A striking illustration of a droid – wide-shouldered, clad in red armour and seated on a throne made of swords – welcomes guests walking into Robot, a restaurant on the outskirts of Chennai. Inside life doesn’t simply imitate art. It goes a step further. Three saree-clad robots move across the dimly-lit interiors, their movements precise, as they carry trays bearing Thai and Chinese food.

Robot, which opened in November 2017, is India’s first robot-themed restaurant that uses robots to serve food. It is owned and managed by friends Venkatesh Rajendran, a restaurateur, and Karthik Kannan, an architect. Rajendran was managing an eatery named Momo on the same premises before it was renovated, revamped and rebranded into Robot.

The restaurant borrows heavily from robot-themed Chinese and Japanese eateries. “People want to try something new and exciting every time they go out with their family,” said Kannan. A second outlet was recently opened in Coimbatore in July.

The droid illustration at the entrance of the restaurant.

China to Chennai

Kannan was fascinated with the growing trend of robots taking over Chinese eateries. He pitched the idea to Rajendran, who was equally intrigued. “I have seen these robots and thought why not bring this idea to India. He [Rajendran] had the experience of running a restaurant and I had the experience with architecture.” Kannan underwent a 15-day training programme in Chinese factories, from where he purchased the four robots.

At the Semmancheri restaurant, one of the white-and-blue robots, holding a tray of noodles, says, “your food is ready, take it yourself, have a nice day”, in a subdued, mechanical voice. The actual serving, though, is done by the waiter, who shadows the robot.

According to Rabin Limbu, the restaurant manager, the intent, unlike at similar restaurants around the world, was not to replace waiters with robots. Indeed, it is the waiters who operate the robots and control their movements using an app. Long magnet strips on the floor guide the machines around the restaurant.

“We have to follow the robot because most people will stop it to take pictures and that could make the food cold,” said Limbu. “But it depends on the customers. If everyone sits at the table, we will just let the robots go around and serve.”

Kannan says most customers prefer to be served their food. “The younger generation might like to pick it up themselves. But the older generation is yet to get used to that concept.” While three robots assist with the serving, the fourth serves as a model for customers to click selfies with.

The selfie robot.

Before opening Robot, Kannan, who also has a business of selling building supplies, visited factories in China and understood how the robots work and the problems that could occur in them. “We had a lot of issues with the robots and [the] motherboard malfunctioning,” he said. “A lot of parts had to be replaced. It has only been six or seven months since we started, and the four robots have given us problems. But [because of my] training I could work on them.”

Despite the snags, investing in the robots was a no-brainer for Kannan. “The costing is very economical,” he said. “The attraction pulls in customers.”

Future plans

Restaurants in several parts of the world are now using robot companions in the kitchens. A Bengaluru-based home kitchen robot is a recent addition to the list. Robot, though, does not plan to follow suit. “Indian food is different as we have a lot of masalas,” said Kannan. “We did think of that option [to use robots in the kitchen] but it is too much to start with, at least for now. We are currently in discussions with the Chinese factory officials about authorised sole distributorship to sell their robots across India. It could be for a pub, a coffee shop or any hospitality industry. In that case, we can just assemble the robots for people.”

The crowds that swarmed the restaurant during the initial days have been dwindling. Kannan says this is because the novelty has worn off. “Now it is more of an attraction for the kids,” he said. “When we opened in November, half of them [the crowd] did not even believe that we had actual robots. Some of them thought it would be humans in robot costumes. But now people know what it is about and they have seen everything they have to on social media.”

All photos by Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.