There’s a new employee at Cafecito, a restaurant and café in Santa Fe that serves Argentinian, Armenian, and Italian cuisine.
Bus moved to New Mexico about a month ago, loads of dishes with song.
Except that this operator isn’t human – it’s a robot.
Called 1-C-2, or “Juancito,” by Cafecito owner Andres Paglayan, a reference to the Star Wars robot R2-D2, whose name sounds like “Arturito” in Spanish, the robot delivers dishes to customers and takes away dirty dishes.
“My background is technology, I’m a software developer,” Paglayan said. “Robots has always been a passion of mine.”
Cafecito is the latest New Mexico company to bring in robotic assistants. Last May, BioPark restaurant Shark Reef Café purchased a Cayenne robot, and in August, Albuquerque’s Flix Brewhouse brought in a fleet of robots to carry food and drinks.
Shannon Sanchez, general manager of Shark Reef Café, said Cayenne has been invaluable during the pandemic.
“Beyond the pandemic, everything is more difficult in the way of service,” Sanchez said. “You know, some people are still sensitive to being around people, and then… hiring got a lot more difficult. It just happened, kind of at the right time — it filled a void that we were missing.”
Before the pandemic, Sanchez said, the café employed between 15 and 25 people depending on the season. Post-pandemic, the restaurant had between 10 and 20 employees, putting extra labor on each worker’s shoulders—a burden Cayenne helped shoulder.
Since employment has mostly rebounded, Sanchez said, employees have started using Cayenne in different ways. At first, they used Cayenne to receive customer orders via QR code and bring meals – now, employees generally use Cayenne to carry dirty dishes, work on special occasions, and occasionally sing “Happy Birthday”.
“They’ll send her out to go to the clean tables…and the entertainment,” Sanchez said. “It’s kind of evolved, and we’ve kind of figured out how to use it in other aspects.”
Christian Slough, a business development representative with Albuquerque-based Build with Robots, said he’s also seen robots fill a gap in employment. The company recently entered into a partnership with LD Supply Co. , based in Albuquerque, to bring their sanitizing robots to schools and other facilities across the Southwest.
There has been a recent shortage of utility workers across the state, Slough said.
“We talked to schools that were going to start the year with four cleaners out of the 12 they needed,” Slough said. “…there is a population that is aging and has a job with a high turnover rate.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of thankless work sometimes, Slough said. And automation can make this task easier, especially when a smaller team of workers has to handle the same amount of work. Slough hopes the LD Supply partnership will be the first of many utility companies to incorporate the new technology.
“We’re really at the beginning for distributors like LD to bring the technology into the utility area,” said Slough. “This was mainly driven by a labor shortage, and there really is no other solution than applying technology.”
Flix Brewhouse in La Orilla and Coors brought on a team of four bots in mid-2022. General manager Brandon Higgins said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the purchase — and in the months since, he’s been convinced.
“It really… helps the quality of life of the team,” said Higgins. “Guests really enjoy being around them, you know, kind of a new side.”
At Flix, guests can order drinks and food and have them delivered directly to their seats in the cinema. Before Flix brought in bots, movie runners had to bring delicacies from the kitchen or bar to one of eight lounges. Now, robots do most of the footwork, and runners only have to bring drinks and meals from central pads to the stage — a significant reduction in the lengths they have to walk, Higgins said. According to Higgins, prior to August, contestants would often run 10 miles a day hauling food and drink around the roughly 40,000-square-foot stage. Now, it is estimated that the length has been cut in half.
Higgins said the robots helped make service faster as well as help staff, without any human cutbacks.
“Instead of having so many people focus on running the food, we can serve drinks faster to our guests,” Higgins said. “We can go to theaters and get the dirty dishes away from our guests a lot faster, we can just move the speed of service faster.”
Like the Flix bots, Cafecito’s 1-C-2 is limited in its services. The robot just carries the dishes back and forth between the kitchen and the restaurant. But on weekdays, when work is slower, Baglayan said it’s hard to justify hiring an extra bus, so that job generally falls to the servers. But with the robot, Baglayan said, servers are able to focus more on interacting with guests rather than running the food.
“The overall value it adds, and this is something that’s happening now, is that servers can be more attentive on the ground,” Paglayan said.
For Paglayan, 1-C-2 plays a supporting role in a restaurant, like a dishwasher or blender.
“We already had a dishwasher, you know, we don’t wash dishes by hand,” Baglian said. “…I think it’s just another help.”
Paglayan rents a Model 1-C-2 from Bear Robotics for $600 a month. After only one month of service, he is yet to be confirmed if the investment is paying off. But he believes the added value lies in the quality of service and the amount of tips the servers give.
“I don’t know if I’m saving money,” Baglian said. “Maybe…it’s a wash in the quality swap. But it sure helps the servers increase the tips.”
Flix Brewhouse and Shark Reef Café both have their own bots. And the price is not cheap.
The Cayenne is built by Nevada-based Richtech Robotics, which sells guided robots to the restaurant and service industry. The Matradee L model – used in the BioPark Café – costs about $20,000. Flix Brewhouse also uses Matradee bots.
Slough said Build with Robots introduced a cheaper, smaller version of the sanitizing robot last month, a move he said made robots more accessible in schools, airports and other facilities. Last month, the company sold 120 Breezy Blue units.
“This makes it possible not only for a large company but also for a school or office break room,” Slough said.
Slough said that as more people learn how robots can help them do their jobs, he expects robotics to be implemented more widely, in more diverse industries.
“We’re having discussions about, ‘Let’s talk about what this actually does.'” This does one task, you have 20 different ones – this will only help make your list shorter.
Although Slough said automation will replace some jobs – primarily in manufacturing industries – he said the World Economic Forum expects the industry will create more jobs than it will cut. However, he stressed that robotics companies should help provide skills training to displaced workers.
Some customers at Flix were concerned about bots, Higgins said, and expressed concerns about job cuts. But on Flix, at least, Higgins said that’s not the case.
“We always make sure to kind of talk to them, just tell them how, they haven’t really replaced anybody’s jobs,” Higgins said. “They really helped improve quality of life.”