During a normal April, the owners of the Island Grill would already have a stack of applications to wade through in preparation for the busy Jersey Shore summer. But as the pandemic has waned and business has returned, the applicants haven't lined up. Here in Ocean City, there just aren't enough hands to serve coconut shrimp, quesadillas, and clam chowder in a family-friendly setting.
So Allison Yoa, one of the grill's owners, hired Peanut the robot, an autonomous machine that shuttles back and forth from the kitchen delivering food and bussing dirty dishes. It looks like a rolling bookshelf, with four trays, a touchscreen, and an upward-facing infrared camera that scans markings on the ceiling in order to navigate. Peanut uses lidar to detect and evade obstacles in its way. "If the object is immovable and she can't go around, she will say, 'Excuse me,' and she does get a little testy," Yoa says with a laugh. "Children love it. Most people that come in think it's really cool."
Peanut has unwittingly rolled into an unprecedented labor market. There have been plenty of anecdotal accounts of restaurant and bar owners, in particular, not being able to hire. (One McDonald's offered iPhones to new employees who stayed for six months.) People may not be comfortable working in public spaces yet, or aren't fully vaccinated, or are still trying to sort out childcare. "It's not a job replacement," Yoa stresses about turning to robotic help. "We people that own small businesses, we're in trouble right now."
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