In this episode of Raising Tech, our host Amber Bardon sits down with Doug Lane at Bear Robotics to talk about the power of robotics in senior living food service and hospitality.
Learn how senior living communities are improving the resident and staff food service experience while creating efficiencies, reducing costs, and optimizing the human elements of hospitality.
Bear Robotics sets a new standard in robotics by empowering incredible dining experiences. This means they're committed to bridging better connections between servers and diners while building on the technology that makes it possible. By engineering better solutions, they’re eliminating the obstacles that stand in the way of excellent service while setting the pace for technological progress.
Raising Tech is powered by Parasol Alliance, The Strategic Planning & Full-Service IT Partner exclusively serving Senior Living Communities.
Welcome to Raising Tech, a podcast about all things technology in senior living. Today we have a special guest and I'm very excited to introduce Doug Lane, the territory manager for Wisconsin and Minnesota for Bear Robotics. Welcome to the show, Doug.Doug:
Yeah, thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.Amber:
So I have been doing speaking events at multiple leading age conferences in a lot of different states, and one of the topics I speak about is innovation in senior living and also resident technology. And robots are a topic that comes up all the time. And at all the presentations I've been doing, I've been asking for show of hands of who's using robots. I usually get a couple of people and then I ask who's using robots successfully? And out of all of the states I've been to, there's just a very small number of people that are using the robots successfully. So I am really excited to dig into this topic with you. I would love to talk about so many different aspects of , um, what are the opportunities with robots? What are the risks? What are the things to know? But before we dive into that, do you wanna give a little bit background on yourself and Bear Robotics as a company?Doug:
Sure, That'd be great. I,'ve been with Bear Robotics for about a year. We've been around since 2017. I have a background starting way back in, in media. I work for the Onion newspaper many, many years ago and dispensing fake information out to the world. But I, after the 2008 financial crisis, I spent a lot of time both in a main role, but also on the side in food service in some form . I ran , some restaurants. I did some bartending on the side while I was going through my professional career, but then I, I kind of ventured into running a distillery. I worked for Belter , on the beverage side, selling, you know, items, food service equipment and , custom things to the brewing and distilling industry. But that kind of led me down this weird path , um, to how I arrived at Bear Robotics . And we are a company that's really focused on experience in food service. So many of us come from the realm. A lot of us havea very good comprehension and understanding of technology, and we have minds that kind of think like that. But we still, a lot of us have really tangible experience in food service. So, you know, myself, I thought this was a really exciting opportunity because I know how the struggle goes both in traditional restaurants and senior living. They're dealing with the same realities, the same pain. And , um, you know, Bear was really focused and started by people from tech. So we have two of our co-founders that are former senior engineers at Google, but they also had dabbled in owning restaurants. And they were the kind of people like, Oh, I , I love food and drink. I should open a place myself. And, you know, they kind of stumbled into the reality of like, Oh, this is a lot harder than it looks. So they quickly realized how important front of house staff is, how you really hinge on the front of house to succeed. And when you're burdened by a lot of these repetitive tasks and a lot of these things that are not providing high value , high impact effect on your customers, then you're kind of straying from your goal of providing great service. So our whole mentality is we're trying to help people provide outstanding hospitality by automating repetitive tasks. And those repetitive tasks are things like running food from the kitchen out to the floor, or busing dishes back to the dish pit , or , you know, maybe , helping at the host stand guiding people to their tables or even roaming around on a patrol at events or parties , um, or singing Happy birthday. That's one thing that like staff really love to give up, You know , I was like, Oh, I can have the robot go sing for me. It's , some people are very sad to have to lose that. But, you know, our, our thought process has always been that we're not replacing front of house staff because they are the most important part of the equation, But we are trying to reprioritize them to more high impact roles where they're not doing this back and forth, running around when they're probably already understaffed and they're already overstressed. So we're trying to take some of the stress and some of the low level responsibilities off their hands so they can really focus on this high value stuff, which is interacting with other human beings. So when I'm out there, I'm, I'm selling our robots, but I'm really selling the thought and concept behind automation and robotics because there's a lot of fears that come from this reality. And we're , we're trying to quell those and say that, you know , we're trying to be a tool forefront of house staff. We're not trying to be a replacement. And that's really what I do out in the market, both in with restaurants, in , in the food service industry and , and a lot with senior living on the , in the same side there.Amber:
