Residents of Miami’s Brickell neighborhood are getting used to seeing small six-wheeled vehicles driving alone on the streets: they are the first food delivery robots operating in the city and the visible face of a new business based on the ever-present value of “proximity.”
The Miami-based start-up Reef Technologies, created in 2014 and already included in the “unicorn” category, as those valued at more than one billion dollars are known, is developing a concept it defines as “neighborhood within a neighborhood.”
Specialized media have reported that in 2021 Reef has received $700 million in investment from SoftBank and Mubadala Corp. for its project to convert thousands of parking lots acquired in the United States into “‘neighborhood hubs,” where a series of services for people living nearby are concentrated.
“It’s about creating an ecosystem to be closer to customers and to be able to bring them products that normally other types of systems wouldn’t be able to bring,” says Alex Melendez, general manager of Neighborhood at Reef Technologies.
Proximity as the basis of the business
In one part of the parking lot, which continues to operate as such with a fixed price of $10, there are several food trucks preparing dishes from eleven well-known restaurant brands that already have contracts with Reef.
When a person in the Brickell area places an order for food from one of the brands present at the Reef hub through platforms such as UberEats, Postmates, DoorDash or GrubHub the order is prepared there and the robots are the ones that transport it to the customer.
The robots, built by the also start-up Cartken, only carry orders within a radius of half a mile (about 800 meters), explains the Reef executive.
This makes it possible to deliver an order in a maximum of half an hour and reduces Reef’s operating costs by 47%, a saving that the company passes on in discounts to customers, says Meléndez, who is of Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian origin and previously worked at Amazon.
Matt Lindenberger, Reef’s chief technology officer, says in a corporate statement that the growing demand for home delivery of restaurant food, which has helped many escape ruin during the pandemic, “has created a bottleneck during peak meal times that slows efficiency.”
The robots, which are autonomous and have cameras and sensors, are shaped like a wheeled bin or chest with a lid that, once closed, can only be opened with the numerical code provided to the customer who is to receive the order.
When they arrive at the home, they wait outside while the recipients receive a text message telling them to go out and pick up the order. Once their mission is accomplished, they return to the hub, even overcoming obstacles such as stairs and ramps.
The home delivery boom
Meléndez stresses that the covid-19 pandemic has been in some ways “an advantage” for the success of this project.
“Nobody touches your food, only the person who prepares it with gloves and all the safety measures. Inside the robot the food goes in sealed bags,” he explains.
For pedestrians to see these emulators of RD2D or “arturito”, the famous robot from “Star Wars”, crossing the streets and stopping at traffic lights is still surprising.
If the project, as Reef intends, scales up and reaches neighboring Broward County (southeast Florida), New York, Austin (Texas) and Los Angeles and eventually abroad, Reef’s delivery robots will become much better known.
Meléndez points out that in a few months they expect to open more than 100 locations like the one in Miami, which, in addition to sushi, hamburgers, pasta, waffles with chicken and ice cream from their eleven brands, also offers liquor, wines and basic products such as milk, eggs or coffee for neighbors who cannot or do not want to go to the supermarket.
The manager explains that they intend to add more brands to the offer of the “neighborhood hubs” and not only in the gastronomic sector, but also in stores and other health-related businesses.
The new neighborhood stores
The idea is to have everything close by so you can get it to your neighbors in the shortest possible time.
It’s a twist on the old-fashioned neighborhood stores that abound in Europe and Latin America, but disappeared years ago from most U.S. neighborhoods.
Meléndez emphasizes that, in addition, it allows families to interact with other neighbors because they can also go to the parking lot to enjoy the food ordered at tables set up for this purpose in the area where the food trucks are located.
Right next door, Cartken’s robots are parked waiting for new orders, which “have been designed to deliver orders of a small size over short distances in a more efficient manner while helping to reduce traffic congestion and pollution,” says a statement from the company.
Some might also say that, if that’s not enough, the robots don’t have to be tipped.