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Waiter on wheels: Robot serves Japanese restaurant customers

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FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — While the thought of a robot delivering food and drink at a restaurant may hearken images straight out of a Star Wars cantina, the droid helping wait tables at one Frederick eatery is less R2-D2 than a souped-up iPad on wheels.

Sapporo II Japanese Restaurant at 5 W. Church St. in downtown Frederick welcomed a new employee a couple of weeks ago — a robot waiter.

It rolls around the restaurant, with a screen displaying a cheerful cartoon face and a little chef hat. Under the screen is three levels of trays.

When it's not working, it rests by the wall and charges.

The $25,000 robot can sing customers "Happy Birthday" or a festive Christmas tune. It can dance and use different voices.

The restaurant staff is trying to see if they can give the robot a British accent, said Uriel Cuevas, head server at Sapporo II.

With its three trays, the robot can carry a lot of orders.

Cuevas said that for a small serving staff, the robot — whose name is pending — is helpful when the restaurant gets busy.

"Let's say there's like five soups back there, and other servers at tables are attending, taking orders, socializing. We would have the robot, of course," Cuevas said.

And people can only carry so many plates, he said, while the robot can carry as many plates as will fit on its three trays.

The robot isn't meant to replace the staff, Cuevas said, but rather help with the workflow of the restaurant. Currently, the robot is in its "infant" stage, Cuevas said.

The robot does not take customers' orders. It can only be programmed to bring people dishes or help bring dishes back to the kitchen.

"It helps from the kitchen being clogged up in the back with there being an immense amount of plates, it relieves the pressure of that," he said.

Customers can't interact with it yet, but Cuevas said the restaurant is hoping to change that.

He and Sapporo II owner Chris Song want the robot to be able to communicate with customers if they have questions about the menu, like if a certain dish is gluten free or has allergens.

Song said its most useful feature now is to help servers clear tables.

One server might have to make multiple trips to clear a table. With the robot, a server can pile plates, silverware and glasses on the robot's trays and send it back to the kitchen while they focus on other tasks.

Kadin Wetherholt, a server at Sapporo II since September, confirmed that the robot is helpful to clean tables. It also saves him from awkwardly singing "Happy Birthday" to customers.

It's cool, he said, but he wasn't a big fan of the robot when it first came to the restaurant. He's still trying to warm up to it.

"I'm really old fashioned, so I'm like pen and paper. I just like walking to my tables," he said. "I was just like, 'Wow, like the times have really changed.'"

Most customers love it, and whip out their phones to take a video of it as it cruises by their tables, Cuevas said. Other people who don't like technology are a little afraid of it, but he tells them not to worry.

(© Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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