Restaurant Roundup: Chili’s Rethinks Robo-Waiters; Taco Bell Dips Toe in Metaverse


It would seem that automation is no surefire solution to restaurants’ ongoing labor challenges. Casual dining chain Chili’s, for one, is halting at least one of its robotics tests, at least for the time being.

On a call with analysts Wednesday (Aug. 24), discussing the company’s fourth-quarter fiscal year 2022 financial results, Kevin Hochman, president and CEO of Brinker International and president of Chili’s, noted that the restaurant group has been reevaluating its tech initiatives, looking to balance potential profits with the cost of the investment.

“We made some strategic decisions to accelerate some projects and to stop other projects,” Hochman said, responding to a question on the company’s back- and front-of-house artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics tests. “So, the robotics project I think you’re probably referring to, we’re pausing right now.”

The company has since confirmed to multiple outlets that Brinker is pausing its test of Bear Robotics’ robotic server technology, with Chili’s dubbing its robo-hosts and robo-runners “Rita.”

“We recently paused the expansion of our Rita the Robot test,” a Brinker International spokesperson wrote in an email to PYMNTS. “While some of our 61 Rita-fied restaurants will continue using … in the coming months, we’re holding off on introducing any new Ritas to our other Chili’s locations.”

This move to reevaluate the company’s robotic efforts suggests a shift from Brinker’s view of innovation expressed in an interview with PYMNTS in April, which emphasized automation across all aspects of the business. Now, the company is turning more toward the back of house.

“We need automation on all fronts, whether it’s in the kitchen or in the dining room or through delivery,” Brinker International Senior Vice President and Head of Innovation Wade Allen said in the April interview, “so it is the heartbeat — the genesis, if you will — of everything that we do in the innovation department.”

Related: Chili Parent Brinker International Says Automation Is the ‘Heartbeat’ of Innovation

Now, the company spokesperson noted that Brinker is now looking at “more operations-focused innovation” as part of the company’s “Kitchen of the Future III initiative,” looking to speed up and simplify cooking processes and boost consistency.

Jacksonville State University Launches Robotic Dining Delivery

On the other hand, some establishments are just getting started on robotics. Jacksonville State University (JSU) in Jacksonville, Alabama announced Tuesday (Aug. 23) that it is working with robotic sidewalk delivery company Kiwibot and food and facilities management company Sodexo to enable semi-autonomous delivery to 20 drop-off locations across the university’s campus.

“This service allows students, faculty and staff to not only invest their time more productively, but also to merge into robotics,” John Tarin, head of global operations at Kiwibot, said in a statement. “It is an exciting endeavor for Kiwibot to be part of the JSU community and to help students get closer to the world of technology [and] robotics.”

Younger consumers, such as college and graduate school students, are significantly more likely than the overall population to order delivery, according to data from PYMNTS’ October study “The Digital Divide, Aggregators: The Cost of Convenience,” created in collaboration with Paytronix.

Read the report: The Cost of Convenience

The study, which drew from a survey more than 2,200 U.S. adults about their food ordering behavior, found that 57% of gen Zers had ordered from a food delivery aggregator in the previous 15 months, while only 42% of the overall population said the same. Similarly, 24% of Generation Z consumers had done so in the prior three months, compared to 17% of the population.

Taco Bell Dips Its Toe in the Waters of the Metaverse

As quick-service restaurant (QSR) chain Wendy’s goes all-in on the metaverse, Yum Brands-owned Mexican-style QSR chain Taco Bell is entering the space slower. On Thursday (Aug. 25), the company announced a limited-time offer (LTO) for couples to apply for a metaverse wedding package, a cyberspace ceremony with music, food, toasts and more in virtual world Decentraland.

The promotion, which is comprised of a one-off event that just one couple will win, suggests that the taco chain is starting small with its metaverse efforts, perhaps gauging interest and honing its capabilities.

“We’re always looking for new ways to meet our fans where they already are and provide them with signature Taco Bell experiences … even when that’s in the metaverse,” Taco Bell Chief Brand Officer Sean Tresvant said in a statement.

In March, Taco Bell filed trademark applications for virtual food and beverages, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), virtual restaurants and more, as United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) licensed trademark attorney Mike Kondoudis pointed out in a tweet.

In early August, per the USPTO site, the taco chain filed an application for this wedding event, with the filing including provisions for “an online virtual event venue,” for “hosting events within an online virtual event venue,” for “providing an online virtual event venue for wedding ceremonies,” and more.