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Robot food servers on job in S. Korea

Devices cut down on human interaction by JUNG YOON KIM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | September 20, 2020 at 2:23 a.m.
In this Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020 photo, an employee places a takeout bag with food at a robot at No Brand Burger in Seoul, South Korea. These robotic services have been seen as a selling point amid the coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

SEOUL, South Korea -- A burger shop in the South Korean capital is a bit different from typical fast-food restaurants: Its key workers are robots.

From order to pickup, customers don't need a single face-to-face interaction. All they need to do is to click the menu they want on a kiosk touch screen, pay and wait for a serving robot to deliver their takeout bag to the pickup spot.

While waiting for their food, customers take photos or stare with curiosity at the capsule-shaped robots, reminiscent of the popular minions characters from the animated film "Despicable Me." The yellow and black accent colors of the No Brand Burger restaurant also give the place the look of a toy shop.

"This is the first time I've actually seen such robots, so they are really amazing and fun," said Shin Hyun Soo, a 31-year-old office worker trying out the service.

The restaurant's human manager, Bae Eunyoung, explained the process: When a customer orders at the kiosk, it is automatically sent to the kitchen. There, an automated cooking machine kicks in and heats the buns and patties.

The human workers do have a role to play, Bae explained, adding toppings to the cooked ingredients before wrapping them and passing them over to a robot to serve.

"The customer can take the food without any direct contact with the staff," Bae said.

That's been seen as a selling point in the coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions.

Before it eased them earlier this month, South Korea had for the past few weeks allowed restaurants to provide only deliveries and takeout meals after 9 p.m. and franchised coffee shops like Starbucks to provide only takeout drinks.

The number of new reported coronavirus cases in South Korea almost doubled from 56 to 103 over two days in mid-August and continued to spike until it reached a peak of 441 daily cases on August 26. Since then the resurgence has slowed down but still climbs by at least 100 each day.

In August, takeout orders accounted for 58% of No Brand Burger's total sales, up by 16% from July, according to Shinsegae Food, the South Korean company that operates No Brand Burger.

No Brand Burger isn't the only local restaurant using robots to serve customers.

South Korea's major technology company KT has partnered with the family restaurant chain Mad for Garlic to provide serving robots.

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Using 3D space mapping and other technology, the robot can freely move through the narrow lanes between tables and avoid obstacles to reach its destination, said Lee Youngjin, team leader of AI Platform Business Team at KT.

The robot can serve up to four tables per trip.

"Children customers often like to see the robot. Also, customers in general feel it is fresher to receive their food through the robot because of the coronavirus," said Lee Young-ho, the manager of one Mad for Garlic restaurant using the robots.


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