Tech bosses in South Korea wary of competing with cheap Chinese robot waiters

5,000 server robots already roam restaurants in South Korea but local tech leaders are complaining that the market is dominated by overseas companies, mostly based in China.

It’s not really a surprise that waiter robots are popular in South Korea, a country where consistently low – the lowest in the world – birth rates have ignited labor shortages. Besides, many diners prefer contactless service in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thus, restaurateurs have been exchanging human staff for server robots that can ferry dishes to and from the tables. They only need to be paid for once, after all.

For example, No Brand Burger, a fast-food chain in South Korea, is using robots to take orders, prepare food, and bring meals out to diners.

Customers order and pay via touchscreen – their request is sent to the kitchen where a cooking machine heats up the buns and patties. When the meal is ready, human workers add toppings to the burger.

According to the Korean Association of Robot Industry, around 5,000 such robots were operating in Korean restaurants in 2022, up 67% from 2021. This year, the number will probably double, Financial Times reports.

The problem, at least in the eyes of South Korea’s domestic robotics industry leaders, is that the government programmes designed to encourage the adoption of robots do not favor their own.

In other words, the country where the robot is made does not matter. This means that China can offer robots that might be priced as much as a fifth cheaper than Korean ones, and cost between $7,000 and $22,000.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese manufacturers produced north of 70% of the robots active in South Korea in 2023. What’s more, the quality is not actually lower.

The market for service robots in South Korea is expected to almost double its sales from $530mn this year to $1bn in 2026. But local companies worry that the government is not willing to offer meaningful subsidies. Besides, Seoul doesn’t impose tariffs on imported Chinese robots – unlike the United States, for example.

It’s easy to forget, though, that the server robots are still taking over from humans, and the labor shortages could be more easily solved if business owners simply paid their workers more.

In the US, a robot server costs around $15,000 to buy while a human server costs between $5,000 and $6,000 a month, and takes days off, one restaurant owner in Michigan told South China Morning Post.

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