Restaurants eye robot help to ease labor shortage

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A robot prepares a drink at a sushi restaurant in Taisho Ward, Osaka, on Nov. 16.

Robot technology introduced at some eateries amid the pandemic to limit human contact might be here to stay, as restaurants look to automation to deal with staff shortages.

Edomae Stand Toroyasu Honten, a sushi restaurant in Taisho Ward, Osaka, last week unveiled a robot bartender that made a highball in about a minute, using its automated arm to pick up a glass, fill it with ice, pour whiskey and soda into it, and mix it with a stirrer.

The robot bartender can make 14 different drinks, the restaurant said. Diners place orders via smartphone and a robot server carries the drinks to their table.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A robot prepares a drink at a sushi restaurant in Taisho Ward, Osaka, on Nov. 16.

According to the restaurant’s operator CiX Holdings, the robots have enabled the outlet to cut the number of staff by 50%.

“Using robots means it’s possible to operate restaurants with fewer people, making it easier to open new outlets,” CiX Holdings President Soichi Yokoyama said.

There is a significant shortage of staff for customer-facing roles in various industries, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

The situation has deteriorated since the end of last year when pandemic restrictions on dining out were eased. According to a survey by Teikoku Databank Ltd., 73% of restaurants say they are short of part-time workers.

SoftBank Robotics Corp. thought the rental fee of as much as ¥100,000 per month would be too high a barrier for some restaurants, but in the last six months the robot developer has seen a surge in demand.

“Many companies are short of manpower but can’t afford not to spend money to resolve the issue,” a SoftBank Robotics official said.

Restaurant operator Skylark Holdings Co. has been rolling out serving robots at its casual-dining chain Gusto and shabu-shabu eatery since last summer. The company plans to deploy them at 2,000 outlets by the end of next month.

Ganko Food Service Co., which operates Japanese restaurants mainly in the Kansai region, uses similar robots at eight outlets.

“The work involved in carrying dishes to tables is of no value to customers, so robots can do the work instead,” a Ganko official said.

However, some in the industry say people should be responsible for customer service. Going forward, it is likely that humans and robots will share roles to increase customer satisfaction.