I feel like there's so many different applications for robotics. And when we talk about that, there's a lot of things that come to mind for me. I was recently at the Missouri leading age conference, and there was someone in the presentation audience who's , they're using robot pets, which I thought was very interesting. She said they're very creepy, but they are a big hit . They use them in their memory care area. I know there's also robotics out there for medication, personal assistance, cleaning, and then of course the big one food service. So is bear focused exclusively on the food service piece of it? And if so, do you know why that decision was made or if they thought about branching out to some of the other areas?Doug:
Yeah, I mean, our focus really is food service. We have done some sanitizing and , and cleaning , automation in South Korea where we manufacture our robots. But , I think it's a more specialty need overseas that we're not necessarily really focusing on here. There are so many realms we're automation or robotics are, are entering. And even in food service, I mean, there's back of house automation and robotics for cooking and, and some of those back of house tasks, but they're very invasive. They require either, you know, new build outs or really invasive rebuilds, the kitchens, and they're very expensive. Our thought is that we want something that can be put in place that is gonna cost less than a person or a new employee, because typically there's someone you , you can't even find. So we want this not to require this huge investment. We want individual independent restaurant owners and senior living operators to be able to afford to do this. We're not trying to rely on having this massive, you know , restaurant chain partnership or huge senior living partnership for someone to be able to get involved. I mean , we have independent operators that are running a robot, that one robot in a , in an individual place is making a huge i huge impact. So, you know, we see the opportunity, but I mean, there's so many areas you could focus on. It's, it's hard to, to focus on all those different facets. And, and so I think food service is where we come from. That's where our experience is, and that's really where we're trying to focus. We're trying to branch off and do other things like, you know, elevator operations so that we can do food service delivery , throughout the facility and do room service or, or even, you know , secure package delivery within the same robot. Those are some of the other robots that we're gonna be debuting later this year and early next year. But food services is our origin, and I think that's really always going to be our priority.Amber:
Okay . That makes sense. So can you walk me through, at a practical level, sort of from the beginning, first of all, to start off with, how does a community know if getting a food service robot is right for them ?Doug:
Sure. Well, we go through a , typically it starts with a, you know, we'll , we'll hop on a Zoom call and just say, let's, let's talk about this. Let's show some examples and reference points of, of different tasks that the robot can do. And some of its basic requirements to be able to operate effectively in a space and the impact that we think we might be able to make , current staffing situations, whether that's, you know, you're understaffed and you just don't have enough, or maybe we can help you reprioritize your staff so that you're more adequately covered throughout different times of the day. But when we get past the initial interest and kind of walk through , then we start to want to vet like, is this a good fit for the robot? So , is the facility logistically a good fit? You know , uh, is there enough access? Is there enough room for operation? Is there a willingness from the staff to accept a robot? I mean, oftentimes we may have a poor logistical fit, but if we have a , a site that is excited about having it, they'll make it work. Sometimes we'll have a great logistical fit, but we just don't get the right communication from the team on site to the staff to understand why it's there. And we, and we show up and we want to get started, and people kind of have this negative perception of what the job , what the robot is there to do. And a lot of times it's that human component that is the more difficult thing to overcome. We have not perfect fits for sites that the robot has an awesome impact at . And we've had really great sites that should have worked that didn't because we just never got past that, that resistance. And that's something that I really focus on on new deployments is that, you know, the biggest thing is gonna be people's willingness to use the robot and their acceptance of it, and the willingness to trust that it's going to be there to do its job so that they can pivot and do these more high value roles. So that's our, that's our biggest challenge. And that, and we still deal with, and that's part of the , I think, people's natural fear of change and, and different technologies coming to market, is that they, they want to know that they're safe and secure, and they wanna know that, you know, this new technology's not there to take their jobs.Amber:
Can you talk a little bit more about the logistical fit? What are the requirements , that need to be in place in order for the robot, in order for the robot to work effectively? And from a technical standpoint, what is the robot working off of? Does it work off of wifi ? How does that all work? Can you explain that piece?Doug:
