As Staffing Shortages Persist, CT Restaurants Look for Solutions

A New London restaurant is having a difficult time hiring. Their solution? A team of robot servers.

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Gulshan Soni is preparing to open his New London restaurant in less than two weeks and, like many restaurant owners in Connecticut, he is having a difficult time hiring.

"We are posting everywhere and we are not getting the people here," said Soni. "We are offering $13-15 per hour plus tips and nobody wants to come."

Soni is not alone in his hiring struggles, but his solution is unique: robots.

When Soni opens his Shaking Crab New London restaurant in early October, he plans on having a team of robot servers working alongside a team of traditional waiters.

"It's a new technology. I am excited," said Soni, who believes his restaurant will be the first in Connecticut to use a team of robots. "They are taking the food to table number nine, which means my waiter can take the order for table number eight or seven. That really helps us."

Richtech Robotics

The robots will mainly be used to help servers deliver food to tables. Soni is planning on having five robots total, with some operating on a mapping system and others following a magnetic strip.

"He is being creative. The big word is pivoting and adapting," said Scott Dolch, who leads the Connecticut Restaurant Association.

According to Dolch, the restaurant industry in Connecticut is still short about 25,000 jobs compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

"To say we are out of the woods yet or in the pathway to recovery, we are not," said Dolch.

Dolch told NBC Connecticut that many restaurants in the state are still working with 60% of their normal staffing levels and it is affecting how some restaurants are operating.

The Shipwright's Daughter in Mystic is closed one day a week because of staffing challenges. They were also hoping to open for lunch and offer a full outdoor cafe, but they didn't have enough staff to do either this summer.

"This is an unprecedented labor shortage," said David Standridge, executive chef at The Shipwright's Daughter.

Standridge said they had hiring ads out all summer long, but even getting applications was difficult. He estimates that in the last month he received two applications for line cook.

"It used to be that it was a low-pay, high-work job. The pays have gotten a lot better and it is really a living wage at this point, but still no one is really interested in taking the job," said Standridge.

Increased labor costs and supply chain challenges are resulting in some higher menu prices, according to Standridge.

"Understanding why the prices are a little higher, because our cooks are making $4 more an hour than they used to," said Standridge. "These are things that are necessary to maintain the industry and if you want to experience great restaurants there needs to be some understanding."

People going out to eat in Connecticut might also see longer wait times at restaurants statewide or restaurants operating at a reduced capacity, according to Dolch.

"I just tell people to be patient, be respectful," said Dolch.

And then there are the more out-of-the-box solutions for restaurants. At the Shaking Crab New London, Soni said the robots are a huge investment. He hopes they help with their staffing challenge, while also drawing a crowd.

"It's a unique experience you are going to get here," said Soni.

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