ESTACADA, Ore. – Diners watched, bemused, as Plato approached their table. The three-and-a-half-foot-tall robot spun and paused, presenting them with their lunch. No one moved, unsure of what would come next, until a man in cowboy boots reached out and took his hamburger before passing another plate to his companions.
Then Plato rolled away, back to The Cazadero's kitchen.
"How was the experience?" a neighboring customer asked the group, leaning over his chair.
"Phenomenal," one woman answered, still looking a little confused.
But Plato, United Robotics Group's hospitality-oriented "cobiot," hasn't won over everyone in the timber town of Estacada, Oregon, highlighting the divide between businesses struggling to stay afloat and a customer base skeptical of change.
"I had no clue that people would literally not want to come to the restaurant because I had a robot," Cazadero owner Sherry Andrus told Fox News.
Andrus bought The Cazadero in 2018. Since then, Oregon's minimum wage has increased by nearly four dollars to $14.20 per hour. Food prices skyrocketed. And finding servers willing to commute to the small town approximately 45 minutes outside of Portland is so difficult that Andrus requests potential employees Google the address before applying.
"You already have a small pool to work from," she said. "That we're out in a rural area makes it even harder."
So Andrus flew to the Bar & Restaurant Expo in Las Vegas in March with the main purpose of exploring whether robots could take on some of the burden. She came home leasing Plato.
"I love robots and what they can do," she said with a wide smile. "I think they're kind of cute and kind of fun."
She posted on the business Facebook page and local community groups, excited to introduce Plato. But hundreds of angry comments poured in.
"I will never go there again," "NO THANK YOU," "Get rid of this we [live] in a small a–– town why in earth!?"
SEE PLATO IN ACTION AT THE CAZADERO:
Some community members defended Andrus.
"Y’all are insane," one woman wrote. "They’ve been hiring for months and everyone’s been complaining about the wait time here… Stop your commenting and go apply for the job if you’re so upset about it."
The administrator of one community page had to shut down comments because they got so mean, Andrus said.
"What was so frustrating is the misunderstanding that a AI is replacing people's jobs," she said. "The server positions, the bartender positions are still there. This is just a tool to help them do their job better and be more efficient for the guests."
In person, the response has been friendlier. Usually.
On a blisteringly hot July afternoon, a single employee manned the bar and rushed to get plates to tables as the lunch rush began. Her only reprieve was Plato, programmed to take plates of food from the kitchen to their destination for faster service when the restaurant is understaffed.
One man who looked to be in his 20s told the server in no uncertain terms that he did not want a robot serving his family. That's fine by Andrus, who said customers can absolutely request a "100% human" experience. But several of the bar's regulars love Plato.
"I say ‘Hi’ to him every time he comes by," Roy, a Vietnam-era veteran, told Fox News. He added with a grin, "I know he can't answer, but Mama told me to be polite."
Garrett said that when he left his job with a manufacturing firm, "they were replacing people with robots everywhere."
"That's just modern times," he said, adding that it's fun to see customers interact with Plato. "The little kids love him."
The Cazadero is one of about two dozen locations to deploy Plato so far. Small businesses have been early adopters of the cobiot, as United Robotics Group calls it.
"They have a staffing issue where maybe there's only one or two people working at the time, and this is gonna help them get food out a little bit quicker," Greg McEntyre of URG told Fox News.
Plato's shiny white exterior and cartoonish face stand in stark contrast with the Western-themed steakhouse. And with about 5,000 residents, Estacada is the smallest town to welcome the bionic bus boy.
The one outcome Andrus said broke her heart was seeing tips go down after Plato's introduction.
"Some servers have chosen not to use him for that, because this is their livelihood, and they rely on those tips, and they still provide the good customer service," she said.
Whether rural communities are ready for new technology or not, Andrus predicts that AI will be a key part of the restaurant industry going forward.
"We like being our little rural community, and they don't want to see new technology coming in," she said. "That being said, we are growing. We've doubled in size, and the people moving here are moving from the city."
She added, "As much as we might hate to say, we're changing our dynamic and our demographic, and you can't please everybody. I want to make everybody happy, but we definitely are a small town."
To see Plato in action, click here.
Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video.