Well, we do want a good wifi connection, but the robot doesn't need that wifi connection to operate. It's really more for, if we wanna remote in to provide support on the fly, or to be able to pull data for, you know, daily usage reports, things like that. If we wanna run a software update, that's where we wanna have a good , uh, wifi connection. But , um, you know, let's say WiFi's down for the day, the robot owns that map of the space. It, it possesses all its knowledge that it needs to operate. So, you know, we'll have places with spotty wifi or , or tough signals if, if we can't get a good signal or maybe we're blocked by the network, we'll put our own networking kit in so that we can provide our own wifi access to the robot. But it's really more for those support components. The things that we really look for are, are the , the simplest things for humans to , to get past. So like clean floors, transitions, you know, even flat floors and doorway access. So is the robot going to be able to get in and out of the kitchen or past a secured door? If there's a door there, are you willing to have it open , uh, so that the robot can pass through it? We've been developing a door spring that the robot can talk to and communicate with so that when it approaches an obstacle, it can open on its own. But it's been going through a lot of beta testing. It's not available in the market. We've seen places that have put in motion sensor doors that don't work integrating with the robot, but they work, they activate as the robot approaches and they open. And we see , uh, facilities that have gotten by with just that. We also see places that say, I'm willing to prop the door open during meal service to let the robot pass in , in and out. And we sometimes will have a place that says, I , we can't have the door open, but they really want it to work, and they still have a long stretch from the kitchen to the dining room. So they might have their expo point where they load the robot up with food, be right outside the kitchen door. So there's different solutions. We tend to find that places that want to make it work, they will absolutely make it work. And places that are more hesitant and kind of questioning the decision before we even get there, that's where we typically have to deal with more of the human factor of getting past resistance. And sometimes we show up and we still have that barrier, and sometimes we win that war, and then sometimes we don't. And we're still in this early phase that we're getting past that people are still learning about how this technology can be effective and helpful. So, you know, I think as it becomes more widespread, we're gonna have less of that learning curve and there's gonna be more willingness to do so. But you know, a lot of places you go and you see the robot and these are first interaction with it, and you want that to be a good interaction and a good experience.Amber:
I know a really hot topic right now is wins in staff efficiency, and how can we look to robotics as a solution to solve some of the staffing challenges? Can you talk a little bit about what you've seen out there in senior living communities from this perspective?Doug:
Yeah. Well, when we are successful, we tend to see two different effects. One initial thing we've seen a lot is when places are understaffed and people are just having to provide patchwork coverage, we see an immediate impact. When, when things are going well, we see an immediate drop in overtime spending because we tend to find that they need less coverage to cover every single shift so they can start to spread out their labor a little more evenly. And that's the kind of initial effect we, we search for, especially if we just find staff being really overwhelmed. The next thing is just kind of the more intelligent placing of staff. We, we like to think that, you know, if you're understaffed and you're constantly looking for that next person, that maybe if se comes on board , that next person isn't needed. And so instead of, we're not really getting rid of anyone, but maybe just lessening the need for the next person, still, we, we still will find places that still are understaffed, but maybe we're just taking some of the stress out of the room. But I think initially it's gonna be the, the overtime is a , a kind of good indicator that we're having a good effect . But from there, it's more the, the trust that the robot is gonna be helpful. Hey, maybe we can staff one less person during lunchtime because we know the workflow is less and we can reprioritize that person to breakfast or dinner. We also find that the thing that is less tangible, and it happens on both sides, it's the stress we take out of the room for the staff, where it's like they just don't have to do so much running around. We're we're taking some burden off of their bodies and we're taking some stress off of their minds, but also the impact we have on quality of service for the residents. So, you know, one of the things that's really hard to measure is that like, Hey, we know that we're saving money on labor. That's awesome. You know, and that's an efficiency where it's very tangible. But what is the effect we're having on the residents daily life? And are we impacting meal time ? Which is a huge time for a lot of people when it's like they're out of the rooms, they , they get to engage and socialize. We want that time to be a good experience because that, you know , that really trickles into the rest of their day and the rest of their life. So sometimes the less tangible thing is, the thing that we, we find has the bigger impact is like, people are happier both on the staff side and the residents side, and there's less stress and, you know, there's, there's less complaining from, from both the recipients and the workers. That's where we're trying to get, But there takes trust to get to that point. And it takes the trusting the robot's gonna do its job, that management feels okay with reprioritizing, staffing, things like that. But when it happens, it's really beautiful because there's a financial impact, there's a , you know, this mental impact on everyone. And that's, that's our goal.Amber:
