Pizza Hut is testing it out!

According to a May 28th article in MarketWatch, Pizza Hut is initiating a program to use robots at several of their Asia-based restaurants. The robot, Pepper, will take customers’ orders and money. The robot is a joint venture with SoftBank Robotics and MasterCard.

Pepper has a face and can even respond to customers with some emotional intelligence, said John Sheldon, Senior Vice President of Innovation Management at MasterCard Labs. For example, if a customer seems more tentative because he or she is interacting with a robot, Pepper will be more reserved. If the customer is more energetic, Pepper will be, too. “It looks like an alien, with eyes and a touchscreen on its chest, and it’s the size of a small child”. (I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be a benefit or not).

Many businesses offer versions of self-serve ordering or checkout. The concept of using a humanoid or human-like robots is in its earliest stages, but the article says it could benefit restaurants and lead to wider adoption “If diners aren’t too freaked out by them.”

The restaurant industry is highly competitive. Why do customers return to a particular restaurant? I think customers go back for more because a server, host or owner has created and built a relationship with them. Someone in the restaurant knows their name, what they like to eat, and even when they are planning a vacation. Food is food; nothing can replace the human connection.

Feedback from the fast-food industry might state that the concept of creating and building relationships is only for high-end restaurants – foolish thinking. Consider the coffee shop that a customer visits every day because Mary or Joe knows their name and if the coffee needs cream and sugar or not. Fast food restaurants can easily duplicate that service. Why couldn’t a customer be loyal to a server at Pizza Hut as well?

Is the idea that a robot can diffuse the planned higher minimum wage viable? Again, understanding the value of interacting with a passionate customer service person is priceless. How many customers interact with one fast food server in an hour? If you take the extra few dollars an hour that a server might now make with a higher wage and divide it by 15 customers he or she may handle in an hour, that’s 20 cents per customer. Isn’t it worth 20 cents to engage the customer with a smile, wish them a nice day and close the conversation as the customer’s credit card is returned with, “Mr. Smith, thanks for visiting today and we appreciate your business.”

The article also mentions that restaurants are looking at ways to also automate food preparation. I believe that makes sense – no issues with that.

People go to restaurants to have an experience, not just fill their stomachs. In the same article, one industry analyst, Bonnie Riggs points out that “going out to dinner is a special treat. For some older or single people that may be their social interaction, even if it’s just with a server or a bartender.”

There are too many interactions at restaurants performed by robotic servers who show no emotion and never engage the customer in a conversation. The staff is not solely to blame. Managers don’t understand the value of hiring the right people and providing appropriate training. I thought the last few sentences of the article provided an astute summary. “Although at first robots may be an interesting marketing gimmick, time will tell whether diners like interacting with them. People will come in for that, but whether they’ll return is another story.”

Customers will return to a restaurant if they feel welcome and someone on staff has successfully built a relationship. That’s the competitive advantage. Those companies that think robots can replace the human touch are only thinking short-term dollars and not long-term profitability.

What do you think? Robots or humans?