The Lincoln Court Retirement Community recently welcomed a new employee to its dining room staff that will never need to call in sick or come in late and will be able to work 12 hours straight without issue every day.
Servi the robot was brought to the retirement home to help answer staffing shortages the facility has faced since the pandemic, said Lincoln Court Executive Director Matthew Johnson. The robot, developed by California-based Bear Robotics, is one of two robots of its kind in Idaho, with another one being used in Boise.
“Robots themselves are pretty rad, but using them in a place like Lincoln Court where the average resident is 80 — there’s something so cool about it,” Johnson said.
Servi assists the dining room staff by taking orders to tables and carrying heavy items, which allows the limited dining room staff to focus on other tasks, said Lincoln Court Dining Room Supervisor Torry Aguirre.
Staffing issues have plagued nearly every industry since the pandemic began, and care facilities have taken a significant hit. Aguirre joined the staff at Lincoln Court in October 2020 to help out his mother who is working as the facility’s executive chef.
“That’s why I came on board,” Aguirre said. “She was so short-handed and I know how to help run a kitchen.”
Staffing levels have improved recently, but all the help from humans and now a machine has a significant impact at Lincoln Court, Aguirre said. Servi runs about half of the plates from the kitchen to tables, he said.
While there have been fewer staff members than what the retirement home has traditionally had, that hasn’t prevented employees from meeting the needs of its residents, Johnson said. Some employees have had to work extra shifts and acquiring the robot was a way to ease some of the additional pressure staff have faced.
The robot was acquired after Frances Showa, Stellar Senior Living national director of culinary operations, saw the problem with a lack of servers working at Stellar facilities, including Lincoln Court.
Stellar Senior Living manages several properties in western U.S. states including Idaho, Washington, Arizona, Utah, California, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.
Servi was programmed by an employee from Bear Robotics who mapped out the dining room so Servi could determine the routes it needed to take to get to a specific table, Johnson said. Additionally, it has weight sensors and can detect when a person has taken a plate off of the tray it carries signaling it to return to the kitchen.
The robot travels quietly so it plays music to alert residents that it may be nearby when it’s out of their sight. Johnson said staff and residents have tested the robot by intentionally stepping in front of it, blocking its path to see how it would respond. Servi simply stops and waits for the path to clear or goes around whatever may be blocking it. With its audio capabilities, it can also wish someone a happy birthday.
Johnson said Servi robots cost about $40,000 although Lincoln Court has a lease agreement of $900 per month for three years plus the initial security deposit.
Johnson said Lincoln Court management hopes to expand Servi’s capabilities in the future, allowing to deliver supplies to specific rooms for medical purposes.
Service robots developed by Bear Robotics have been used by various U.S. restaurants and retirement homes in recent years. The company was first launched in 2017 and started mass producing Servi robots in 2020, according to its website.
A June 2019 report from Oxford Economics, a worldwide adviser to corporate, financial and government decision-makers, predicts 20 million robots will be used globally by 2030. The report also predicts existing business models in many sectors will be disrupted and millions of existing jobs will be lost, with up 20 million manufacturing jobs predicted to be replaced by 2030 as well.
Showa said Servi is not intended to replace any staff members and many residents were skeptical of it at first. Its presence is an additional benefit for current staff and allows for orders to be sent to dining room guests more quickly.
“I think they thought we were taking away someone’s job but that’s not the case. We’re enhancing the labor,” Showa said. “Once they understood that, the residents thought it was the coolest thing ever and the staff love their robot too.”
Among the residents who initially were wary of Servi was Sandy Thompson, 75, who said the robot had a rough first day and she saw it looping in circles, unsure of where to go. Another resident, Bill Miller, 89, said Servi dropped his order, which required the dining room staff to make him a new order.
“I thought it had some kinks that needed to be worked,” Thompson said. “But after the first day it’s worked perfectly.”
The residents have noticed the help Servi provides to the employees. Lincoln Court resident Sharon Salinas, 78, said the robot is a blessing for staff members.
“It takes a lot of pressure off the girls waiting tables to get everything delivered because those plates get really heavy and they’re carrying three or four at a time,” Salinas said.
Miller told Johnson the retirement home should hold a contest to give Servi a new name. Johnson said he liked the idea and management decided the contest winner would get a discount off their rent for the next month.