MIAMI, Florida — A local third-generation Cuban-American restaurant chain is integrating robots in with its waitstaff as an answer to the workforce depletion it has seen in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sergio’s, with six full-service restaurants, recently employed “Astro” — an acronym for automated service tray removal organizer — CEO Carlos Gazitua said in an interview in May at his Kendall location, which happened on the same day he hosted Breitbart News and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) at the restaurant for an in-depth On the Hill exclusive.
“We said, ‘Okay, what can we do to take the burden, some of the load off our front of the house workers?’ And that’s where robotics comes in place,” Gazitua explained.
The CEO described his experience over the past year and how it led to the idea of introducing robots into his workflow. He said that — similar to what happened in many industries — fear of coronavirus and a near halt to his business operations initially produced a sharp drop in employees and customers as coronavirus cases were surging and government-mandated restrictions were in place.
The restaurant industry was among the hardest hit in 2020. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the leisure and hospitality unemployment rate skyrocketing last year, from 5.9 percent in January to its peak of 39.3 percent in April, eventually closing out the year at 16.7 percent. In May 2021, the industry still had not recovered but improved to a 10.1 percent unemployment rate, around double its pre-pandemic levels.
Although severely impacted and only able to stay afloat during the worst of the pandemic with the help of the federal Paycheck Protection Program’s (PPP) forgivable loans, Sergio’s saw a promising uptick in customers shortly after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) lifted all capacity restrictions in Florida last fall.
Interestingly though, Gazitua said he soon realized he would not have the employees to support the revived clientele. The staffing issue, he observed, was a combination of federal unemployment benefits discouraging people from applying and the enticing work-from-home setups people had adopted that allowed them more free time or time with their children.
“We’re offering healthcare plans. We’re offering 401ks, but we’re not getting applicants into our stores,” he said. “We’re seeing tons of people lining up, half-hour waits on the weekends, but I can’t sit about 30 percent of the restaurant.”
He found the restaurant’s underemployment was causing the staff he did have to feel burnt out. “That’s where we said, ‘Okay, what can we do to take the burden, some of the load off our front of the house workers? And that’s where robotics comes in place. We thought of the idea as, ‘What if robots can make us more human, by spending more time with the guest and by offsetting the workload over the back and forth?’”
Gazitua connected with Bear Robotics, a company cofounded four years ago by COO Juan Higueros. Higueros, a Miami native who started the company in the San Francisco Bay Area, said he and two Google software engineers invented the robot after having owned a restaurant and realizing how difficult it was to run.
“What we’ve actually tried to do is really try to build something that can help people so that they have more people to basically do more things that are value-added to the work floor of a restaurant,” Higueros, who was also visiting Sergio’s that day, told Breitbart News.
During the interviews, Astro was functioning as a food runner and also bringing empty dishes from tables back into the kitchen. “Cocina,” read a screen on the robot as it rolled toward the cocina, or kitchen.
When asked if he was concerned that the automation would serve to replace humans, Gazitua said no and that in fact it would allow servers to spend more time at tables and focus more on their guests, enhancing in-person interactions rather than displacing people, which would also allow employees to make more money.
“I think robotics, if it’s meant to take off workload and make you more efficient and create those personal touches, I think that is going to be the future is making better experiences for our guests and for our employees,” he said. “When you can do two things — make it better for the guest and make it better for the employees — I think you’re on to something.”
Breitbart News checked in with Gazitua on Thursday and confirmed he is now using a robot in all six of his restaurants, though he says the goal is ultimately to be using two to three per location.
Write to Ashley Oliver at firstname.lastname@example.org.