As the Chili’s executive explains, Rita’s assistance is best used during a busy Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night when the rush comes at once. The robot assists the host with seating customers, and when the food arrives into the dining room in waves, Rita takes on some of that volume. When all those tables are left with dirty dishes, the machine is switched to bussing mode and takes plates back to the kitchen.
The addition of more responsibilities is difficult to gauge, Allen says. Right now, the company is more focused on deployment.
“My wish list, I'd love her to have a vacuum connected to her,” the executive says. “But it's not something I control right now. But it is something that we constantly talk about—what could be the future. And we're constantly thinking about new things.”
The biggest learning from the 10-restaurant test is making sure Rita’s interface is simple enough for non-technical individuals to quickly switch its modes, whether that’s from server to host, or birthday singing to bussing. The other issue is working on the robot’s navigation around pulled out chairs or children walking in front of it. In addition, Chili’s and Bear Robotics slightly modified Rita’s tray size so it could carry all the necessary items a team member would hold to a busy six-top table on a Friday night.
Chili’s minimum threshold for acceptance of errors is 99 percent or higher. Allen estimates Rita is currently around 99.6 percent functional, but he says that could quickly switch to 99.3 percent the next day. If there is a problem, it’s usually when the robot is “lost in space” as it moves around the restaurant and must be re-centered by an employee. But again, that happens 1 percent of the time or less.
The company is expanding tests as the industry faces a prolonged labor battle. During March, food services and drinking places employed roughly 11.54 million workers, which is about 750,000 shy of February 2020, reaffirming to many that restaurants’ labor pool may never return to pre-COVID levels. Because of the rising competition for bodies, wage rates have shot up to attract the best workers.
But Allen says Rita’s purpose isn’t to cut down on workforce rosters and save labor costs. Instead, he calls it a “co-automation” experience that improves the workload of existing team members and entertains customers.
Thus far, 77 percent of consumers said their server is spending more time with them because of Rita’s assistance, Allen reports.
“All those metrics come into play to say, hey, they're utilizing the robot in the function they need to, so we're excited about what the guest is saying and what the team member is saying,” Allen says.