Would you eat ice-cream served by a robot? Australia’s first robot-operated ice-cream shop has opened, with automation the flavour of the moment.
The idea of opening Australia’s first ever robotic ice-cream shop was actually born in Seoul, South Korea. The husband and wife entrepreneurs Kate Orlova and Anton Morus were inspired by a robot entertaining a crowd in Seoul airport during a long haul stopover.
“It was late at night and no shops were open,” Kate remembers. “We saw this robot playing with sunglasses entertaining passengers and thought, why wouldn’t he serve food?”
When they returned to Australia Anton suggested Kate imagine an ice-cream store staffed by robots and to draw whatever came to mind.
“What happened next is magic,” says Kate. “We mailed our vision to the CEO of Kuka Robotics Australia and he loved it!”
Today, that thought bubble has taken shape in their futuristic store in Melbourne’s Federation Square, the Niska Robotic Ice Cream Bar.
The robots being as human-looking as possible is a key part of the design and customer experience. As such, the robots wear sleeves with cufflinks and even a bow-tie, and have endearing names: Pepper, Kuka and Thomas.
Pepper is the social robot and able to interact with humans. She takes orders and suggests customers follow the shop’s Instagram, while Thomas and Kuka do the hard work of scooping and serving.
“Ice-cream has been served by the robots before, but those were special occasions, events and so on, not commercially-viable projects like ours,” says Anton.
'Kicked to the curb"
Asked if several years ago they could have imagined opening a robot-operated hospitality business, the duo says no.
Kate and Anton arrived in Australia from Russia when neither was remotely connected to start-up business and or innovation projects such as this.
In Russia Anton was a lawyer and Kate was a biology scientist, and it was only after Kate was offered a PhD project in Australia they both decided to move to Down Under, where they were inspired to take some entrepreneurial risks.
“There were some pretty dire moments when we were kicked to the curb,” says Anton of his early experience in Australia.
“We had a baby to care for, we were in a foreign country. We had difficulty with our visas, we had business on our books and all our credit cards were emptied.”
Jump without parachute
The robotic ice-cream store is not their first business, as the pair had previously started a luxury chocolate business from scratch, which now supplies it to high-end hotel chains and airport business lounges.
Both agree starting a new business is intimidating, but they also see beauty in being first to do something.
“Starting a new project, it often feels like we walk toward a cliff, look down and jump,” says Kate. “And only then we start assembling a helicopter that should take off before we reach the ground.”
The couple is also genuinely grateful for the opportunities on offer in Australia and the relative ease with which they can be grasped.
“We saw this support along the way,” says Anton. “We were introduced to the people, there was no unnecessary bureaucracy like there is in Russia – it helps a lot.”
The retail solutions were designed and manufactured in Australia with the support of the likes of the University of New South Wales and a range of private businesses, putting their project among other modern innovations Australia can be proud of.
Both believe in the power of automation and the benefits they say it will bring for the economy.
“We know what and why we are doing this. We saw the positive influence to the world economy and humanity can eventually get rid of routine work, delegating it to the machines and spend more time on more fulfilling occupations.”