David Edwards exhibited a valiant degree of patience as he watched the training of a new staffer at his restaurant, Cafe ArtScience, in Cambridge this week. The newcomer attemped to follow its trainer’s every move, but made a series of stumbles: bumping into doors and tables and clipping at people’s heels while wandering through the room.
But Edwards was quick to forgive. The robot was just getting its bearings, after all.
Edwards, a Harvard professor and serial entrepreneur who has attempted to digitize scent, has been using Cafe ArtScience as a playground for his cutting-edge culinary creations since he opened the restaurant in 2014. On Wednesday, he’s adding a new server to his staff: Cafe Gita (pronounced JEE-ta) a semi-autonomous, cargo-carrying robot that will deliver scent clouds to guests. Once it masters its domain, Edwards hopes to send it out on the streets as a delivery service. (No word yet on whether it will take tips.)
Gita, developed by the makers of the Vespa scooter, derives its name from an Italian phrase meaning a short trip. The thigh-high device looks like the love child of a Roomba and BB-8, the newest android in the “Star Wars” universe, and was created in Charlestown at the Piaggio Fast Forward innovation lab. The team designed Gita to serve humans as they go about their errands; it can follow its owner, toting home groceries from a shopping trip, or it can be dispatched alone or in groups as a delivery service, rolling down sidewalks to bring packages to your doorstep.
With a 40-pound cargo capacity, the robotic vehicle is being positioned as a low-carbon alternative to cars, autonomous or otherwise, and more realistic than delivery by drone.
“We don’t think that the delivery of pizzas by aerial drones is a strong proposition,” Piaggio’s chief executive, Harvard professor Jeffrey Schnapp, said as Piaggio team members wandered among the restaurant’s moss green banquettes in an effort to help Gita learn the dimensions of the room. “This is the car trunk that follows you around.”
On Wednesday evening, Gita makes its dinner service debut at the cafe. In its first real-world use, the robot will follow waitstaff, delivering hot dog and marshmallow scented “flavor clouds” to patrons. The flavored vapors are an amuse bouche in the most literal sense: small puffs of savory air that give the mouth a moment of calorie-free flavor. Designed to act as an accompaniment to entrees, these “air garnishes” are served in humidifier-like device that Edwards developed, called Le Whaf. Because Le Whaf needs a power source, it’s been impossible for him to provide a tableside sensory cloud experience for his guests, he explained. Now, with the robot, he has both a server and a solution.
But that’s not all: Cafe Gita can also can act as a mobile ice bucket, rolling up to tables to deliver champagne.
Gita’s arrival kicks off ArtScienceConverged, a series of weeklong sensory “exhibits” at the restaurant, which will culminate in the World Frontiers Forum this fall. Over the next few weeks, the restaurant will unveil menu items inspired by innovative thinkers who will attend the conference in Cambridge Oct. 1-3. Think a Temple Grandin-themed cocktail, a “food opera” in the spirit of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, or “The Last Supper” — an entire menu of foods that will be wiped out by climate change, served by former White House chef Sam Kass.
Cafe ArtScience has undergone its own changes over the past few months.
Todd Maul, a founding partner and world-class bartender who is as handy with a centrifuge as he is with a cocktail shaker, announced he was leaving earlier this month. That came on the heels of the news in May that executive chef Brandon Baltzley would be stepping down to work on other projects.
The restaurant has been closed for two weeks in preparation for the exhibits, Edwards said, and will no longer operate its adjacent gallery space, La Laboratoire. The intention was to bring more of the curated experience into the restaurant itself, he said, declining to discuss any new hires, aside from Gita.
If adding a robot to the team feels like a gimmick, that’s kind of the point. Edwards acknowledges that part of Gita’s appeal is its in-your-face ability to force people to reconsider the way they acquire their food, whether in a restaurant or on the street. Using Gita as a delivery bot will bring the restaurant’s innovations to the public, he said, and it’s the direction the food-delivery industry is headed, anyway. He envisions a day in the near future when Cambridge residents can sign up to receive regular meals from the restaurant. Perhaps Cafe Gita could even help feed the homeless, he said.
“Anyone can deliver food, in a catering sense, but we’re more than just about food,” Edwards said. “We’re interested in bringing this spirit of frontiers and the future and the experimentation that is in so many ways unsettling about contemporary life.
“The notion that Gita might play a role as a mediator of the experience of the cafe really was intriguing.”