Those expecting a glimpse at the animatronic overlords looming on the horizon might be disappointed; the robots are small white cubes large enough to convey a single dish. They arrive at your table, a glass window on top opens, and a cute voice tells you that your food is ready.
Externally, it doesn’t feel all that different to the more advanced Japanese sushi conveyor belts where customers order at screens embedded somewhere on the table. But the internal mechanics are far beyond that. Everything is done through the Hema app, the same one used to check-out in the supermarket itself*. You take a seat, scan a QR code and then order your food through an in-app menu. You can buy alcohol from the supermarket and can also select fresh fish which is taken straight into the kitchen to be prepared and then robotically shimmied to your table—in a process that takes less than 30 minutes.
In an interview with Yiyou, Hou Yi, the founder of Hema, noted that he’s automated 70% of the production line thus far. There are humans in the restaurant; there’s a greeter who explains the concept and guides you through the app if you have any issues. The only other humans are the cooks and cleaning staff; but Hou Yi already has plans to get rid of the latter. The former is trickier but not an insurmountable obstacle; he notes that some of the fish is already cooked by smart-microwaves.
The food is very fresh (most of the fish is alive when you select it) and the preparation, while hardly groundbreaking, is solid. The menu leans vaguely Fujianese or Cantonese; the non-fish dishes are various char-siu’s and there’s a small selection of dim-sum. It’s also not overly expensive: a large sashimi platter, two steam-baskets of dim-sum and a fresh coconut (opened by a machine, of course) came to ¥250.
The restaurant is impressive, if slightly gimmicky at the moment. It’s worth a trip to Nanxiang to get a glimpse at a potential future for restaurants in China; within 4 months of opening the restaurant has broken even; a combination of reduced labor costs and favorable rent in an out of the way location. Jing Dong has plans to open 1,000 robot restaurants throughout China by 2020. Hou Yi claims that once he’s cracked a few of the remaining issues in Nanxiang he’ll bring it to West Nanjing Road.
According to smartshanghai