You don’t need a crystal ball to see the future of full-service restaurants. The space age is here today, as food-carrying robots roll up to dining room tables at six Sergio’s locations in South Florida.
ASTRO—short for Automated Service Tray Removal Organizer—is a 3-foot-tall robot with a name inspired by “The Jetsons” and a shape that resembles R2-D2 with shelves. It functions as a personal assistant, saving steps for servers and allowing them to spend more time with customers.
The robots represent innovation built on a tier of desperation, says Carlos Gazitua, CEO of Sergio’s Family Restaurants. As pandemic restrictions eased, the Miami-area Cuban-American fusion restaurants felt the labor shortage.
Customer traffic picked up and Sergio’s staffers took on more and longer shifts. WIth it came stress and exhaustion. The operation was at risk of closing a day or two a week to make sure other days could offer the dining experience customers expected.
“We needed to do whatever we could to keep our employees from leaving us,” Gazitua says. “When you see employees crying, you know the burnout is real, and you do anything to alleviate their stress.”
Turning to robot technology
One potential solution led him to connect with Bear Robotics in Silicon Valley, which makes automated vehicles for the restaurant industry. What followed was a “Let’s do it!” moment.
“Our servers told us they were walking too much and were exhausted, and we said, ‘Well, what if we take the hard part out and send the food to you?’” he recalls. “They could spend more time with guests, and go from three tables to six tables and make more money by working less.”
So far, servers are up to five tables, but the data is impressive. A week after implementing robot help, Sergio’s servers saved more than 1 million feet of travel and ASTRO made 10,000 successful deliveries.
“We’re seeing 25 to 30% efficiency on the service side, and we’re removing a lot of wear and tear for the servers—they don’t have to carry 20 pounds of plates over their shoulders,” Gazitua says.
Robot delivery teamwork
The kitchen staff loads ASTRO with plates and taps in a destination. Servers get a voice alert and meet the robot at the table to present plates to guests. In the meantime, servers can fill drink orders, keep tables clean and fulfill customer requests.
ASTRO works every shift, delivering omelets, Cuban toast or bone-in ham at breakfast. During lunch, it carries out popular sandwiches or lunch specialties like carne con papa (slow-roasted beef stew with potatoes. At dinner, entrees include flatiron favorites like palomilla (grilled steak, onion and parsley) or chimi-chicken (chicken with rice and beans, tostones and fried plantains).
Meals can be customized with an array of sides, so no one runs out of flavor options. Included are local products, such as avocados from nearby Homestead or locally grown produce for salads.
With or without a robot, no visit to this third-generation restaurant is complete without croquetas. More than 20 million have been served in the four decades since Gazitua’s mother and grandmother bought a sandwich shop called Sergio’s—a name they kept because it fit the diverse Cuban-American community’s roots.
Croquetas are savory pastry-like treats made using a lightly fried bechamel sauce as a binder for the goodness within. Chefs traditionally filled them with potatoes or meat scraps. Sergio’s offers ham, chicken, cod, chorizo and a host of other options.
“Since we’ve been in business, Dade County and Broward County came together to celebrate October 1 as Sergio’s Croqueta Day,” Gazitua says. “We have a holiday here in South Florida over our croquetas and how much they mean. It’s a great honor.”
Connecting customers and community
Whether bringing out croquetas or flan, ASTRO is a star. Guests gawk, take pictures and post videos on social media. The robot can even talk. Words and phrases like “sorry” and “thank you’ are programmed in. Someday it may sing “Happy Birthday” and speak Spanish.
“I enjoy seeing the interaction,” Gazitua says. “It’s like a self-driving car—it can go around obstacles or people who get in front of it, and it knows exactly where to go.”
Servers also love it, Gazitua says, despite critics on Twitter who questioned whether robots would take away jobs. “After two hours in operation, the servers said, ‘Please don’t stop, this is amazing.’ It’s about transformation, coming up with ideas of how to help your employees and help businesses see the future.”
There’s also a connection that transcends the restaurant. Student groups from area schools have visited to learn about how robotics and automation technology can make a positive difference in the hospitality industry.
More changes ahead?
Technology and safety came together in a big way during the pandemic, opening opportunities to independent restaurants and mom-and-pop operators, Gazitua explains. People of all ages and businesses of all types had to learn about apps or use POS systems to integrate third-party ordering and delivery. And QR codes aren’t going away anytime soon.
“With QR codes, restaurants can save thousands of dollars by not having to print new menus each time they add a photo or update nutritional information,” he says. “Technology is needed for independent restaurants to compete against large brands and chains.”
Could a robot deliver curbside service in the future? For Sergio’s, no idea is off the table. “If we can entice innovation, it helps the business owner, the employee and the customer. Then you have something successful to talk about.”