Did you say it's name is Servi ?Doug:
Servi is the robot's name, but we find that almost everywhere, and we encourage it that everyone names their robot. So cervi is our name for the robot, but one of the first things we do when we get on site is say, you know, survey's part of your team now we want, you know, make it, humanize it a little bit. Make it actually part of your team. So we'll see. Sometimes staffs will have contests to name it . A lot of times residents will be involved in naming it, but we see a lot of, you know, Ros and, you know, old references from, you know , uh, things like the Jetsons and things like that. But we've , um, we see a lot of creativity and naming. We really encourage it, you know, we want places to make it their own.Amber:
Yeah, actually that , I think I did have somebody tell me a story about how they had a contest to name the robot, and I don't remember what the name they came up with now .Doug:
That's , that's a very, very common situation.Amber:
Yeah. So tell me what the experience is like for a resident in the community if they're sitting down to a meal. What interaction, what's the experience like from their perspective with servi or whatever they decided to name it?Doug:
Well, you know, we used to think that kids would get the biggest kick out of the robot because it's just like, it , it can be really cool to see it in action for the first time, but by far, senior living is the place that like, I think residents are in the most of it because it's, it's actually the future happening before their eyes of going from, you know, seeing this ascent of technology to now seeing robotics in auto automation happening in the front of us. You know, we've had robots working behind the scenes in a lot of roles, but this is actually robots working in front of human beings. So the residents usually really enjoy it, and especially if service is getting better for them, it's, it's really tough to argue that, you know, why they wouldn't like it. It's really more times the staff that we need to have more convincing with when it turns in into their interaction with it. You know, sometimes we'll have a restaurant where at lunch they make it really busy and they may say , we're gonna have se pull up to a table directly. We, we always want a server to be the one handling the service side of things when the robot gets there. But, you know, a restaurant might say , we're gonna let the robot pull up and ask the guests to grab their own food. That's something that is hardly ever a situation. We, we have happening in a senior living environment where , you know, we're expecting a resident to be grabbing their own food or things like that. So in terms of what the robot's doing and interacting with them, it's pretty, it's pretty quiet. There's not a lot of direct engagement. I think having the robots sing happy birthday is one thing where it's actually something that's done directly to the guest and resident, But aside from that, you know, they're , they see these little robots zipping around their space, and hopefully they're seeing service get faster, and they're , and their front of house staff and servers being present more often and just having a general positive impact on service. So there's not a lot of direct interaction, but aside from seeing them cruising around and waiting for them to get by and navigating the space andavoiding, you know, running into anyone, but, so I think they're entertained by it, but they're never really having to directly engage with the robots.Amber:
So I know that robots and robotics is still a really new concept. There's still challenges and struggles to get even the basic food service robot into communities. But I'm curious, what is Bear Robotics looking at for the future? What do you see are the opportunities of what can be done once this becomes more common?Doug:
I think in the , in the near term, we're just, a lot of these leaps are made on the software side where it's like we have smoother operations, smarter navigation, we're advancing the technology with the existing robot. Then we have, you know, new models down the line where they're able to do more, whether it's, you know, se lift one of our new models that we're running in South Korea right now, it's a secure delivery robot that has enclosed doors. It can call an elevator electronically without touch, It can hop on, communicate with the elevator to what floor wants to go to get off, go to it's destination, ping the recipient with, you know, a phone call or a text or an alert, and then it provides them the opportunity to access the robot securely and then it can go back to its home and do it again. And it's able to travel across multiple floors of large buildings. That's one of the next things that we're gonna be debuting, ideally, hopefully before the end of the year and some, some test sites in the US and then more nationwide next year, we've also got higher capacity robots that are able to, you know, carry more, handle bigger obstacles. You know, I think down the line, we want absolutely being able to open doors on our own, get past small things like, you know, thresholds that normal wheels wouldn't be able to go or someday , you know, navigating stairs, going outside. But I think food service being the kind of thing that you want humans on the , on the end of, we're still trying to remain a tool for them. You know, we're not trying to turn this into a human looking Android, that's all a sudden walking out to the space and interacting because we're not trying to replace that human interaction. But I think in the near term, it's, you know, we're, we're just smoothing out the technology, making it function better. And then in the more long term we're, we're gaining, you know , new functionalities and the ability to interact with people directly. And, you know, if you're patrolling around a party, maybe you can make eye contact with you and, and can pause and, and take physical cues from you as to when you're ready to pass. And , but that's the evolution, the technology and those are things that we're working on every day . A lot of these things are very small and incremental, and over time you may not even notice as something is new. But you know, in over the course of six months, the robot is much smarter. It can and it can operate more effectively.Amber:
