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Roll out the robots: Peoria startup bringing automatons to area restaurants, hotels

Pringle Robotics has multiple models of robots for different needs. The "Ketty" BoT assists with deliveries and restaurant hosting.
Tim Shelley
Pringle Robotics has multiple models of robots for different needs. The "Ketty" BoT assists with deliveries and restaurant hosting.

A robotics start-up has taken root in an unassuming north Peoria office suite.

Pringle Robotics, 1605 W. Candletree Dr., started with complaints registered by customers of parent company Pringle Technologies, which sells restaurant software called Bistro Stack.

"As we were building that out and talking to our customers there, they let us know they were having problems with staffing shortages, and asked us to look into the problem and see what we could come up with," said Gerald Prall, director of sales for Pringle Robotics.

Waitstaff were making four or five trips to the kitchen per table due to staffing issues, Prall said. That was leading to an overall poorer customer experience, and employee burnout.

"That's when we started looking into this robotic technology, essentially self-driving car LIDAR technology, and thought, 'wow, this might be a solution here to take these non value-added tasks away from the people who do the complex the customer interaction, take that off their hands, and let them spend more time with customers,'" Prall said.

The robots use light to map out the environment around it, accounting for obstacles as they pop up in a changing setting.

Once it's scoped out an area, a user can designate certain points for deliveries, hosting, or food pickup.

Pringle Robotics director of sales Gerald Prall pets a "Ketty" delivery and hosting robot. It's programmed to interact with that tactile contact.
Tim Shelley
Pringle Robotics director of sales Gerald Prall pets a "Ketty" delivery and hosting robot. It's programmed to interact with that tactile contact.

The robots come equipped with trays. A "Ketty" delivery and hosting bot has a payload of about 30 pounds on three trays, while the heavier duty "Bella" can tout up to 80 pounds on its four smart trays. The robot can be interfaced with via a touchscreen operating on the Android platform not much different than the average smartphone.

The models are already in use around the country. In addition to restaurants in Michigan, Texas, Phoenix, and Atlanta, the Avanti's location in north Peoria recently began piloting a hosting robot to assist employees on tight staffing days.

The "Puductor" disinfection robot comes equipped with a 360 degree, medical-grade UVC disinfection light and ultrasonic dryer. It's currently used by the Par-A-Dice Hotel in East Peoria and Hickory Grove Elementary School in Dunlap, with plans to introduce them in gyms soon.

Robotic rollouts are also expected soon at the Northwoods Mall, where the automatons will serve a dual purpose as a customer escort and an advertising vehicle.

The robots run from the low four figures to mid-five figures in cost, depending on the model. Some are sold outright to customers, while others are leased on multi-year service agreements.

Automating jobs done by humans can come with some criticism. But Prall said that's not the goal with Pringle's robots. He said it's a tool to assist short-staffed employees on the job, not to take anyone's place.

"We've never had a case where a restaurant owner says 'hey, I want to replace somebody.' It's 'we don't have the staff. And my employees are burnt out. And my customers aren't getting the service that they need,'" Prall said. "Because at the end of the day, we like to say that the last mile was done by a human. So the BoT might take the food from the kitchen out to the table, but you need that human interaction still."

Prall said the Peoria area offers a deep potential talent pool with Bradley University, Illinois Central College, and the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

"We are looking to start programs at these local universities and hiring people out of college to begin to train them up in this new industry. Let them be part of something new. That gives us the talent that we need," Prall said.

The old saying about a product "playing in Peoria" making it viable elsewhere also applies here, Prall said.

"It allows a variety of different industries at different comfort levels with technology," he said. "So we're getting a lot of great feedback here, which just tells us that means it's going to play everywhere else."

Founded by entrepreneur Sudheer Sajja, Pringle Robotics has plans to expand in Peoria over the next two years. Prall said the startup company is in talks to purchase a Peoria campus and bring assembly of the robots in-house. That would create 50 to 60 new jobs.

But Prall said Pringle Robotics remains a software company at its core. They're currently working to sync up the disinfection robot with an air quality filter also made by the company, so it can be deployed to certain areas when needed. Another task is getting robots to "talk" to elevators so they can more easily travel between floors.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.