For Avanti's owner, using a hospitality robot to seat guests is a last-ditch effort to bridge staffing shortfalls
If you head to the Avanti's on North Knoxville Avenue, you may be seated not by a human, but a robot.
Avanti's CEO Stefan Zeller said the Peoria mainstay is trying out a hospitality robot manufactured by Peoria's Pringle Robotics.
Videos of the hosting robot began circulating on social media earlier this month, showing employees loading up the machine with menus and utensils before it guides patrons to their tables.
"We simply are doing this as a pilot and to see how it goes," Zeller said. "And fortunately, we've had more positive responses. Especially from children, because they just love it."
But Zeller said his Italian eatery wouldn't be using the robots at all — if he could find people to fill the role.
"We pay very competitive wages out there," said Zeller, noting he starts out employees with no experience at a dollar above minimum wage, and employees with experience at higher rates.
Zeller said he's still short-handed, despite rolling out paid vacations for part-time employees — and paying half of his employees' health care premiums for medical, dental, and vision care. He said he's also tried to be flexible with employees who show up late, particularly single parents who are struggling to find child care.
"And so, we're just at a loss as to what else we can do," said Zeller.
He said many applicants never show up for job interviews. Or those who do, many fall off the map before completing the onboarding or training. It's an issue he says most of his colleagues in the central Illinois restaurant business also are facing as employers across the region and country continue to grapple with recruitment and retention challenges.
"Everyone is facing the same thing. They have the same problem at Caterpillar. They have the same at OSF. All restaurants," Zeller said. "It's really horrible out there right now to try to find people to do the functions that we need to in order to provide good guest service."
The Avanti's locations on North Knoxville and in East Peoria are closed on Mondays due to staff shortages. The Rockwood and Pekin locations are closed on Tuesdays for the same reason. The Avanti's dining room at the West Main location is currently closed for remodeling.
Zeller said the robot is serving as an assistant to help out when only one or two hosts are on duty to seat guests, rather than the three or four he'd rather have working per shift.
"If, or when, we are able to recruit more people for these positions, we are more than happy to get rid of the robot," Zeller said. "Because, again, nothing takes the place of a human being or that human interaction."