The Stockton restaurant Sugar Mediterranean Bistro has found an innovative way to address its shortage of workers – a robot that delivers meals to customers’ tables.
The restaurant started using a robot to deliver trays of food to customers earlier this year to free up its understaffed workers so that they can do more hands-on tasks and interact more with customers.
“I’m always looking for something… to make it easier, to help our employees and customers,” said owner Juan Alonso. “We do what we have to do to keep our doors open.” Sugar Mediterranean Bistro, located at 106028 Trinity Parkway, serves Mediterranean cuisine, kabobs, pita wraps, and pasta.
Juan opened the restaurant in November 2018. The business steadily grew up until Covid-19 restrictions forced him to temporarily close his doors in March 2020.
Alonso said the restaurant has struggled to find workers since fully reopening. In the past few weeks alone, they’ve had six people agree to an interview yet no one showed up.
The restaurant currently has four servers who greet customers, walk them to their table, and take orders. Before the pandemic, it employed between 8-10 servers. “Nobody wants to work right now,” Alonso said. “They don’t have the necessity to work.”
Alonso began looking for ways to help ease the burden on his staff.. When the idea came to him to purchase a robot designed to support restaurants, he started researching online. He eventually found a manufacturer in Las Vegas. After bringing the robot onboard, some customers expressed concern that it was replacing the jobs of human workers. But Alonso said the robot is used to compliment the servers and helps ease the burden of being short-staffed. “The robot isn’t taking anybody’s place,” he said. “It just helps with running the food.”
Fitted with four trays, the robot is programmed to transport dishes of food to tables and come back to the person who sent it. The robot identifies the correct table based on sensors attached to each table. All the operator has to do is push a button on the robot’s “map” and it will deliver the food to the table number selected. Once the customers grab their plate from the tray, they push a button confirming that they have their food. The robot then returns to the person who sent the robot. Alonso said the robot can transport up to six plates at a time. “We use it as much as we can so we can interact with the customers,” he said. “(The servers) love it. It’s very helpful. They serve the food and fix the drinks instead of running around carrying plates.” Alonso added: “The robots are there to help them, not to replace them. I don’t think they can replace humans.”
Due to its innovative approach, the restaurant has garnered national and international media coverage, including from outlets in Japan, Spain, and Australia.
Alonso said he feels pride as a Latino business owner who not only became one of the first restaurants in the country to incorporate robotic technology into its operations but also helped bring positive worldwide attention to the city of Stockton. The coverage has attracted customers from the Bay Area and as far away as Fresno. The extra attention comes at an opportune time for the establishment as it recently opened a tequila bar.
“They know now what Sugar Mediterranean Bistro is,” Alonso said. “Everybody is looking at Stockton now. We’re proud of that.”