Short on staff, Ocean City restaurant enlists a robot helper

OCEAN CITY, New Jersey (WPVI) -- The boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey is springing back to life after more than a year under lockdown.

"Vitamin D, the life, the people, the ocean, little things you take for granted while walking down the boardwalk," said Enrico Smith of Tuckerton.

"I think overall people just seem a little more happier and a little more relaxed," said Megan Coppock of Springfield.

But take a walk down the boardwalk and you will notice a lot of "help wanted" signs posted on storefronts.

"The staff that comes in during the daytime is working longer hours, more hours, and thank God the people that come to Ocean City are very patient," said Lorraine Coholan, assistant manager of the Original Fudge Kitchen.

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New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday that all students will be back to in-person learning in the fall.



Coholan explained many workers come from abroad and she is hoping more arrive in time for the summer rush.

"We have a lot of J-1 students that come in from Europe and unfortunately... the embassies weren't open so they couldn't come over," said Coholan. "We're hoping we get some J-1 students this year."

And the lack of workers is forcing some restaurant owners to get creative, like Andrew Yoa, owner of Island Grill Seafood and Steakhouse in Ocean City.

Yoa said before the pandemic, the restaurant had a staff of 87 serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. After serving only takeout in 2020, the restaurant is now short 65 employees. It is also closed for breakfast and lunch.

"I'm feeling very happy that we have the kitchen staff to be able to produce the food, now we just had to come up with an idea: how do we get it out to our customers?" said Yoa.

He leased a robot named "Peanut" to help employees.



"At 4 o'clock it is programmed - it goes into the kitchen, waits for our expediter to load it up with food and there are six buttons," explained Yoa. "We just push which table to go to and it just comes out and goes to its destination. Then the server will take the food off and hits a button to return and then Peanut goes all the way back into the kitchen."

Yoa said he has no intention of replacing employees with robots and will stop using the robot when he is fully staffed again.

On Wednesday, Governor Phil Murphy will continue easing pandemic restrictions, such as removing indoor and outdoor capacity limits for businesses.

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