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Making It In San Diego: Robot server helps Tofu House restaurant overcome pandemic challenges

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Posted at 6:16 AM, Mar 07, 2022

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - The newest employee at Tofu House on El Cajon Boulevard, near San Diego State University, can't take an order or refill a drink. Still, it's helping the restaurant overcome many of the hardships brought on by the pandemic.

"When I'm thinking about doing business, I try to apply as much technology as possible," says owner Tony Nguyen.

That's why he added the DAASH XL Robot. It has four trays and can carry up to 80 pounds of food from the kitchen to the tables.

"With the robot carrying out the food, now the only task the staff needs to do is put the food on the table," Nguyen says. "It takes one or two seconds and gives them time to take care of other tables as well."

Nguyen rents the robot for $600 per month. That's far less than what he'd pay one minimum-wage employee. He says adding the robot helped him overcome the labor shortage, as he struggled to hire when the restaurant reopened last year.

"It never calls in sick, never takes a day off. It works fine every day," Nguyen says.

Even if all of his human servers call in sick, Nguyen says Tofu House can stay open by letting the robot run food and having customers get it off the tray.

He says the savings also help him put more money towards his marketing budget, and it allows him to keep prices down for his food.

Nguyen says he'll never fully replace his employees with a robot. He still needs humans as cooks and to take orders and interact with customers. But he realizes embracing technology is the future of the business.

"Right now, automation is a priority," says Nguyen.

That's the message from SDSU Professor Ira Vouk. She wrote the book "Hospitality 2.0," and she says the service industry needs to evolve to survive.

"Technology is not a foe. It's a friend," says Vouk. "There is so much that (it) can do to increase customer satisfaction and to help these businesses become more efficient, more effective, and more profitable."

Vouk says the hospitality industry has traditionally been more "high touch" than "high tech," preferring personal interaction between employees and customers. But, she points out people are more tech-savvy than ever, and they're used to seeing technology in every aspect of their lives.

"It's in your pocket. It's on your desk. It's in your home. You talk to Google. You talk to Siri. You talk to Alexa," she says. "The customers are now much more trained to have a positive attitude towards these technologies that they're seeing in these in hotels, restaurants, and others."

She also says it can be a good marketing move for businesses ahead of the curve.

Nguyen says his sales have increased since adding the robot, as people have come to the restaurant to see it in action.

"While they're eating, they see the robot run around and deliver the food to another table. It's kind of a unique experience," he says.

A handful of other restaurants around San Diego have similar robots. Vouk and Nguyen believe more will find a balance between human and digital employees.

To help people feel more comfortable with the robot, Nguyen is holding a contest to pick a name. He says he'll give a gift card to whoever comes up with the best one.