Across China: Epidemic brings more robots into Chinese restaurants

Updated: July 21, 2020 Source:
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In Foodom Robot Restaurant in south China's Foshan City, a line of robot chefs helped allay customers' fears of COVID-19 infection.

After customers placed orders on their smartphones, the chefs were activated. With one arm performing stir-frying and another adding spices, a robot completed a home-style dish within minutes. A robot then delivered the sizzling dish to the dining table. No human waiters intervened in the process.

The newfangled restaurant has proved popular among local foodies, even as lingering worries about coronavirus infections continued to impact the business of many restaurants and eateries.

Xie Lixian, manager of the restaurant, said getting a seat is not easy these days and reservations are often necessary. During this year's May Day holiday, the restaurant received more than 10,000 customers, with its three-day revenue topping 530,000 yuan (about 75,730 U.S. dollars).

The increasing demand for contactless service during the COVID-19 epidemic has boosted the application of restaurant robots, which are already helping China's labor-intensive catering industry tackle mounting labor costs and improve efficiency.

"The epidemic is accelerating automation in the catering industry. For restaurants, robots are becoming a necessity, instead of icing on the cake," said Bi Yalei, secretary-general of the Shenzhen Robotics Association.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, a growing number of Chinese restaurants had begun to embrace robotics to save costs. A report released by the China Cuisine Association shows that in 2019, labor costs in the catering industry increased by 24.4 percent, overrunning other operating costs.

In south China's tech hub Shenzhen, a restaurant owned by PUTIEN, a Singaporean restaurant brand, has lured in diners with its two automatic dish-deliverers.

"Many customers come for our robots," said Lai Birong, manager of the restaurant. But while the machine waiters are welcomed as a novelty, Lai said they can be of real help. "The two robots can shoulder the workload of one human waiter, which can be a great help in peak dining hours."

Zhang Tao, founder of Shenzhen-based robot producer PuduTech, said the company sold 5,000 sets of dish-delivering robots last year to restaurants and hotels, including hotpot heavyweight Haidilao, Intercontinental Hotel and Sheraton. The company's sales surged during the epidemic.

"The epidemic has sped up the existing trend of restaurant automation. The robots have become an ideal choice of restaurateurs because on the one hand, they can reduce labor costs and food safety risks, and on the other, the technology has developed to the stage that it can be used in the catering industry," Zhang said.

In Foodom, more sophisticated cooking tasks have already been delegated to robots, which can cook 200 varieties of Chinese dishes, including stir-fried vegetables, roasted meat and stews. A hamburger can be made in 20 seconds and ice cream in 40 seconds, Xie said.

"Robots can now free human chefs from laborious tasks like cutting ingredients into threads or strips, and they can complete the tasks more efficiently," said Ma Huiliang, a longtime chef of Cantonese cuisine who has helped design robot-cooked dishes.

Responding to fears of job losses caused by the restaurant robots, Bi said it is hardly possible to replace all humans in the long chain of catering, especially for Chinese restaurants that boast a vast variety of dishes, complicated procedures for processing ingredients and unstandardized cooking.

"After all, dining in restaurants is a highly personalized form of consumption. I believe more robots will be used in the catering industry, but it will be kept to a reasonable level," Bi said.

Editor: 王予