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Chili’s is pausing its test of server robots

The chain said it was halting certain projects that lacked a clear ROI and shifting its focus to other forms of technology instead.
Rita the robot
Chili's added Rita the robot to about 50 restaurants this spring. / Photograph courtesy of Chili's Grill & Bar

Chili’s Grill & Bar is pressing pause on Rita the robot.

The casual-dining chain, which has been testing robots to seat guests and run food in some of its restaurants, is halting the program as it intensifies its focus on improving sales and traffic.

New CEO Kevin Hochman said the company recently laid out all of the technology projects it’s been working on and evaluated each on two variables: Its ability to drive sales and profits and the time and effort it would require to pull off.

Rita apparently did not meet executives’ expectations for one or both of those categories.

“The robotics project we’re pausing right now,” Hochman told analysts during Brinker International’s fiscal fourth quarter earnings call Wednesday morning. 

“We're going to stop some of those projects that we just didn't have a line of sight to a return on the business,” he said. “But we're going to double down and accelerate the ones that we think will have a more meaningful impact on restaurant margins and a quicker impact on our business.”

In a statement, Brinker said that some of the 61 Chili's with a Rita will continue to use it, but that it will hold off on introducing the bot to any new locations.

Chili’s has been testing the robots, manufactured by Bear Robotics, for the better part of two years. Its goal was to make workers’ jobs easier and improve the guest experience. An initial rollout at 10 restaurants proved successful, and the chain in April said it would bring Rita to 51 additional locations that month.

It was encouraged by the fact that employees seemed to like the bots: In the initial test, Chili’s found that staff were increasingly using Rita to help out with various tasks. 

But the chain will instead shift its tech investment to other areas that it believes will have more of an immediate impact on profits and productivity. 

It’s going to accelerate a so-called Kitchen of the Future 3 initiative, which involves new equipment designed to speed up cook times and table turns, Hochman said. It’s also looking at its kitchen display systems for ways to improve order flow in the back of house.

And it’s considering tech that would allow customers to seat themselves and order and pay on their own. “This would make it easier for the guest and reduce how much time our team members have to do those tasks for our guests today,” Hochman said. 

The shift is part of a broader reset at Chili’s under Hochman, who replaced retiring former chief Wyman Roberts in June amid a challenging time for the casual-dining giant. Sales were virtually flat year over year in Chili’s most recent quarter, and traffic fell as lower-income customers pulled back on spending, executives said. 

In response, Hochman on Wednesday unveiled a series of “interventions” designed to bolster business. They include a reduction of discounting, operational changes and an 8% price hike.

Rita will not be part of that strategy, at least for now. It’s a setback for restaurant robots, which have been gaining traction for months as operators look for ways to ease staffing challenges. With robots in more than 60 restaurants, Chili’s had become one of the largest chains to use that form of automation.

Its decision to pause the test suggests that while the robots may have been impactful, a wider rollout is not the best use of its resources right now. It lends some credence to comments from McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski last month. Robots, he told analysts, are good at “garnering headlines,” but “it’s not practical in the vast majority of restaurants.”

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