Elizabeth can take you to your table, sing you happy birthday, show you restaurant promotions and do it in 50 languages. But “she” isn’t some wonder server — Elizabeth is a robot.
I Can Barbecue Korean Grill has had two robots in its three restaurants in Irvine, Santa Ana and Tustin for the past two months and plans to add more.
“The kids love it,” said I Can Barbecue owner John Ozbeck. “They are begging their parents to come here.”
Elizabeth and her coworker, Fatima, named by the restaurant’s human staff, are made by Tuff Robotics.
Kyle Dou started Tuff Robotics last year after seeing friends in the restaurant industry struggle with labor challenges and general lack of business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had friends in the industry and my parents had a restaurant growing up, so I was familiar with the business,” Dou said.
The robots are aimed to work alongside the human staff, saving them thousands of steps walking back and forth from the kitchen to tables over and over. Studies have found that servers walk at least 10,000 steps per day, and often do more, and can have an increased chance of arthritis or wrist pain from carrying plates.
Instead of the repetitive tasks, the servers can focus on speaking with customers (if the customers want that), upselling promotions or specials, and the overall service experience.
And then, of course, there’s the entertainment aspect. Tuff robots can sing, dance, speak multiple languages, guide customers to their tables, deliver food to up to three tables in one trip, and share restaurant promotions.
If a customer comes in, sits at their table and a QR code, they can order directly from their phone, get the robot to deliver their food and pay their bill on their phone without ever having to speak with a server.
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Augmenting human staff
The robots are subscription based, ranging from $800 to $1,200 a month per robot, far less expensive than hiring a human staff.
“They never get tired, they never get sick, they never skip work,” Ozbeck said. “Without the robot, I would have to hire two more people.”
They do, however, break down occasionally. TUFF has a 24-hour customer support service to their subscribers and most problems like software issues can be fixed remotely. Almost 100 percent of any issues they’ve had with the robot can be fixed with a quick restart without even having to contact TUFF, Ozbeck said.
With four hours of charging, they can work 12 to 15 hours and at I Can Barbecue, they make around 300 deliveries per day at each of the three locations, Dou said.
But Dou insists the robots aren’t meant to replace any human workforce. And he admits he’s faced a lot of hesitation from both restaurant owners and staff who can’t quit picture how a robot would fit into their operations but it just requires a bit of educating.
Ozbeck, however, had no hesitations.
“Six months or a year ago I saw these robots in Japan on social media,” Ozbeck said. “And I thought, ‘Why can’t I have that here.’”
He began searching around, going to tech shows, trying to find a robot serving to bring into his restaurant.
“The others are too narrow, too small,” Ozbeck said. Like at most Korean BBQ spots, the restaurant offers banchan, or various side dishes, that are complimentary. Ozbeck needed a robot that was wide enough to be able to carry multiple plates on a single tray.
California and Nevada have been the pilot states for rolling out the robots. Dou says he has a vision to go national and begin to incorporate more artificial intelligence technology to allow restaurants to integrate all their systems through the robots.
“Labor is high [in California], pay is high, the minimum wage is increasing. There is no better place to test,” Dou said.
A mutual friend introduced Dou and and Ozbeck two months ago and it was an almost instant marriage.
Ozbeck is able to capitalize early on the novelty of having the robot, incorporating that into his marketing, while Tuff Robotics can get industry feedback while still in the beginning stages of building the company.
An innovative eatery
I Can Barbecue’s first location in Irvine opened in 2018. Ozbeck, who is Turkish, knows it’s a bit weird that a Turkish guy owns a Korean BBQ spot. But for him, it’s just good business.
His father served in the Korean War and as a child he grew up with a love of Korean food and culture. He moved to Irvine 35 years ago and went to UC Irvine and has stayed in the area ever since eating a lot of Korean barbecue.
He’s always been tech-forward as well. One time he was in Vegas at a bar and noticed people were ordering food and playing games while at the bar. It made him wonder why K-bbq spots that have a bar don’t just put a grill right into the bar itself so he did it himself.
Now customers who may be dining alone can sit at the bar and still cook or those grabbing a drink to watch a game can order either their regular meat or halal meat.
The decision to make a halal meat menu was another innovation he brought to the restaurant.
“I’m Muslim and lots of friends were saying they want to come eat here, but they can’t,” Ozbeck said. “I would personally go buy halal meat just for them, but it just became too much.”
People who only eat halal were traveling from across the state to come to Ozbeck’s restaurant because they weren’t able to have a K-bbq experience like that anywhere else.
Ozbeck also owns OC Fish Grill in Irvine and plans to bring the robots there and as he expands Icanbbq to Moreno Valley in Riverside County.
“I have no doubt in a year they [the robots] will be all over the place,” Ozbeck said.
But until then, he is enjoying the perks of being a rare O.C. restaurant with a serving, dancing, singing robot.