Are robot servers the next frontier for replacing Bay Area restaurant workers? Not really.

On a recent sticky Sonoma County summer day, I slipped through the back door of a new Santa Rosa restaurant called Sushi Rosa, where the air inside was cool compared with the swelter outdoors. I was throwing on a sweatshirt when I was spotted, almost immediately, by an attentive server. […]

On a recent sticky Sonoma County summer day, I slipped through the back door of a new Santa Rosa restaurant called Sushi Rosa, where the air inside was cool compared with the swelter outdoors. I was throwing on a sweatshirt when I was spotted, almost immediately, by an attentive server. He was wearing all black and had an iPad slung over his shoulder like a purse. Smiling beneath his mask, he asked, “How many?” (“Just me.”) and where I’d like to sit. That’s when I awkwardly sputtered, “I want to see the robot.” 

Against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic, restaurants, once my happy place, have become too stressful for me to enjoy casually. I now need a reason to dine indoors, something I’ve done only a handful of times in recent months. Last week, that reason was a news blurb I’d read about a new downtown Santa Rosa restaurant where sushi is delivered by, yes, a robot. 

For nearly 20 years, the 4th Street location had been the home of Tex Wasabi’s, a sushi-barbecue mash-up that was among Guy Fieri’s early successes. Though Fieri had handed off the business a few years before, its connection to him and his roots in the North Bay remains. So I found it darkly amusing to think of Fieri, who is nothing if not intensively human, being replaced by a robot. Then again, Fieri is famous, in part, for his gimmicks and flamboyant persona, so perhaps Sushi Rosa was a worthy successor? Regardless, I wanted to see for myself. 

Once Guy Fieri's Tex Wasabi's, this Fourth Avenue storefront is now home to Sushi Rosa. 

Once Guy Fieri’s Tex Wasabi’s, this Fourth Avenue storefront is now home to Sushi Rosa. 

Freda Moon

As the granddaughter of a “domestic,” the daughter of a “waitress,” and someone who worked my way through school as what, by the late-1990s, was called a “server,” I have complicated feelings about service work. Twenty years after my final stint in food service, my most visceral memories of that time are of working alongside brilliant, take-no-prisoners women funding their law school tuition on tip money and of being grabbed and groped and talked down to by entitled customers for whom, in retrospect, I may as well have been a robot. 

It’s probably unsurprising, then, that I’m conflicted about the notion that restaurant workers might be replaceable by machines. 


The pandemic has led to an overdue conversation about service jobs in general, from the abuse that flight attendants are suffering to the inadequate pay and mistreatment of hotel workers to the myriad ways in which the restaurant industry is dysfunctional. There is now a shortage of workers for these roles and everyone seems to have an opinion about why. To me, it seems obvious. It’s physically grueling work that pays only reasonably well — and that’s during the best of times. 

On first glance, Sushi Rosa looks like a generic, if a bit oversized, middle America sushi restaurant-meets-sports bar. It’s familiar, unflashy and, were it not for the droid in the corner, not the kind of place I’d drive 60 miles to visit. But I grew up in the heyday of restaurant gimmickry, a time when the Chevy’s Rube Goldberg-esque tortilla machine and the conveyor belt sushi boats of San Francisco’s Japantown mall were true destinations — places my family went out of our way to visit again and again. 

Nigiri delivered via robot server. 

Nigiri delivered via robot server. 

Freda Moon

For better or worse, I have a real taste for culinary showmanship. I love watching food being prepared: the slapping of hand-pulled noodles, the spinning, dripping trompo of al pastor taco meat, the smoking, sizzling flash-bang of charcoal-fueled sumiyaki. But I’m equally enamored with a creative delivery: Dim sum carts zipping through a palatial dining room. A whole fish being deboned tableside on a beach in Zihuatanejo. Even the seemingly mundane Fresh Choice buffet bar of my childhood was delightful. My brother and I were given the same blank canvas of a plate and ended up with completely different meals. To us, it felt like art.

After my clumsy server request, I was relieved when Michael, the sole human manning the floor, seemed more amused than offended as he walked me to a bar-height table for two and handed me a menu — a glossy, spiral-bound encyclopedia of California-style Japanese food. 

