An Oregon restaurateur who sparked an uproar in her small town when she rented a robot to help her short-staffed servers said artificial intelligence is here to stay in the hospitality industry.
"Plato works 12 hours a day," Sherry Andrus said of her new server, programmed to take plates of food from the kitchen to their destination table. "He works from 10 in the morning to 10 at night, and he doesn't need a break. He's not taking tips. And that's just the sad reality."
Small businesses that have incorporated AI are loving the technology, according to survey results released this week, with a majority reporting that AI helped them cut costs and improve efficiency.
Andrus bought a restaurant called The Cazadero in the small town of Estacada in 2018. Since then, Oregon's minimum wage has increased by nearly $4 to $14.20 per hour, and the state makes no exceptions for tipped positions. Food prices skyrocketed with inflation.
Finding reliable employees has been a struggle too, one shared by many small businesses. Nearly 90% of restaurateurs said recruitment and retention are "significant challenges," according to a National Restaurant Association report. Many restaurant operators said they couldn't support demand with current staffing levels.
"You already have a small pool to work from," Andrus said. "That we're out in a rural area makes it even harder."
So Andrus went to the Bar & Restaurant Expo in Las Vegas in March with the goal of exploring whether robots could take on some of the burden. She came home with Plato, United Robotics Group's hospitality-oriented "cobiot."
"Every speaker that I went to at the Expo that particular week said the restaurant industry is moving to technology or you won't be able to make it," she said.
About two dozen businesses across the country have deployed Plato so far, according to United Robotics Group. Small restaurants have been the early adopters, Greg McEntyre of URG told Fox News.
"They have a staffing issue where maybe there's only one or two people working at the time, and this is gonna help them get food out a little bit quicker," McEntyre said.
McEntyre added that he sees AI as a tool to help humans, not replace them. He hopes the hospitality industry maintains a balance between technology and tradition.
"There are some restaurants that are going fully automatic and you're engaging with a faceless machine and something else is delivering it," he said. "I'm hoping that we actually get to maintain the human-to-human connections with all this because that's really what draws us in and bonds us all. And the AI is just a tool."
To see customers' reactions to Plato, click here.