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Bikanervala Henderson
A robot waiter delivers food to a hungry diner in Bikanervala Henderson. Photo: Chris Schulz

BusinessFebruary 28, 2022

‘No hassles, no sickies, this is the future’: Can robots solve the restaurant crisis?

Bikanervala Henderson
A robot waiter delivers food to a hungry diner in Bikanervala Henderson. Photo: Chris Schulz

As omicron spreads, eateries are dropping like flies. One West Auckland restaurant has found a solution, one that can never catch coronavirus.

No one seems to care. No one looks twice. Perhaps they’ve been here before. I, however, have not. I am amazed, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. People stare at me as I grin, giggle and snap photos like a kid arriving at the gates of Disneyland for the first time.

I have ordered food, but I don’t care about the array of curries and naan that’s landed in front of me. I’m far too excited about the way that food got to me. On Thursday, a robot delivered my lunch to me. And I didn’t even say “Thank you”.

What in the Doctor Who is going on? Inside West Auckland restaurant Bikanervala Henderson, where stomach-filling plates of vegetarian thalis cost less than $20 and balls of atta ladoo stick to the roof of your mouth, the robots are taking over.

Two weeks ago, instead of human waiters tending to tables, a Dalek-shaped droid began rolling smoothly out of Bikanervala’s kitchen and across the dining room floor, calmly delivering food to the restaurant’s socially distanced customers.

That bot carries enough food for a whole table of diners, easily navigates past obstacles like chair legs or size-16 worker boots, and announces its arrival with a chirpy message. Then it plays upbeat pop music videos while customers take their food.

After 30 seconds, it declares, “I’m going back now” in a posh British accent and returns to the kitchen for its next mission.

robot waiter
A robot waiter at work at Bikanervala Henderson. Photo: Chris Schulz

The last place I expected to be served by a robot waiter was in a West Auckland restaurant just a short drive from my home, but when I saw this tweet from a fellow fan, I couldn’t wait. I had to experience it for myself.

So, giddy with excitement and feeling slightly delirious (it wasn’t omicron), I arrived at Bikanervala around 1pm on Thursday, placed my order at the counter and asked the woman who took my money if their robot would be serving me today. “Yes,” she replied, smiling the thin grin of a woman sick of being asked the same question.

Being served by a robot is a delightfully strange experience, a Black Mirror episode come to life. It’s not the only one operating in New Zealand: Thai Cuisine in Paihia has one, so does Blenheim’s Bamboo Garden.

But it’s the only one within a five-minute drive of my house. So, after I finished my food, I returned to pester that same staff member with more questions. What’s the robot’s name? Does it break down? Has it dropped anything? Does it feel? “I don’t know anything, sorry,” she replied, turning to walk away. “You need to talk to Monty.”

A few moments later, I plugged Monty’s phone number into my cell and gave him a call. The restaurant’s owner sounded bemused but was happy to answer my questions. Yes, in the two weeks since it started, his robot waiter has been a hit. Yes, just like me, customers keep calling him about it. “I’m getting phone calls (asking) ‘Is your robot on duty today?’ We want to come,'” he says. “I’m enjoying it.”

He found it for sale in China a month ago, spent $25,000 on it and it was installed two weeks ago. A team of people came to help map out the restaurant, so the bot knows which table is where. It works like this: waiters simply place food on it, then enter the table number it’s going to. Batteries last most of the day. It’s never dropped anything. No one’s tried to steal it. Yet.

I had more questions. Because of Covid-19, it’s cleaned and sanitised at least 10 times a day. It’s been so good, he’s thinking about getting one for his other restaurant, in Botany. It doesn’t yet have a name. “I’m going to start a promotion,” says Monty. “If someone suggests a name and we pick it up they’ll win something.”

But there’s a serious side to Monty’s bot. He didn’t buy it for the novelty factor. He bought it because of the restaurant crisis. Auckland eateries are closing in droves because they can’t keep staff on board. Some are close contacts, others are recovering from omicron. This past Friday, The Spinoff ran a story headlined: Will any Auckland restaurants be open this weekend? It’s a full-blown crisis.

Monty’s in the same situation as everyone else. “It’s getting very hard every day. I have been advertising for a long time now,” he says about trying to hire staff. “I’m struggling a lot.” He simply can’t find enough people to work in his Henderson restaurant, or in Botany. Instead, he’s covering shifts himself. So’s his wife. “I’m working 14 hours a day … I have to work in the kitchen sometimes.”

He’s crunched the numbers and thinks his dedicated droid will pay for itself within a year. “It does at least half the job of a person, and it’s half the price of a salary,” he says. “In one year it will cover its costs and then it’s my profit.” But he doesn’t want to stop there. Like research shows, robots are taking over. Monty thinks they’re coming for the restaurant industry, and he’s all for it. Humans are simply too unreliable. “There’s already a robotic kitchen in place,” he says. “I’m looking into that.”

He feels burnt out by the staffing shortage, but his first bot has lifted his spirits. Speaking just before the evening rush begins, he can relax, knowing it can’t get coronavirus, won’t storm out in a huff, and won’t call in sick five minutes before the shift starts. “I love it,” he says. “No hassles, no sickies, this is the future.”

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