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East Meets West: Robots Serving KFC in Shanghai

KFC’s adorable Du Mi are ready to take your order. (Photo credit: KFC)

If you’ve ever ordered Kentucky Fried Chicken and thought how much better it would be if you could just bypass the human interaction, then place your order in China. KFC, in partnership with Chinese search engine giant Baidu, has just opened the world’s first human-free fast food restaurant in Shanghai’s National Exhibition and Convention Center. The hope is that by keeping pace with emerging social and technological trends, KFC will capture the lucrative millennial market.  The Shanghai restaurant is like no other KFC on the planet.

The interior is designed in a traditional Chinese garden style with bamboo, flowers, and jade accents. Customers enter via a spacious circular courtyard. Most remarkable, however, are the restaurant’s workers:  small, pear-shaped robots named Du Mi, who take orders and process payments. Du Mi are a patron’s only interaction with restaurant staff. As such, the bots are designed to be cordial and engaging, while processing customers’ purchases. It is this kind of cutting-edge concept that has made KFC a runaway success in China. Yum Brands has 7,205 stores in China, and 5,019 of them are KFC franchises.

China has been staffing its restaurants with robotic servers for years, with mixed results. Still, they embrace the concept of robotic surrogates, and the Chinese media is on board, with coverage and promotion full of national pride, doing its job to attract attention.

The Shanghai weblog, Shanghaiist describing the fast food eatery in breathless terms: “The future is now! Just in the last month, China has introduced commercial jet packs, security robots, and hi-tech trash cans, all culminating in what promises to be the fast food restaurant of the future. You can get a taste of this glorious future by heading down to Shanghai’s National Exhibition and Convention Center. Inside you’ll find a KFC  restaurant, decorated in classical Chinese-style, but designed with the help of Baidu to be completely digital!”

Intent on capturing millennials, KFC has hired China’s pop music heartthrob Lu Han to costar in a video featuring their robot server Du Mi. (Photo credit: KFC)

This new concept store is called “Original+” (Original Plus). According to Joy Wat, CEO of KFC China, it “combines both the company’s Original Recipe chicken and innovative technologies.” The aim is to attract more young, hip customers to dine at China’s favorite fast food chain.

Chinese Internet powerhouse Sohu reports: “And when we say completely digital, we are talking about at least three aspects. The first, and the most noticeable right off the bat, is that your order will be taken by a voice-activated robot. Unfortunately named Dumi, [sic Du Mi] this is a sophisticated automaton, capable of handling order changes, but not the English language. Anyway, you can also make payments on your phone, using Alipay, Tenpay or Baidu Wallet, which is nice. And, finally, here’s where things get really far out, you can charge your phone without wires! If your phone is capable of wireless charging, you can place inside the charging area at your table, and then relax as you are serenaded by songs specially chosen by Baidu”

China has been staffing restaurants with robots for years, with automatons capable of everything from making ramen to serving food. However, robots cannot wait tables as well as their human counterparts. Some restaurants have recently come to terms with the fact that when it comes to actually serving customers, humans still win the day. As adorable and charming as KFC’s little Du Mi bots may be, they still have a critical job to do, and some common, not-so-positive reactions are being expressed. As Shanghaiist suggests: “We just hope that Dumi [sic] improves his language skills before he’s kicked out into the cold.”



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