Staff Shortge peanut  (1).JPG

Island Grill’s newest employee, Peanut, in action. 

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OCEAN CITY – A new staff member at Island Grill Restaurant has drawn an exceptional amount of interest. Standing a few feet tall, with a cheery, chirping voice, “Peanut” will work day and night, bringing plates out from the kitchen.  

Many shore businesses face a severe employee shortage this year, even with hourly wages climbing. Peanut, a food service robot from Richtech Robotics, will not complain about the hours, gossip with co-workers, or expect a tip.

According to Andrew Yoa, who has owned the restaurant for 25 years, Peanut is unique on the East Coast. The restaurant has had it for about a month and it is now in service. 

Usually, the Island Grill would have been open seven days a week since Mother’s Day, but this year, the opening was delayed for lack of staff.

“We just didn’t have enough people to open up this week,” he said.

Since an announcement from the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce was made, Yoa said he has been flooded with calls from television news and other outlets. He has also seen some complaints posted to social media about another example of jobs lost to high-tech automation.

“Look, I’m leasing her,” he said. 

If he’s able to get enough staff members, it will be returned.

Peanut stands a little over 4 feet high, with four trays, a screen at the top, and wheels. Yoa put almost unnoticeable stickers on the restaurant’s ceiling that allows the robot to know where it is in the restaurant, and it constantly scans in front, as it moves to avoid chairs, relocated tables, or the possibility of bumping any shins.

The series of robots is known as the Matradee. It can be programmed to take orders and deliver the food, Yoa said, but he did not want to go that far. 

Human staff members take orders and deliverfood at Island Grill, while Peanut serves more like a self-motivated waitress tray stand, carrying plates from the kitchen and parking at the correct spot near the table.

It later returns the empty plates.

“It just means the wait staff never come in the kitchen,” Yoa said.

So far, he said, Peanut is working well.

“The last couple of weekends, we’ve had one server on this side of the dining room and one server over there. That’s it,” Yoa said. 

The restaurant is divided down the middle. A brightly colored mural by Ocean City artist Aaron Bogushefsky dominates one wall, depicting a busy scene of the downtown above and below the waves.  

Yoa said staff from Richtech have been extremely supportive. Someone was set to fly out May 17 to install more advanced programs.

“She’s probably 90%, 92% accurate,” he said. 

Occasionally, when things get busy, it will have an issue. It's not really a problem, he said, and nothing the customers would even notice.

“We’re like, ‘Why is she doing this?’ or ‘why is this happening?’ It’s just like your laptop. Why is the laptop so slow today?” Yoa said.

He, like many who work with the robot, calls it "she.” It does not look feminine, but has a girl’s voice, used to speak several prepared phrases.

“Your meal has been prepared at a rapid speed. Please take it away carefully,” it says, in a chirpy tone.

Later, it says: “Don’t be obsessed with me too much. I’m busy now.”

Yoa said customers are interested in it, and children especially enjoy watching it move among the tables.

“The kids all love it,” he said.

He did not name it Peanut. He said it introduces itself that way.

The company, with offices in Las Vegas, Nevada and Austin, Texas, says the robots can work 12-hour shifts without an issue. Peanut will reportedly take the place of three workers.

The cost is one of the selling points.

“Matradee is designed with your business in mind. Automate your business, and save money on your employee budget,” reads the pitch on the company's website.

Yoa said the company gave him a discount, as the first restaurant in the region to embrace the new technology, but declined to say how much the lease cost.

“It wasn’t cheap,” he said.

Yoa welcomes new technology. In 2019, takeout was starting to grow as a portion of the business, so he launched a computer integrated system for online ordering.

“Then, when everything hit, we were like, whew, glad we did that,” he said. 

It was always part of the business, he said, but due to the pandemic, all restaurants became takeout restaurants. In 2019, he said, it was about 30% of the business. For 2020, it was a lifeline, and the customer preference still leans toward taking meals away, even with outdoor dining available.

“We’re still doing 60% takeout,” Yoa said.

Yoa is the head chef and runs the kitchen, while his wife, Allison, manages the front. Other Yoa family members pitch in, making it a generational operation. 

The seafood and steakhouse is located at 100 Atlantic Ave. 

“The pandemic has been difficult for our local businesses. It is exciting to see the forward-thinking ingenuity of our businesses. Island Grill Restaurant and the Yoa Family are staples in Ocean City, and we are happy they are finding unique ways to remain a prominent restaurant on the island,” stated Michele Gillian, executive director, Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, in a release. 

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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