Penny, the robotic waitress, is designed to help servers – not replace them

Penny, the restaurant robot, acts as an assistant to human waiters

Silicon Valley startup, Bear Robotics, is developing a line of cute robots aiming to ease the workload of human servers. The idea is to help servers, not replace them – cut waiting times for customers and decrease costs for business owners.

John Ha, a former engineer at Google, founded Bear Robotics. While working at Google, John was a frequent customer at the Kang Nam Tofu House, a Korean restaurant in Milpitas, California. When the owners decided to sell, John invested. He filled in for dishwashers, cooks and servers when someone was out sick or quit – and realized that technology could help improve the experience. He decided to build a robot and test it first at his own restaurant.

The small robot, called Penny, uses sensors to navigate the narrow and crowded spaces in a restaurant, safely avoiding obstacles along the way. The location of each table and the kitchen is programmed into the robot, which helps it create a map of the restaurant. Then servers use a tablet to summon the robot whenever food is ready and tell it where to go.

Bear Robotics believes that by making restaurant work more pleasant, restaurants will have less turnover in staff. The company does not aim to replace human servers. “Would you want to dine at a factory, or where someone with good social skills can make you feel warm?” says Ha. “Robots can’t do that.” In fact, in Ha’s experience, as waiters no longer have to be running back and forth between the kitchen and the tables, they can focus more on customer service, which in turn increases their tips.

The company is now testing Penny in other Bay Area restaurants, trying out “her” behavior in different environments and handling different types of food.

Penny’s success has resulted in Ha planning to sell the Kang Nam Tofu House, and solely focus on Bear Robotics.

“I hope our solutions improve the working environment for the restaurant and restaurant employees can live more like middle-class citizens,” he said.

“That’s really what I want to achieve: change the way that a restaurant is operated.”

[Bear Robotics]