We've often wondered why operators failed to embrace the Roomba®, the vacuuming robot first introduced to consumers back in 2002. By all accounts, the silent, sleek-looking machines from manufacturer iRobot do a terrific job on floors and rugs, learning more and more about their task with each subsequent use. We think the novelty factor alone would be enough to convince a few operators to buy a Roomba® and have it make a lap or two through the dining room during service. Guests would likely be impressed with the restaurant's commitment to cleanliness, and they would definitely have something to talk about during and after their meal. Think of it as a clean-up and marketing device all rolled into one.
Maybe operators are afraid the Roomba® wouldn't hold up under commercial restaurant conditions. We don't know about that, but we'd like to mention the just-released Dirt Dog Workshop Robot. A more rugged version of the Roomba®, the Dirt Dog has a high-speed brush design that enables it to pick up nuts, bolts, dirt, dust and other debris from a workshop floor. It's apparently designed for consumers who like to work with their hands, but not to the extent of cleaning up after themselves when they're done. No matter. This one's more robust and might be worth a try by restaurants. You could even send it through the back of the house to pick up debris during busy nights. And while you're at it, maybe you could get a Scooba® floor-washing robot to clean up behind the line between shifts, too.
But floor cleaners aren't the big news on the restaurant robotics front. Engineers at Japanese tech giant NEC Corp.'s System Technologies Labs have created a robotic wine tasting machine. It consists of a microcomputer and an optical sensing device packed into a two-foot-high talking robot. NEC says its wine-bot can correctly identify the unique organic components of 30 popular wines in 30 seconds-many, many more if you program it differently. The wine-bot then speaks the brand name of the wine, comments on its taste characteristics and recommends foods that would go well with it, including specific cheeses. Did we mention that the wine-bot does all this before the bottle has been opened?
"There are all kinds of robots doing many different things," says NEC's Hideo Shimazu. Indeed. Last year NEC, a $47 billion (annual sales) company, came out with a Health/Food Advice Robot that can analyze a food's composition in an instant and then dispense advice about whether or not a person should eat it. Scarier still is NEC's Childcare Robot PaPeRo (personal partner-type robot). It "boasts enhanced security features and functions enabling it to play with and watch over children," the company says.
These guys know their robots. So why wine?
"We decided to focus on wine because that seemed like a real challenge." Shimazu says. "All foods have a unique fingerprint," he adds. "The robot uses that data to identify what it is inspecting right there on the spot." An infrared spectrometer embedded in the end of the robot's left arm does the real-time analysis that enables the robot to function. "Wines are notoriously similar in their spectral fingerprints," Shimazu says. "The variation this robot detects is very subtle."
The wine-bot is a long way from commercial production. Programming issues are a drawback now. So is price. "Buying one of these would cost about as much as a new car," Shimazu told the AP. "We'd like to bring that down to 100,000 yen (about $1,000) or less for the tasting sensor if we were to put it on the market."
So could you get rid of your sommelier if you bought one? Maybe. The wine-bot's developers note that it could be programmed to, say, recommend specific new varieties or pair certain wines with certain food options. It could also identify wine that's gone bad or is unsafe.
We'll learn more about the wine-bot's capabilities as future generations are released from the R & D lab. But the principle is a good one. And the novelty value is off the charts, as is the potential marketing impact. Who's going to turn down a recommendation from a talking, 2-foot high robot that seems to know more about wine than you do?
If this sound a little too far-fetched, maybe some repurposed old-school technology would interest you instead. That's what they're hoping at Bamn! in New York City's East Village. This newly opened restaurant is reviving the Automat format, where patrons drop coins into slots, open a glass door and pull out hot food that's been prepared on-site. The last Automat in the U.S. closed in 1991.
Bamn! brings the concept decidedly up to date. "Bamn provides tasty, inexpensive real food for people on the go," say owners David Leong and Robert Kwak. "It's the return of the Automat, filled with bite-sized burgers, mac & cheese, pizza, chicken strips, grilled cheese, hotdogs, pork buns and lots of other great stuff, made fresh throughout the day." It's multi-cultural finger food that costs between $1 and $2 per serving. Portion size? Pretty small.
The menu offers a lot of quick-cooked food that has a relatively short shelf life. It was designed by Bamn!'s consulting chef, Kevin Reilly. He's also the executive chef at fine dining restaurant the Water Club. Which is why his ingredients list includes fresh ginger, truffle oil and Maytag bleu cheese, although these and similar pricey items are used primarily in sauces.
It's not all coin-operated machines. A small counter in the 600-sq. ft. store dispenses Belgian fries, served with an array of sauces, and soft-serve green tea ice cream. There are no tables or seats. Bamn! features a hot pink décor and is open 24 hours per day. It's modeled on contemporary automats in the Netherlands, which do a good business.
Will this old school technology work? It's off to a flying start. One thing it shares with robots is that it gives a restaurant instant buzz. It's a place people want to try and will want to tell their friends about after their initial experience. Word of mouth never goes out of style, and Bamn! has plenty of it already.