Is there any information you can share around the ROI and cost part of the robot?Doug:
Sure. One thing that's unique to senior living is that , you know, in a restaurant you have this tip component that it's not really defined, but we know it's there. And because of that, a lot of restaurants are , are able to pay their staff less because there's this other component. Now, there's certain states, like in California , tip server still gets $15 an hour. So it's, it's very easy to argue how a robot that maybe costs two to $4 an hour, if you don't have to hire another server, there's a lot of savings that you can, you can latch onto with just by not bringing that additional person on. Now in senior living , you know, there's rarely is there a tip environment where you're able to, let's say in Wisconsin, you can pay a server 2 33 an hour. That's not something that's happening in senior living. We tend to see between 15 and $20 an hour starting for, for servers , uh, in front of house and senior living. And if you're looking at a robot that costs maybe , let's say a thousand dollars a month, you're looking at, you know, around 30 some dollars a day. You know, if it's working throughout the day, you're looking at a couple dollars an hour depending on how much they're working. And you're also not limited by things like overtime or sick days. And so, you know, we look at it as like, you're getting this tool. You know, you look at like the dishwasher when the au the automatic dishwasher was put into the kitchen, it didn't replace the dishwasher, it made their job easier. But you're getting this tool that's extremely reliable is that, you know , it works 12 hours a day every day. It's always there. It doesn't call in sick, and it does so at the fraction of a cost of a human being. So if it removes the need for that additional body that you might be paying $20 an hour and you're coming in looking at paying it $3 an hour just broken down based off its monthly costs , then we're immediately showing labor savings. But then, you know, I pivot back to what I said earlier about the effect it has on quality of service and de-stressing an environment. Those are the other things that are, they're hard to measure with numerically, but they also have an equal importance in , in the value it provides on the floor. But I mean, just as a cost comparison, you're looking at a fraction on the cost of what it would take to bring on a new employee, and then also to train them and to replace them and to go through that process over and over. And we do find that, you know, when the robot is in place and it's having a good impact and people like it, we find turnover is reduced. We find that, you know, you're not having to go through those struggle much because people's jobs are easier and their , their environment's better. So we see a financial impact, but we also see that emotional, you know , stress reducing impact that I think is just as important.Amber:
Doug, is there anything else you would like our listeners to know before we wrap up?Doug:
I mean, on the resident side, I think it's more, it's more exciting because I think when it, when they get that experience to see the robot in , in action, it's not intimidating. It's a , it's pretty innocuous. They, they tend to quickly find out that this is , uh, a technology that's serving a purpose to make their lives better. But for anyone that's on the receiving end potentially of working alongside one or thinking about bringing one into their facility, I, I think it's important to suspend judgment and to give it a chance because the environment and industry that we're all operating in is, is for forever altered. And there is so much stress out there of trying to fill these roles. And food service, I , in its nature, is very stressful. And this is a tool that can really help people, and it can help people's stress, It can help just the burdens that we can take off of their hands. I really encourage people, even if they're, they're not necessarily thinking about bringing it on board , but to at least open their minds to the thoughts of automation and robotics and how they can have impacts. Because we're, we're trying to take away some of these repetitive kind of menial tasks and let people focus on high value work. And, and that is really our goal. It's not a replacement. We just want people to know that, you know, we're, we're , we're trying to provide a solution that's really meant to help.Amber:
This is such a great topic. Thank you so much for joining us today and sharing all this information. I think it's something our listeners will really enjoy diving into a little bit more.Doug:
Yeah. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.Amber:
Thank you to everyone for joining us for this month's episode. You can find us online at our website, parasolalliance.com. Feel free to reach out if you have a topic you'd like to see or you'd like to be featured on a feature episode. And thank you for listening.