Robots in Restaurants Arrive in US, But Will Portland Accept Them?


Current Issue of ATLANTIC MONTHLY, Carries Article on Automation of Restaurants.

Using robots in Japanese restaurants and hotels has helped to solve at least one employment problem there according to an article – “Iron Chefs” in the current issue of THE ATLANTIC  – on news stands now.

Japan has a shrinking population with a booming economy which gives it a smaller pool from which to hire people to tend bar, prepare food and perform other food service related tasks according to this article by Alana Semuels.  A source in the article speculates that within the next five years, 70 % of the jobs in Japan’s hotels will be automated.  The same source says that there are advantages to using robots over humans.  They can be used 24/7 and  they don’t need coffee breaks or vacations.  They are cheaper to use.

The article states that service robots have already arrived in the US – mostly in California.  It refers to a robot that makes salads and another robot butler that works in hotels in California.  The rising minimum wage rates sweeping the country could be an incentive for the industry to turn to automation in lieu of humans the article maintains.

“Robots would distract from the intimacy of the human interaction.  Hospitality comes from the word hospitable that robots lack,” said Gigi Mall, a bartender at Blyth & Burrows, on Exchange Street in the Old Port.  Mall is the founding member of the Portland chapter of US Bar Guild, a support group for bartenders that meets year round and is the local chapter of a national non-profit.

“I don’t see robots in restaurants.  Robots can’t detect how ‘toasted’ customers are.  Maybe at McDonald’s, but not where food and drinks are served,” said Katie McDermott, a bar tender at the Munjoy Hill Tavern, on Munjoy Hill this afternoon.  “Automation would not work here yet.  A place would need pretty sophisticated technology to keep track of how many drinks a customer has consumed,” said Paulo Ortiz, a cook at the same Tavern.  “Maybe it would work in the big cities, but not here.”

Incidentally, SmartAsset has again ranked Portland as number 2 among US cities for beer drinkers. Asheville, North Carolina was the top-rated city and Duluth, Minnesota captured third place.  Portland has the second most breweries relative to the overall population.  There are 25 breweries per 100,000 residents.

Unlike Japan, Portland has a large supply of potential employees from which it can staff its restaurants and hotels.