CAMBRIDGE — One evening shortly before Christmas, the newest server at The Smoke Shop BBQ in Kendall Square was idling in the back of the restaurant, awaiting instructions. She stood by as guests dug into plates of habanero and brown butter-dipped wings, pulled pork, and hunks of cornbread, and as the waitstaff swiveled their bodies between tables, a well-practiced choreography key to mastering the busy dinner shift.
Suddenly, a runner emerged from the kitchen and placed two plates of brisket and ribs on the server’s tray, and the new recruit sprung into action. Rosie glided along the floor a bit slowly, cautious to avoid hitting any patrons. She navigated to the bar area to deliver the food, and asked politely for the guests to grab their trays.
All told, it was a successful delivery, even if it wasn’t exactly human.
Rosie, you see, is a robot. The restaurant’s owner, Andy Husbands, is experimenting with the bot and so far, she’s coming in handy.
“She’s consistent, she shows up everyday,” he joked.
The Smoke Shop has been using Rosie for the past few weeks to run food from the kitchen to the bar area, and to bring take-out orders from the packing operation in back to delivery drivers up front. Adding some automation to the restaurant’s lineup means a team member doesn’t have to run back and forth from the kitchen, said Husbands, and can instead spend more time with guests. So far Rosie hasn’t replaced an actual human, but it’s a nice supplement, particularly in a tight labor market.
“If this Omicron gets really bad and we’re short laborers,” he said, “maybe we’ll be like ‘We really need this.’ ”
Rosie — whose technical name is Servi — is made by Bear Robotics, a California startup that’s been building hospitality bots since 2017. Founder John Ha was a software engineer at Google when he decided to open a restaurant, but he quickly grew frustrated at the inefficiencies he saw in the repetitive tasks used in the industry. And when cooks and staff called in sick or quit, he routinely found himself in the kitchen. He wanted to make his restaurant a better place to work, with less physical labor and hopefully, lower staff turnover. So he designed a robot to help.
Several prototypes later, the Servi in the The Smoke Shop has a two-tiered tray with a bucket in its base that can be used to help carry dirty dishes. It’s programmed to navigate throughout the space; Bear Robotics sends a team member to help map the restaurant. Once on the floor, an employee can press a button telling the bot where to go, and it then uses sensors and cameras to steer through the room, hopefully without spilling any food.
As Rosie glided around The Smoke Shop, the patrons seemed intrigued, though not overly excited. This is Kendall Square after all. They build robots here. (Toyota’s robotics team has its office in the same complex as the restaurant, Husbands pointed out.)
While The Smoke Shop is the first restaurant in the region to have a Servi, her siblings can be found in hotels, casinos, retirement homes, and restaurants throughout the country. Bear Robotics recently signed a contract with Denny’s — and got some viral TikTok attention as a result.
A Servi will typically cost a restaurant about $999 a month, which breaks down to a little more than $30 a day — or less than $2.75 an hour for a 12-hour day. The company says the bots help increase the time servers spend with guests by 40 percent, and waitstaff have reported that they earn higher tips as well. Bear Robotics has raised $32 million in funding from SoftBank, and its sales have spiked tenfold since the pandemic started.
“This is not about replacing the actual servers in restaurants. Without a human, Servi isn’t helpful to anyone,” said company’s spokeswoman Alison Suzuki. The robot, she said, does the work that “no one wants to do. It’s the work that is the backbreaking part of a service industry job.”
Bear Robotics is one of several robotics companies that have seen interest in their products take off during the pandemic — White Castle uses an automated fryer called Flippy, sold by Miso Robotics, and Sweetgreen recently paid $50 million to acquire Spyce, a Somerville company that uses robots to make its salads and rice bowls.
And while some may fear that robots will replace humans at restaurants, Husbands says he’s not there yet. He says it’s more like the automation at airports and drugstores, with their self check-ins and check-outs. He’s also been working with local point-of-sale system Toast on QR codes customers can scan to order and pay at their tables, saving trips for waitstaff. The industry was already short-staffed before COVID, he said. “This is trying to solve for a labor situation that existed prepandemic.”
Smoke Shop manager Stephanie Smith agrees. She’s been at the restaurant for over three years, and says she initially laughed when Husbands said he was adding an automaton to the team. But now she’s a fan of Betty — as she calls the bot — and loves being able to send food in one direction while she heads in another.
“It’s a big help,” Smith said, “You just tell her where to go and she goes. She’s part of the team and she doesn’t talk back. She can just keep going.”