Dallas Restaurant Hires Robots amid Worker Shortage — and Customers 'Love Them,' Owner Says

Taco Borga, owner of Latin American restaurant La Duni in Dallas, Texas, has brought on three new robots to help greet and serve guests — and doesn't plan on stopping there

Dallas Restaurant Hires Robots amid Worker Shortage
Photo: la Duni/instagram

Taco Borga found a unique way to handle the server shortage at his Texas restaurant once the spot began welcoming back indoor diners in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The longtime restauranteur — who owns and operates La Duni, a Latin American restaurant and bakery in Uptown Dallas — brought on three new workers over the summer to supplement the demand of his booming business.

They're efficient, reliable, and personable; able to work long hours without breaks, don't drop orders, and need very little training.

They're robots.

"I was nervous when I first heard about them," Borga tells PEOPLE of the machines, which are sold by Plano-based company American Robotech and made by China-based Pudu Robotics. "We found out about them in June and I called the owner, Jackie Chen, and said, 'I heard you have robots. I'd like to see them.' What I didn't know is he'd show up with them here. Within 45 minutes, he had the entire dining room scanned and the robots programmed. They were moving around the space, carrying plates, working. We were in awe.

"Everyone was in love with them."

Borga, a 40-year industry vet, saw three of four of the five restaurants he owned shut down due to the pandemic.

La Duni, which Borga's wife began as a bakery before it morphed into a popular and acclaimed full-service restaurant, was the only one that survived. It had just celebrated its 20th anniversary when the pandemic hit.

Like many restaurants, the business successfully transitioned into takeout and delivery. But when dining rooms started reopening after the record-breaking winter storm in February that paralyzed Dallas for a week, Borga suddenly had an influx of customers on his hands — and no one to serve them.

"People were tired of staying at home and they all came out in droves," he recalls. "This was an overnight stampede of diners that we were not prepared to serve. We were 40% higher than our best year. We were doing double the business than we had the year before the pandemic. And we didn't have the staff."

"We were in a bind," Borga says. "You either close sections of the restaurant and don't serve everybody, or you overwhelm and overwork the staff you have and then they quit. Either way, it was a problem."

Staffing, in fact, had been a struggle for Borga long before the pandemic.

"The last 5, 10 years, it was just getting worse and worse and worse," he says. "Before the pandemic, we would get ten applications a month if we were lucky. The last year and a half, we got one."

"You don't realize if you've never done it before, but serving is a very taxing job," he adds. "You are constantly moving around on your feet, taking orders, running food, carrying heavy trays, going back and forth to the kitchen — two, three, four, five tables at a time. That takes a toll on your body, Those activities are not simulating mentally and emotionally, but you have to do them. And you have to stay happy for the customers the whole time while you're doing them. At the end of the day, it doesn't motivate employees. They are extremely under-appreciated. We needed to come up with systems to help the staff who still want to work in hospitality and do a good job."

The robots wound up being the perfect solution for Borga. Named Alexcita, Panchita and Coqueta, the three devices glide around the restaurant, carrying food and drinks to tables with ease.

One is even a host assistant, welcoming guests and taking them to the table so managers and assistant managers — who would typically do that role — can focus on their jobs.

They all have personality, too. "They interact with people, they react when you touch them, they tell jokes — it really humanizes them and breaks the perception people have coming in. Yes, they're really just tablets on wheels that carry things back and forth. But these interactive features have allowed customers to completely embrace them."

"We get the occasional person who might complain, but that's 1 out of 1,000. Everyone else, they love them. When you see the face of a 9-month-old baby who can't walk but they can press a button and see the robot light up? And they giggle and they smile and everyone at the table is filled with joy? Then you see this things has legs. Not just because they fulfill a basic service, but because they make the customers happy too."

Most importantly, productivity is up, which is why the devices — which cost between $4,000 and $16,000, depending on their functionality — were well worth the investment in Borga's eyes.

"The average server will spend 70% of their time bringing things to the table," Borga says. "That person can do anywhere from 60-80 trips a shift to all the table. Multiple that by 2, 3 minutes for trips, that's nearly 3 hours, just doing busy work. But a robot, it can carry up to 8 dishes to a table at once — and bring those same dishes to the dishwasher, which is another massive chore — in half the time."

"This makes the whole process 100 times more efficient," he continues. "One server can mange 20 tables instead of 3. The tips skyrocket, because they're working more tables. It's a win/win for both.

Servers are now free to do what they were hired to do, Borga says: actually provide customer service.

"Before what they were doing, that was not really customer service; that's just things you have to do. It really defeats the purpose of what service is about," he explains. "All these tasks that are repetitive and mindless should not be given to humans. If you talk to most servers, they'll say they're treated like robots anyway!"

"The server now is doing customer service activities," Borga points out. "They have more time to talk, more time to interact. They don't have to run to the next table. They don't have to rush you. They are there to breathe, talk to you, know you, ask you how your kids are doing, thank you for coming — things you can't take the luxury of doing when you're in a high volume environment. It makes the more experience even more human.

"Time is the most valuable thing we have. If we cannot invest it in the true meaning of service, then we are the robots."

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Borga is no stranger to blazing trails in the restaurant industry. One of his former concepts, ZuZu Handmade Mexican Food, is credited with coining the term "fast casual" — something that has become popularized thanks to places like Chipotle, QDOBA, Dig Inn, and more.

He'll keep innovating with his current robots, programming them next to automate the ordering process.

And he doesn't plan on stopping with just 3 robots, either. "The next frontier is the bar, to have robotic equipment that will do coffees and drinks. Those already exist, we're just implementing them to support our bar staff."

After that, he'll try to see if robots cane help in the kitchen — a job he calls "the most gruesome in the industry."

Ultimately, Borga calls the hiring of the robots into his restaurant "a no brainer."

And as for those who worry jobs are being replaced by machines, Borga simply asks, "How can you replace something that doesn't exist?"

"Who are we replacing? The people weren't there," he points out. "They're not being replaced by WALL-E. The task is being reassigned, not the person. The people are still needed. Their jobs just got a whole lot easier."

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