanut’s way as it escorted customers to their table.
“It gave me a little attitude,” he says.
“It was wailing at me, ‘If I don’t do my job I’ll get fired!’ " he says with a laugh. “I mean, it adds to the dine-in experience. The older folks are tickled by Peanut.”
And Peanut the robot host does a lot, he says. When servers are busy, it greets patrons as they enter the dining room and seats them. It displays Mr. Q Crab House’s menu of boiled crab and po’ boys on a touchscreen it holds over its head. It sings “Happy Birthday” and “Merry Christmas” in four languages.
Mr. Q’s other two food-runner robots also can sing. Neither have official names yet like Peanut but Salcedo is thinking of calling them “Beavis” and “Butthead” since they crash into each other and cause traffic jams in the dining room, she says.
“OK, yeah, they’re a little annoying sometimes,” admits Shaheen Maleki, Mr. Q Crab House’s general manager. “Once Peanut started freaking out when its battery was low. It was saying to us, ‘I have to go back! I have to return myself!’ and we couldn’t find the volume button.”
Which begs the question: Are Mr. Q’s robots mere novelties to attract more customers, or are they helpful despite their very nonhuman glitches? Both, if you ask Maleki.
“Since the robots [arrived] everyone’s been posting videos of them on social media, so that’s helped,” Maleki says. “For the bigger tables they’re perfect, because one robot can carry an entire table’s worth of food from the kitchen, but humans would have to go back three, four times.”
After their meal is finished, one of the busser robots – Butthead – rolls across the dining room and drops off Vicki and Troy Charlton’s chicken and shrimp leftovers. Salcedo accompanies the robot and hands Troy the check.
“So which one of you do I tip?” he quips.
Salcedo laughs. He’s heard that wisecrack at least a dozen times this week. “Me, of course!” he says.
Salcedo leaves, but Troy isn’t done cracking jokes. He leans back in his chair.
“I’ll give the robot a tip if it gives me a piggyback ride around the restaurant,” he says.
Staff writer Phillip Valys can be reached at email@example.com.