HOUSTON – As dean of the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership, Dennis Reynolds is constantly looking for the newest technologies and innovations to keep his program front and center on the world hospitality stage. His latest find is a state-of-the-art food service robot called “Servi,” now on duty in Eric’s Restaurant at the Hilton University of Houston.
“There’s a lot of buzz out there,” Reynolds says. “People are excited about it.”
Hilton College is the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Now, it’s the only college in the country, and the only restaurant in the city of Houston, using a robot to serve food. Servi gives the hotel’s restaurant a certain wow factor but, more importantly, it provides an opportunity for research that could help shape the future of the foodservice industry.
“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” Reynolds said. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”
Over the next few months, Reynolds and graduate student Melica Jahed will study how Servi affects the customer experience. Specifically, is the service better because the food was robotically delivered or do people prefer that personal touch that only a human server can provide?
“We want to evaluate what that difference is,” Jahed said. “We want to slice and dice the data to find out which age groups like the robot service better, what income groups prefer it, as well as other ways to measure those perceptions.”
Servi is a creation of Bear Robotics, a company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs to develop smart solutions that deliver memorable dining experiences. Reynolds saw Servi in action at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year and immediately saw an opportunity.
“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds said. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”
The robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October and was painstakingly prepared for service by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. The process involved a few weeks of mapping, programming and “test driving.”
“We created a digital map of the restaurant to let Servi know the pathways it could take and then designated service points, like table numbers,” Lucas said. “Then we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything.”
While some critics worry robots could one day replace humans in restaurants, Reynolds disagrees. He believes they will complement their human counterparts, while enhancing the customer experience and expanding the industry as a whole.
“This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds said. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”
The immediate response from employees has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The robot helps my workflow,” said Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s for nearly a year. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”
While the current focus is on the restaurant and research, for now, Reynolds is already eyeing other potential applications and learning opportunities for Servi throughout the hotel, such as room service and banquet services.
“The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds said. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”
The Servi project comes at an exciting time for Hilton College, which recently changed its name to “Global Hospitality Leadership” to better reflect its mission and impact on hospitality education around the world. Right now, the college’s hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation that includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower that is slated for completion in February. The new and improved student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a much larger space. And next door is the Eric’s Club Center for Student Success, a one-stop shop for recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services and career development.
“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” said Reynolds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”
Since its founding as the first hospitality school in Texas more than 50 years ago by hotel icon Conrad N. Hilton, the college has graduated nearly 10,000 students who work in hospitality leadership positions around the world. Lucas believes the consistent push to be at the forefront of innovation is what sets the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership apart.
“It is such a great opportunity for our students to be able to learn about these innovations in the classroom and then see the practical applications in our hotel,” said Lucas. “No one has ever worked with something like Servi before, so they’re all interested in seeing what value it brings to the restaurant experience.”
Jahed, who will soon join that long list of Hilton College alumni, agrees.
“We are being prepared for tomorrow’s industry at both the undergraduate and graduate levels,” said Jahed. “With this kind of exposure to the latest hospitality technology, as graduates of this program, we are better equipped to lead this global industry.”