Deploy the robots: Startup Peoria brings robots to restaurants and hotels in the region

A robotics startup has taken root in a modest office suite in North Peoria.

Pringle Robotics, 1605 W. Candletree Dr., started with complaints from customers of parent company Pringle Technologies, which sells restaurant software called Bistro Stack.

“As we were developing this and talking to our clients there, they let us know they were having staffing shortage issues and asked us to look into the issue and see what we could come up with,” said said Gerald Prall, director of sales for Pringle Robotics.

Servers were making four or five trips to the kitchen per table due to staffing issues, Prall said. This was leading to an overall poorer customer experience and employee burnout.

“That’s when we started looking at this robotic technology, basically LIDAR technology for self-driving cars, and we thought, ‘wow, this might be a solution here to remove these worthless tasks added to the people who deal with the complex customer interaction, take that away from them and let them spend more time with customers,” Prall said.

The robots use light to map the environment around it, taking into account obstacles as they arise in a changing environment.

Once an area has been demarcated, a user can designate certain points for deliveries, lodging, or food pick-up.

Pringle Robotics Sales Manager Gerald Prall strokes a “Ketty” delivery and hosting robot. It is programmed to interact with this tactile contact.

The robots are equipped with trays. A “Ketty” delivery and hosting robot has a payload of around 30 pounds on three trays, while the heavier “Bella” can sell up to 80 pounds on its four smart trays. The robot can be interfaced through a touch screen running on the Android platform not much different from the average smartphone.

The models are already in use across the country. In addition to restaurants in Michigan, Texas, Phoenix and Atlanta, the Avanti’s location in North Peoria recently began piloting an accommodation robot to help employees on staff shortage days.

The “Puductor” disinfection robot is equipped with a 360 degree medical grade UVC disinfection lamp and an ultrasonic dryer. It is currently used by the Par-A-Dice Hotel in East Peoria and Hickory Grove Elementary School in Dunlap, with plans to introduce them to gymnasiums soon.

Robotic deployments are also expected soon at Northwoods Mall, where the robots will serve as both a customer escort and an advertising vehicle.

The robots range from the lowest four figures to the mid-five figure cost, depending on the model. Some are sold directly to customers, while others are leased under multi-year service agreements.

Automation of tasks performed by humans can come with some criticism. But Prall said that was not the purpose of Pringle’s robots. He said it’s a tool to help short-handed employees at work, not to take anyone’s place.

“We’ve never had a case where a restaurant owner said ‘hey, I want to replace someone’. It’s ‘we don’t have the staff. And my employees are exhausted. And my customers aren’t getting the service they need,” Prall said. “Because at the end of the day, we like to say the last mile was walked by a human. So the BoT can bring the food from the kitchen to the table, but you still need that human interaction.”

Prall said the Peoria area offers a large pool of potential talent with Bradley University, Illinois Central College and the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

“We are looking to start programs at these local universities and hire people fresh out of college to start training them in this new industry. Let them be part of something new. It gives us the talent we have need,” Pall said.

The old adage that a product “plays Peoria” making it viable elsewhere also applies here, Prall said.

“It allows a variety of different industries at different levels of comfort with technology,” he said. “So we’re getting a lot of good feedback here, which just tells us it’s going to play out everywhere else.”

Founded by entrepreneur Sudheer Sajja, Pringle Robotics plans to expand to Peoria over the next two years. Prall said the startup was in talks to buy a campus in Peoria and assemble the robots in-house. This would create 50 to 60 new jobs.

But Prall said Pringle Robotics remains a software company at its core. They are currently working to synchronize the disinfection robot with an air quality filter also manufactured by the company, so that it can be deployed in certain areas when needed. Another task is to make the robots “talk” to the elevators so that they can move between floors more easily.

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement