My name is PuduBot, I’ll be your server
But on a recent Friday night at the “Merry Go Kitchen” in Songpa District, southern Seoul, something was different.
As the clock ticked toward 7 p.m., the 10 tables in the 198-square-meter (2,131-square-foot) restaurant quickly filled up. On the floor, only one human could be seen working, and a … robot.
Resembling a stepladder, the mechanical waiter moved the food from the counter area to the tables.
“Your food has arrived. Please collect it and push the ‘enter’ button,” PuduBot said cheerfully as it delivered dishes to each table.
Merry Go Kitchen is a prototype “future restaurant” developed by Woowa Brothers, the operator of the Baedal Minjok (Baemin) delivery app. Opened July 23, the restaurant utilizes food-related technology Woowa has accumulated, everything from robot servers to software.
The company has test-run server robots before, but Merry Go Kitchen is the first place it is going live with the machines.
“Merry Go Kitchen is not only a restaurant for general customers but also a showroom for the future of the food business,” said Yoon Hyun-jun, executive vice president at Woowa Brothers responsible for new business.
For the customer, the experience starts by scanning a QR code at the table with the Baemin mobile app. Merry Go Kitchen’s menu pops up, complete with photos, an ingredient list and the price for each dish. Users can select from this menu, put their choices in a “cart” and pay for them together - the same process Baemin users would go through when they buy food for home delivery.
Cutlery, water and food are delivered by one of two nonhuman servers depending on your location in the restaurant. For customers sitting along the outer wall, two trays connected side by side run on a monorail by the window to the table. PuduBot serves customers sitting away from the outer wall, devising the shortest route of travel while avoiding obstacles and people at the same time. It can carry up to a maximum of 50 kilograms (110 pounds) at once.
“What’s interesting is that every child in the restaurant, with no exception, waves and says hi or goodbye to PuduBot,” said a Baemin spokesperson. The robot has a small screen on the top that smiles at the customers, busy taking videos and photos as they collect their food.
The robot servers are not completely automatic. Dishes cooked in the kitchen have to be placed on the robot with by hand before delivery. Human staff also input table numbers to designate which food goes to where. Customers have to take food from the robot themselves and push buttons to send the robot back to its original post.
But, so far, the experiment is a satisfying one for both Woowa and its partnering restaurant owner, which is unrelated to the company. A restaurant this size would typically require four table staff. Merry Go Kitchen hires two for the peak lunch time.
“Lunch times were always a full house - but over the past week there was a change in the composition,” said the spokesman on Thursday. “Last week, a lot of the customers were Baemin staff who already knew about the place. This week, we’re seeing a lot of ordinary customers come in, despite the fact that the restaurant isn’t very well publicized at the moment.”
Merry Go Kitchen was a collaborative effort bringing together research from different Woowa teams working in robotics, smart ordering and sales management technologies. Baemin has been investing in robotics for a while, including a $2 million commitment to Bear Robotics, a Silicon Valley-based start-up last year.
The company’s general direction in robotics is that it makes use of existing hardware through partnerships or investment, while the app maker takes charge of developing software fit for food-related purposes, like delivery and serving.
On Monday, Woowa announced it would extend boundaries to cooking and that it would partner with Prof. Dennis Hong, a robotics expert at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Henry Samueli School of Engineering, to develop a cooking robot. The long-term goal is to develop sophisticated robot arms that can chop ingredients, flip pans and complete other complex tasks.
Merry Go Kitchen owner Kwon Hyang-jin said so far she is “satisfied with the level of efficiency in the store, exceeding her initial expectations.” Kwon has experience running restaurants before, including one that was popular among Woowa employees located near its headquarters.
“I’m really confident with our food, but at the moment a lot of customers seem to be focused more on the technology,” she said. “That’s a upsetting, a tiny bit, but I’m still glad our customers like them.”
BY SONG KYOUNG-SON [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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