At the new Sake Japanese Fusion restaurant at Summit Mall in Fairlawn, a cute little robot host named Peanut with a blue shirt and hat works in tandem with a human host, welcoming diners and showing them to their seats.
“Welcome to Sake Japanese Fusion,” Peanut says. After leading guests to their tables, he says: “Destination has arrived. Enjoy your meal.”
The host robot, who holds a screen above his head showing appetizing images of menu items, is the most human-like of the five robots that owners Tiffany and Leo Chen have purchased due to restaurant staffing difficulties plaguing the industry.
The four server robots are sleek, mostly black machines with flashing blue eyes, white sides and four levels of trays on which they carry food to customers’ tables.
The owners have invested nearly $20,000 in each of the five robots, which they ordered from Shanghai, China. When the restaurant opens Monday without being at full staff due to the current restaurant labor shortage, the robots can be part of the solution, Tiffany Chen said.
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When the restaurant gets busy, the little blue-and-white host robot, who has his own charging station around the corner from the host station, will help the most.
“If this robot can just help with seating these people, it saves my host a lot of time,” including freeing its human counterpart to answer the phone, Tiffany Chen said.
Another robot with a door in front will carry to-go bags to customers picking up food at the front of the restaurant. The robots are programmed so they won’t run into people and their voices can be customized.
Listening to them, they seem to take their jobs quite seriously.
“I’m not lazy. I’m just looking for a way. Just let me pass,” said a server robot whose path was blocked by two people Thursday, including Tiffany Chen. “I’m just a little Peanut. Pretty and smart. I’m in a hurry.”
The robots, who all go by the brand name Peanut, also can sing a happy birthday song to customers. On Thursday, a server robot sped off after delivering a Volcano Roll to a table of diners, saying, “La, la la, la la. I’m an expert.”
The server robot brought the food to the table and human server Katie Cox of Wadsworth set in on the table for the diners.
“Basically, it’s like a food runner without hands to give it to them,” said Cox, 18.
On Thursday, chef Leo Chen was busily training kitchen staff in preparing sushi and Japanese entrees. Tiffany Chen said the restaurant, which needs four servers, has two full-time and one part-time servers so far. Sake Japanese Fusion has been hiring for cashier/host, chef, dishwashers and bussers.
“It’s hard but … slowly we do get some people,” Tiffany Chen said.
“We have the robot helpers,” she said. “It can probably work as like a half-person, like a food runner or something, or just help us entertain the customers.”
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According to National Restaurant Association research released May 6, the rebuilding of the restaurant and food service workforce is being hampered by the most severe labor shortage on record. As of April, eating and drinking places were 794,000 jobs — or 6.4% — below their pre-pandemic employment levels.
April was the fifth consecutive month of slowing job growth in the restaurant industry, with the net gain of 43,800 jobs being the smallest monthly increase since December 2020, when the industry cut more than 356,000 positions. In the six-month period between October 2021 and March 2022, unfilled job openings in the hospitality sector exceeded total hires by an average of 500,000 each month, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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Tiffany Chen said restaurants are using robots in New York City and large cities in California and Florida. She believes Sake Japanese Fusion is the first restaurant in Ohio to use both host and server robots.
The Chens, who also own Boiling House in downtown Akron, saw business change dramatically there during the pandemic, with the family-owned restaurant switching from dine-in to mostly takeout business for dinner only.
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Boiling House, which opened three years ago, offers seafood boils and sushi rolls. The Chens, who are originally from China, formerly owned Boiling Crab Seafood on Romig Road that also served sushi and other Japanese entrees.
Tiffany Chen said not many people are dining downtown and staffing was a problem at the Boiling House, which is run by Leo’s parents and brother.
“You really can’t find any very reliable staff to work. It’s very sad,” she said.
Now, the Chens are opening their large new restaurant at Summit Mall, where they hope to get ample walk-in traffic from the mall. They also live nearby.
Sake Japanese Fusion features expansive Japanese menu
The 7,700-square-foot space formerly housed the Bravo restaurant. Sake Japanese Fusion seats a total of 288 diners inside and outside, on the front patio.
The restaurant is offering seafood boils, including salmon, cod, snow crab legs, clams, black mussels and lobster. But its larger emphasis is on expanded Japanese offerings.
“On top of that we just have more traditional Japanese, like Japanese grill, and more sushi options,” Tiffany Chen said.
One of the traditional offerings is teppanyaki grill, with meats and seafood cooked on the restaurant’s flat charcoal grill and topped with Cajun or teriyaki sauce. The large sushi menu includes sushi bar entrees, sushi and sashimi a la carte, and cooked or uncooked special sushi rolls.
Deep-fried special rolls include the Volcano Roll with tuna, crab, cucumber and caviar as well as the Butterfly Roll with salmon and avocado, with lump crab on top.
Sake Japanese Fusion has been waiting for more than four months for its liquor license, which it doesn’t have yet. In the future, the restaurant will offer multiple sake options.
The Chens, who acquired the restaurant space in January, replaced the previous restaurant floor with porcelain tile, polished the big granite bar and repaired, repainted and reupholstered some booths. They also added decorative Japanese accents, including an image of Mount Fuji looming behind a blossoming cherry tree above the bar, and a set of Japanese samurai swords.
Arts and restaurant writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or [email protected]
About Sake Japanese Fusion
Restaurant: Sake Japanese Fusion
Where: 3265 W. Market St., Fairlawn, at Summit Mall
When: Opening Monday
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
Online ordering? Yes; first online order 10% off