As you first walk into the new branch of the famous hot pot restaurant Haidilao in Beijing, you could be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into a cinema rather than a restaurant.
A wall-length plasma screen, QR code games and an automatic reservation checker greet you – a world away from the traditional, steamy hot pot restaurants that anyone familiar with Chinese cuisine knows and loves.
The only indication that you're not in a fancy cinema is the unmistakable smell of hot pot and the myriad of interactive hot pot-themed games which you can play to pass the long waiting time, proving the branch's success since it opened in late October.
As soon as our number flashes up on the screen, we're lead through to a futuristic dining hall to our seat. The walls and ceiling of the restaurant are LED screens, displaying shooting stars, cherry blossom forests and romantic scenes of an old Chinese town. As stars whiz over your head and virtual blossom falls around you, it's not difficult to understand why this restaurant cost 150 million RMB (NZ$32 million) to build.
However, it's not the fancy screens that cost the money. This is the world's first smart hot pot restaurant, created by the Haidilao chain and Japanese company Panasonic Corp.
After picking your ingredients from an iPad, orders are sent through to the kitchen, where robotic arms pick out the correct items from a refrigerator and lay them out on a conveyor belt. From there, members of kitchen staff load them onto cute little AGV (automated guided vehicle) robots, which then scoot around the restaurant to deliver your order.
Adding to their charm, if a customer gets in the way of a robot, it is pre-programmed with phrases such as "Dear, would you mind moving aside, please? We can take selfies after work!" and "Would you mind moving aside, please? Or I'll get angry!"
By mid-2018, the hot pot chain had opened 341 outlets around the world and has no plans to stop there. This smart restaurant is just Haidilao's latest attempt to gain more attention, and therefore, more customers.
But are smart restaurants more than a gimmick?
According to Forbes, Haidilao plans to expand to as many as 5000 restaurants around the world in the future. Jun Yamashita, managing director of Ying Hai Holding Pte, the joint venture between Haidilao and Panasonic, told Bloomberg: "It could be difficult to expand to that size in terms of personnel, so Haidilao is shifting earlier to an operation that doesn't rely so much on manual labour. That's where Panasonic's technology comes in."
It isn't just Haidilao either, with many restaurants across China jumping on the bandwagon. For example, during the recent China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai, Alibaba implemented a number of AGV robots to serve food to customers in a smart restaurant at the event's venue. The Xcafe in Tianjin uses AGV robots during the entire process of ordering, cooking and serving food.
While robots serving food may air on the side of gimmickry, behind the scenes in the kitchen, robots and smart technology can make preparation safer by sensing when food may be about to go bad and ultimately eliminating the risk of contamination, making food scandals a thing of the past.
Although many people worry about the implications of what robot members of staff will mean for their human counterparts, Haidilao stresses that they have no plans to cut front-line service staff; they say they will always require people to help with the smart technology, as well as offer human service and interaction, which is something robots can't do.
Not quite yet, anyway.
Content sourced from the People's Daily Online here