Sawatdee, the Upper Midwest's first Thai restaurant that's now in its second generation of family ownership, now appears to be the first restaurant in Minnesota to put robots in the dining room.

And they're called DeeDee.

Sawatdee owners say that with the tight labor market, DeeDee provides extra help when they really need it and that staff and customers love watching the robots, which started work last week at the Minneapolis and Maple Grove location of the Thai restaurant.

"I thought, why not? I'm having a really hard time getting staff. It's not a bad idea getting extra staff," said Cyndy Harrison, co-owner and daughter of the restaurant's founder, Supenn Harrison.

Or, in this case, robots.

"Because we didn't have enough people, we wanted to allow staff to not have so much burden," said Harrison, "to not have them run around so much."

DeeDee is the first known robotic food runner and busser operating in a Minnesota restaurant and is designed for repetitive runs to and from the kitchen. That allows Sawatdee staff to focus on customers.

It's the latest wave of automation for the restaurant business, coming after ordering on iPads and viewing menus on cellphones became common during the pandemic. Now faced with more difficulties hiring staff, restaurants nationwide are turning to robotic food runners.

The DeeDee robots are made by Bear Robotics of Redwood City, Calif., and they may lead restaurants to trim some jobs in the dining room. "It can eliminate one or two, depending on the size of a restaurant," said Jim Livingston, a Bear Robotics vice president, "but the reality today is it's not eliminating people because they can't find people,"

Servers could benefit by robots doing their kitchen runs by ultimately getting more tables, more time with their customers, and, therefore, more tips, he said. One thousand of the company's robots have been rolled out.

In Minnesota, the hospitality and leisure industry has been hiring but remains down 40,000 workers, or 14%, from February 2020, according to Hospitality Minnesota, a trade group.

Data released earlier this month by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) showed that the state unemployment rate last month ticked down one-tenth of a percent to 3.8%. Meanwhile, DEED noted that wages of restaurants and bars workers have been above $16 an hour for the last four months, unprecedented growth in the low-wage sector.

Most restaurants lease the DeeDee robots from Bear Robotics for $33 a day, or about $4 an hour, for an eight-hour day. An equivalent staff member — if she could find them — would cost $12 an hour plus benefits and other costs, said Harrison.

The California company's field team programs each robot with a map of a restaurant's layout. A kitchen staffer can hit a table number, press go, or even multiple tables in a row, with the robot making stops at each before returning to the kitchen. The robot is programed to stop and wait when a customer walks in front or pulls out a chair.

Two Minnesota senior living centers' dining rooms are about to get their first robots, Livingston said. He expects robots serving food and drinks to become commonplace not only in restaurants, but also casinos, hotels, and event receptions where they may stop for 30 seconds at a time at premapped stations so attendees can pick up hors d'oeuvres.

Sawatdee locations never before had a runner to help expedite food delivery, human or otherwise, Harrison said. With the DeeDees, she said servers now have more time to answer questions and take customer orders.

"She's very helpful when it's really busy because there can be a lot of food in the kitchen that needs to get out and she can help get the food out faster," Harrison said.