There’s a new employee at Cafecito, a Santa Fe restaurant and coffeehouse serving Argentinian, Armenian and Italian cuisines.
The busser moved to New Mexico about a month ago, and carries dishes with a song.
Except this worker isn’t human – it’s a robot.
Dubbed 1-C-2, or “Juancito,” by Cafecito owner Andres Paglayan, a reference to Star Wars robot R2-D2, whose name sounds like “Arturito” in Spanish, the robot delivers plates to customers and busses away dirty dishes.
“My background is technology, I’m a software developer,” Paglayan said. “Robotics have been, always, a fascination of mine.”
Cafecito is the latest New Mexico business to bring in automated assistants. Last May, the BioPark’s restaurant, the Shark Reef Café, bought robot Cayenne, and in August, Albuquerque’s Flix Brewhouse brought in a fleet of robots to carry food and drinks.
Shannon Sanchez, general manager of Shark Reef Café said Cayenne was invaluable during the pandemic.
“Coming off the pandemic, everything got a little harder in the way of service,” Sanchez said. “You know, some people are still sensitive to be around people, and then … hiring’s been increasingly harder. It just happened, kind of at the right time – it just filled that void that we were missing.”
Before the pandemic, Sanchez said, the café employed between 15 and 25 people, depending on the season. Post-pandemic, the restaurant had between 10 and 20 employees, putting additional labor on each workers’ shoulders – a load that Cayenne helped take on.
Since employment has mostly rebounded, the staff has started using Cayenne in different ways, Sanchez said. Initially, they used Cayenne to take customer orders via QR code and bring meals – now, the staff generally uses Cayenne to buss dirty dishes, work special events, and sing the occasional “Happy Birthday.”
“They’ll send her out to go clear tables … and entertain,” Sanchez said. “It’s kind of evolved, and we’ve kind of figured out how to use it for other aspects.”
Christian Slough, a business development representative at Albuquerque-based Build with Robots, said he’s also seen robotics fill a labor gap. The company recently partnered with Albuquerque-based janitorial supply company, LD Supply Co., to bring their disinfecting robots to schools and other facilities around the Southwest.
Slough said there’s been a recent shortage in facilities workers around the state.
“We’ve talked to schools that were going to begin the year with four janitors out of the 12 that they needed,” Slough said. “…There’s an aging population with a job that has high turnover.”
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance of a sometimes thankless job, Slough said. And automation can make that job easier, especially when a smaller staff has to take on the same amount of work. Slough hopes that the LD Supply partnership is the first of many facilities companies incorporating new tech.
“We’re really at the beginning of distributors like LD bringing technology into the facilities area,” Slough said. “That’s been mainly driven by labor shortages, and there’s really no other solution other than implementing technology.”
Flix Brewhouse on La Orilla and Coors brought in a team of four robots in the middle of 2022. General Manager Brandon Higgins said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the purchase – and in the months since, he’s been convinced.
“This really … helps the quality of life for the team,” Higgins said. “Guests really enjoy having them around, you know, kind of the novelty aspect.”
At Flix, guests can order drinks and food and have them delivered straight to their movie theater seat. Before Flix brought in the robots, runners at the movie theater would have to bring delicacies from the kitchen or bar to one of eight auditoriums. Now, robots do most of the legwork, and runners just have to bring drinks and meals from central pads into the theater – a significant cutback on the lengths they have to walk, Higgins said. According to Higgins, before August runners frequently put in 10 miles per day hauling food and drink around the nearly 40,000 square-foot theater. Now, he estimates that length has been cut in half.
Higgins said the robots have helped make service faster as well as helping out the staff, with no human employee cuts.
“Instead of having so many people focus on food running, we can get drinks quicker to our guests,” Higgins said. “We can go into the theaters and take dirty dishes back away from our guests much quicker and be able to just move the speed of service along much faster.”
Like the Flix robots, 1-C-2 at Cafecito is limited in its services. The robot only carries dishes back and forth between the kitchen and the restaurant. But on weekdays, when business is slower, Paglayan said it’s hard to justify hiring an additional busser, so generally that task would fall on servers. But with the robot, Paglayan said servers are able to concentrate more on interacting with guests rather than running food.
“The overall value that it’s adding, and that is something that is happening right now, is that the servers could be way more attentive at the floor,” Paglayan said.
For Paglayan, 1-C-2 has a supportive role in the restaurant, much like a dishwasher or a mixer.
“We already had a dishwasher machine, you know, we don’t wash dishes by hand,” Paglayan said. “…I think it’s just another help.”
Paglayan rents 1-C-2, a model from Bear Robotics, for $600 a month. Just a month into service, he’s not certain yet if the investment is paying off. But he thinks the value-add is in the quality of service and the amount of tips servers make from it.
“I don’t know if I’m saving money,” Paglayan said. “Probably … it is a wash on the exchange for quality. But for sure, it is helping the servers to raise more in tips.”
Both Flix Brewhouse and Shark Reef Café own their own robots. And the price tag isn’t cheap.
Cayenne was built by Nevada-based company, Richtech Robotics, which sells robots geared at the restaurant and service industry. The Matradee L model – which is used at the BioPark café – costs around $20,000. Flix Brewhouse also uses Matradee robots.
Slough said that Build with Robots introduced a cheaper and smaller version of their disinfecting robot last month, a move which he said has made robotics more accessible for schools, airports and other facilities. In the past month, the company has sold 120 Breezy Blue units.
“That makes it feasible not just for a large corporation but for a school or an office break room,” Slough said.
As more people learn how robotics can help them do their jobs, Slough said, he anticipates that robots will be implemented more widely, in more varied industries.
“We’re having discussions of, ‘Let’s talk about what this actually does. This is doing one task, you have 20 different tasks – this is just going to help make your list shorter,'” Slough said.
Although Slough said some jobs will be displaced by automation – primarily in manufacturing industries – he said the World Economic Forum predicts that the industry will create more jobs than it cuts. However, he emphasized that robotics companies should help provide skills training for displaced workers.
Higgins said some customers at Flix have been apprehensive about the robots, and expressed concerns about jobs being displaced. But at Flix, at least, Higgins said that’s not the case.
“We always make a point to kind of talk to them, and just let them know how, they haven’t really replaced anybody’s jobs,” Higgins said. “They’ve really helped quality of life.”