A Robot Walks into a Bar...

Check out the invisible mixing glass and tin! Image: Ociacia / iStock / Getty Images Plus

As a club, bar or restaurant owner, you:

  1. Throw it out, because all it has is e-cash and no ID (and we know robots are bad tippers).
  2. Tell it you don’t care if he/she is androgynous, it doesn’t qualify for Ladies’ Night drink specials.
  3. Ask it to punch in and put it to work alongside the prep and bartending staff.
  4. Suggest it come back in five years, when you figure out how to make money off it.
  5. Probably some combination of c and d – so read on!

The punch line is your bottom line. Robots and bots are all the rage in media and at trade shows. As humans, we love the novelty. Robots can mix drinks, make salads, and flip burgers. Bots pop up and ask you questions on websites. Hype and reality are merging fast, but let’s look at what might make sense for you now.

To start, we all need to keep in mind that smart machines (not robots) are surfacing in restaurants, bars and clubs for many purposes:

  1. To start, automation and integration platforms and POS systems (like Toast), marketing and customer engagement tools (like bar apps), inventory systems, and employee management solutions (like Deputy and Hot Schedules), to name a few, make operations simpler and save time and money.
  2. Then we have “cobots,” which are workers and robots working together – such as drink-pouring dispensers with human bartenders.
  3. Last is the emergence human-like robots (e.g., machine table servers or standalone drink mixers).

We all need to understand the inevitable integration and evolution of these three areas, as they impact major areas of our industry in the coming decade.

If you are not using automation platforms that are driving or being driven by databases, you are falling behind…badly. In this area, with a tip of the hat to Star Trek robot/human lore, “Resistance (to these systems) is futile.” Even as a single-location bar, you need to get into today’s machine-driven management solutions. Many can be very cost effective, inexpensive, and change your business and your life (more free time) for the better. Your employees and guests will expect them – make the time to explore the best solution for you.

Right now, stand-alone “server robots” make financial sense in only a few specific scenarios. But let’s look at robots and cobots, and how they have “landed” in three ways you make money and stay in business: 


Attract Crowds & Brand Building

The first robot bar – The Tipsy Robot – just opened in Las Vegas. The stand-alone robots use their two arms each to pour drinks at the rate of 50-60 per hour each. Bar patrons place an order via tablet and take a number. The operation costs in the tens of thousands of dollars. This may fall into the category what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas: unless you have a very high volume of ever-changing guests and tourists, you will want to just watch, learn, and wait for the price to come down. As Preston Rideout, bar and nightclub consultant of Cocktail Currency says, “Robotic bartenders are simply drink dispensers. ‘Hey, check-out this bar. They have great drink dispensers!’ said no one ever.”

Bots can serve a purpose on your website and social media site, adding a “simulated human” to deliver customer service. But unless you’re selling products online or have high-volume orders like the fast food giants, you probably don’t really need a “chat” function.


Increase Top & Bottom Lines                     .

Larger chains are analyzing how incorporating robots into their beverage and food production can save money and time. For example, Pizza Hut piloted Pepper the Robot in Asia. Flippy is a robot burger-flipping assistant, and Zume Pizza just received $5.7 million in funding and is making pies with the assistance of robot assembly line Pepe, Marta, and Bruno.

Cobots make a lot of sense here for high-volume businesses, like pizzas and drinks. Rethink Robotics and their Intera, Sawyer and Baxter models can be customized to produce in precise, high volumes, while working with humans. Expect custom cobots to cost north of $20,000.


Improve Customer Satisfaction & Experience

The bar and nightclub business is all about the human experience and relationship building. Using machines to expedite ordering and food/drink prep is logical, but not at the expense of in-person hospitality.

Even robot manufacturers believe in the need for human interaction in our industry. Dr. Deepak Sekar, founder and CEO of Chowbotics (the company behind Sally the Salad Maker) says,

“Humans are meant to be creative, and bartending is a craft. Bartenders and their personalities are also part of the show at great bar. Robots cannot replace that human interaction. What they can do is add precision and consistency. For bars, this can save a tremendous amount of money by providing accuracy in pouring costs and reduction in the number of recipes a bar staff is trained on. A head mixologist can program the robot to dispense alcohol to specs, and then the bartender working the bar can finish the drinks and have more time to interact with the guests, talk to them about the product, and provide great hospitality – which is something robots can never do.”


Keep in Mind…Machines Still Lack the Human Touch

Fortune believes that the robot revolution in the hospitality industry is over-hyped and even though 2,000 tasks can be automated, doing so may not make business sense. “Just because something can be automated, doesn’t mean it should be,” the study asserts.

If businesses replace humans too quickly with machines and a machine breaks or fails, customer service can’t fail along with it (because no robot will come to your rescue). Replacing experienced staff with robots needs to be done cautiously and rationally – if at all. Fortune believes that the robot revolution in the hospitality industry is still years away.

Before you invest in robots for your bar or restaurant, ask yourself:

  1. What’s my volume and will the margins and volume pay back the cost in a year? Technology advances rapidly and whatever you buy or lease will likely be outdated and “uncool” very soon.
  2. Am I a high-turnover, low-relationship bar – like an airport or tourist spot? If so, efficiency may be more important than repeat guests.
  3. Am I ready to have IT support – and back-up staff – ready when (not if) the machines go down? 

We love technologies that make our lives easier. Telling your Echo to call your mother or play a favorite song is one thing. But our industry is one of people and interaction. Ron the Robot may mix cocktails fast and well, but no one is coming to a bar to tell a robot his problems (unless you’re in a sci-fi film like Passengers or Star Wars).



What is a robot? The definition in our book Embrace the Machine is “A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”

A bot is a specific type of robot, often used to deliver customer service (most often online).

Cobot has recently popped-up in media. It refers to using machines and robots working together to improve service quality or manufacturing.

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