The tech-centric country has seen an automized restaurant scene in recent years. The idea is that robots could be used to fill repetition-heavy positions that require hours of nonstop work like line cooking that could then free up human employees to provide higher quality customer service. Labour costs and, subsequently, menu prices would be lowered, tipping would become obsolete, restaurants could more heavily invest in higher quality ingredients, and profits would increase for business owners in the process or at least that's the theory.
It's a trend seen across the country and the world. The country's millennial workforce is busy, which makes a quick automated culinary experience appealing. A harshly visible wealth divide, low wages, and a housing crunch also spell a labour shortage in the country, a shortage that could be addressed by placing robots into these roles.
But innovation aside, there are concerns that automation may result in mass unemployment as robots are deployed to fill jobs that humans could occupy. There's also the longstanding question of whether or not people actually desire human interaction when they're being served. And even with those questions aside, it turns out that some of these restaurants aren't surviving.
Scrolling down the list of robot restaurants in India, the majority of them have either shut shops permanently or are on a long pause. While one can debate for the multiple causes, we caught up with a few of such restaurant owners to understand the downfall.
“It is a costly affair,” the owner of Robot Chef in Bhubaneswar stated, who made the headlines back in 2019 when the whole country applauded his new innovation. “In India, we don’t have such a strong infrastructure for maintenance. Honestly, customers were not getting familiar with or accepting this new concept. While the first time visitors were rising, customer retention was very poor. It clearly indicated that human hospitality cannot be replaced by a technology. Above all, the pandemic was the final nail to our restaurant’s coffin,” he added.
It was back in 2017 when India got its first robot restaurant in Chennai. Robot, which opened in November 2017, was India’s first robot-themed restaurant that used robots to serve food. It was owned and managed by friends Venkatesh Rajendran, a restaurateur, and Karthik Kannan, an architect. Rajendran was managing an eatery named Momo on the same premises before it was renovated, revamped and rebranded into Robot. Unfortunately, it has downed its shutters peremanently.
“While robots do not require as much downtime as employees, the high initial investment makes them prohibitively expensive for many single location restaurants,” commented Rajendran. The entry barrier for any human-robot in India is huge and includes twice of investment as to be put into a normal outlet. This not just had led to scratch the heads of many owners but sustainability is also a big question.
Privacy is another area of concern for restaurants. The sensors and cameras that feed data to automated systems may record sensitive information about guests alike.
In a recent study conducted by Ball State University and the University of Nevada Las Vegas some of the pros and cons associated with bots at a restaurant were highlighted. Many participants felt robots could make front-of-house transactions more efficient and accurate in a fast-food context, where people weren’t expecting a lot of service or human interaction. In the back of house, participants said robots could improve food consistency, quality control and cost control.
However, they drew a line when it came to robots in fine dining, where there were different expectations around food and service. “The term ‘human touch’ will keep coming up over and over again. I would personally like to know that a person is handling my food. I would like to know that human effort and the human touch is involved,” Shruti Kamboj, a resident of Delhi NCR and a food critic stated who thinks robot restaurants are just a social media havoc.
The bottom line is that for robots to win over diners, the product itself will have to be good. While the novelty factor might entice the customers to visit a restaurant with a robot on staff, but if the food or service is bad, they’d be unlikely to return.