AFFTON, Mo. – One Mexican restaurant chain in the St. Louis region is turning to some friendly helpers amid staffing shortages, and you probably won’t find them much elsewhere around town.
Las Fuentes operates four restaurants between St. Louis and Jefferson counties. By the end of the month, each of their locations is expected to have at least one robot helping with operations.
The robots, created on behalf Bear Robotics Inc. in California, are equipped to help Las Fuentes up to 12 hours a day. They are programmed to complete several tasks from delivering food to bussing tables.
Jorge Maya, co-owner of Las Fuentes, says the restaurants first started considering robots after the COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread labor shortages.
“We were struggling with help,” said Maya. “One day, we came up with this [concept] back at an expo in California. We thought it was a very good idea for helping employees bring some of our food out.”
The robots are currently two weeks into a trial run at the Las Fuentes locations in Affton and Oakville. It costs around $30 per day, or $2.75 per hour, to operate one. Maya says the robots are meant to complement staff at their restaurants, not take over the workforce.
“Whenever we use a robot, I wouldn’t say we’re saving the labor,” said Maya. “We’re only using it for helping our employees. I don’t personally see it as replacing people. I will say it does help you, but as far as replacing you, I don’t see that happening.”
Maya is hopeful the robots will help staff members connect with more face-to-face interactions, even when the restaurants are packed, by reducing some of their responsibilities.
“With the robot, it takes a little bit of the labor away,” says Maya. “So you can take care of more people and talk to more people. That way the [workers] don’t have to run the food and worry about that. They have time to talk to the customers and get to know each other.”
Supporters say robots can help ease staffing challenges by speeding up operations. The National Restaurant Association recently reported that 4 in 5 operators are understaffed, including 81% of full-service operators and 75% of limited-service operators. While the robots are mainly used for bussing and sending out food, Maya says it makes a big difference for his workers.
“It’s got all the features where it can bus tables, bring some dirty dishes back in the kitchen [and] bring back some food to the tables,” said Maya. “One of my waitresses was very happy about it because her hands hurt all of the time. She‘s been using it to send food out, come around and give the plates away.”
Maya says some customers are still warming up to the concept, but many are thrilled to see it. Children are currently involved in a contest to name the Affton robot, with “Tacobot” and “Rita” among the names in the running. The robots could also help customers celebrate big occasions.
“Right now, we’re having the robot look into bringing dessert for your birthday, and it’s going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you,” said Maya.
Maya says the robots could be a gamechanger for not only Las Fuentes, but other locally-owned restaurants.
“I love the new technology and I love trying new things,” said Maya. “Our group is big on investigating and anything that will help you enrich more people, make the job easier for employees and make better food every time. So far, it’s been a cool experience and I recommend it for everybody short of labor.”
For more information on Las Fuentes, including their locations and social media pages, click here.