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Laguna Woods diners take a shine to Pancho

There’s a new employee in The Towers in Laguna Woods, and he’s a big hit with the residents.

His name is Pancho, he’s a server in the Crystal Dining Room, and he softly hums when he walks – or make that glides – among the tables, delivering dinner to hungry diners.

Pancho is a robot, and he’s maybe 4 feet tall.

Picture it: If R2-D2 of “Star Wars” and the Roomba vacuum had a baby, that would be our little guy.

Pancho – so named by the human servers – is part of a monthlong pilot program at The Towers to see how well robots do the work of servers and how well residents take to them, said German Cuenca, general manager of dining at The Towers.

He’s on loan from a robotics company, and, if all goes well and he saves costs, Cuenca said, Pancho will become permanent. Plus he’ll get a buddy in the building’s second dining room.

Pancho won’t be replacing the human servers, Cuenca said, just augmenting them: “Right now there’s a hiring issue in the food industry. It’s hard to find servers.”

Pancho works only at dinner time; the lunch program at The Towers is on COVID hiatus.

To be sure, even a robot needs a little human help: Once Pancho makes his way to the table, a human has to pick up the plates and place them in front of the diners.

And Pancho does not serve drinks or soup – all that sloshing might make things a little messy.

When we caught up with him, Pancho was in the kitchen, waiting for his “gliding” orders. Human servers placed plates of food on his “tray” and, after a few clicks on a keypad on his back, Pancho navigated the kitchen aisles, found his way out the door and into the dining room, then down the aisle to Table 4, where diners Jim Drysdale and Ada Snyder were eagerly awaiting him – and their dinner.

“I think he’s really cute,” Snyder said.

“He’s very responsive,” Drysdale added. “Never makes a mistake.”

So how does Pancho know where the tables are? Like any good robot, he’s had a map of the dining room programmed into him.

If his path is blocked – say, by a human, or a chair, or even a purse – Pancho stops and requests help: “I’m stuck,” he says on his keypad. “Please clear my path.”

Cuenca told the story of how Pancho got “stuck” behind a diner’s walker. The robot stopped in his tracks beside the device and wouldn’t move.

“A resident said, ‘Oh, look at that! Pancho’s fallen in love with the walker,’” Cuenca recalled. “It was a very nice, fancy walker.” (Seems Pancho has good taste.)

Pancho doesn’t only serve food. If a diner has a birthday, he can sing “Happy Birthday” (albeit in a woman’s voice, though not at all like Marilyn Monroe).

He can also be programmed to say things like “Enjoy your dinner” and “Thank you for coming,” Cuenca said.

Jeanne Fleming, part of a foursome at a table, would beg to differ about Pancho not making mistakes.

“He sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me and it wasn’t even my birthday,” she said. “So he’s not perfect. But then no one is.”

To which husband Harry added: “He should sing more songs.”

Not to be outdone with the quips, Rick Bradford, at the table with wife Diane, chimed in: “I like that he’s not wearing a mask.”

“We like him,” Jeanne Fleming added. “It’s something new and different.”

Cuenca has been at The Towers for 15 years. He started as a server, then a cook, then worked his way up to general manager.

So who knows: Maybe in 15 years, Pancho – just a server now  – too will become a manager.

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