Among Sushi Rosa’s multi-page offerings: the Aca roll, a $12 cylinder of rice stuffed with fried asparagus, cucumber and avocado, the Carburetor (shrimp and cucumber topped with crab, mango and avocado, $18), a “Pretty Woman Roll,” a “Red Bull Roll” and, in an unexpected nod to the Minnesota State Fair, some deep fried Oreos. There was plenty of cream cheese and macadamia nuts and mango, and the drink list included both sake and soju, root beer and Orange Crush, but no green tea. 

Glossy menu page after glossy menu page. 

Glossy menu page after glossy menu page. 

Freda Moon

Between the heat, the wildfire smoke and my creeping suspicion that Sushi Rosa’s sushi may not be the restaurant’s strength, I wasn’t all that hungry. When Michael came back around, I ordered a couple pair of nigiri and a hot sake. Then, as my order hung in the air between us, a robot awakened across the room. 

He’d been virtually invisible in the corner, stashed away alongside the sushi bar. But when he came alive everyone in my section stopped and stared. The robot server, who looked less like the humanoid robots of my imagination than a two-tiered plastic tray table with wheels and a black screen on its back, glided across the floor toward us. Silent, or seemingly so against the backdrop of classic earworms, our service droid was  a white food cart with a heart-shaped nose and cat-like whiskers. The robot server saddled up to my neighboring table, followed closely by Michael, who reminded me of the responsible kid trailing a drunk student around a party, making sure his friend is okay. 

Michael lends a hand to Jerry, his robot colleague. 

Michael lends a hand to Jerry, his robot colleague. 

Freda Moon

Whatever concern I had about restaurant workers’ livelihoods being undercut by machines was assuaged by the absolute ineptitude of Jerry (which is the robot’s name, as I later learned). Sweet, wildly incomptetent Jerry. 

In my imagination, Jerry was C-3PO. But in reality, he wasn’t an engaged personality so much as a conveyor belt-like delivery system. During these lean times of indoor dining, the sushi chefs and Michael seemed to be working hand-in-hand to help the machine, not vice versa. He was less a threat to server worker jobs — and commiserate pay — than an argument in their favor. 

From soju to sake to Orange Crush. 

From soju to sake to Orange Crush. 

Freda Moon

 

As I was leaving, having eaten four fine but in no way noteworthy nigiri, I said goodbye to Michael and asked, off-handedly, what it’s like working with a robot. I didn’t expect him to comment. It would be impolitic, I thought, to weigh in on a coworker with a customer. But Michael seemed eager for an opportunity for connection. 

“He helps us a lot — especially on a day like today, when it’s busy.” 

I resisted glancing around at the largely empty dining room. “It, he, helps keep the food fresh,” Michael added. 

The music on Sushi Rosa’s playlist is one elevator tune after the next, the kind of Temptations (“My Girl”) to Train (“Hey, Soul Sister”) to Bob Marley transition that can only really happen in a place that doesn’t think too deeply or take itself too seriously. 

I thought back on how, when my own plate of nigiri arrived, Michael was right behind Jerry, a helicopter parent to a toddler. “He’s still learning,” he said. “He may get a little close.” 

Then, when I realized I was missing chopsticks, Michael apologized. “I keep forgetting things today,” our eyes meeting above our masks. Our shared humanity felt like the elephant in the room. 

Here comes Jerry. 

Here comes Jerry. 

Freda Moon

 

Feeling as if I hadn’t gotten my fill of either Sushi Rosa’s sushi or Jerry’s hospitality, I returned the following afternoonday. Michael recognized me immediately and I was embarrassed for appearing two days in a row, the weird middle-aged woman with a thing for robots. 

But sitting at one of the high-top tables overlooking the bar, I watched a pre-teen kid in a “I paused my game to be here” t-shirt come in with his mom, scan the menu and leave. But not before walking over to where Jerry rested silently and saying, “Goodbye, Jerry!” 

Despite the promise of artificial intelligence, Santa Rosa’s Sushi Rosa was much closer, as restaurant gimmicks go, to an early 1990s all-you-can-eat salad bar than the flame-throwing joys of Benihana. And maybe that’s OK. We don’t have to worry (yet) about the rise of robot servers. Instead we can be joyfully, childishly amused by them.
Jerry isn’t taking anyone’s job anytime soon. 

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