Table Talk: Souped-up robots deliver food at Mala HotPot

Gary Seman Jr.
ThisWeek group
Robot servers deliver food to diners at the new Mala HotPot restaurant, 3777 Park Mill Run Drive in Hilliard. Yvonne Cao, pictured Nov. 23, is manager of the restaurant.

Mala HotPot has waiters who won’t be pushed around, be insulted or become frazzled when things get busy.

At the new restaurant at 3777 Park Mill Run Drive in Hilliard, Keenon Robotics’ automated servers deliver the food and drinks.

Of course, good help is difficult to find and doesn’t come cheap: One Keenon unit is $13,000, said Jay Yang, owner of Mala and the CAM International Market next door and a distributor of the robots.

“Right now, the advantage is to greatly reduce human-to-human contact,” Yang said.

A robot server delivers food to diners at the new Mala HotPot restaurant at 3777 Park Mill Run Drive in Hilliard.

After downloading the digital menu on their iPhones or an iPad supplied by the restaurant, customers place their orders directly to the kitchen and bar.

They can choose from a number of raw proteins – beef, pork and seafood – as well as tofu, vegetables and noodles, which are cooked individually at the table.

Because hot pot involves scorching broth, the stock is brought out by servers and kept hot on individual burners under a ceramic table top.

The robot is programmed with the table locations, and the kitchen loads up to four trays worth of food and sends the machine to the destination. Guests then hit an OK button, and the robots amble back to the kitchen.

The bar has the same procedure.

The robots have sensors so they do not to run into walls, booths or people.

Meanwhile, human servers check on tables to ensure an enjoyable experience, said Yang, an electrical engineer by training who also owns a CAM International Market and Mala HotPot in Cincinnati and another CAM in Cleveland.

With COVID-19 coronavirus cases on the rise and possible vaccinations months away, the robots provide a sense of security for those who want a sit-down meal but want to maintain as much social distancing as possible, Yang said.

Hot-pot dining still is a relative novelty in Columbus, with only a handful of restaurants offering some version of the ancient Chinese meal.

Mala – ma, meaning numbness from peppercorns, and la, meaning hot – offers four soup bases and ingredients that make hot-pot dining a communal affair.

At hotpot restaurants like the Mala HotPot restaurant at 3777 Park Mill Run Drive in Hilliard, guests cook food in a scorching broth at their tables.

Guests lower their ingredients into the boiling liquid and cook them as long as they see fit.

“It’s always a very good opportunity for people to gather together,” Yang said. “Sometimes it’s a little slower pace.”

Mala offers preselected combos, which start at $17.99, and a la carte items, along with several dipping sauces.

The interior seating is entirely booths separated by plexiglass shields.

The new Mala HotPot restaurant is at 3777 Park Mill Run Drive in Hilliard.

Hours are 3 to 9 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays through Sundays; the restaurant is closed Tuesdays. For more information, call 614-971-3045.

African restaurant promises culinary delights

African Delights, specializing in the flavors of Ghana, is on track to open next month in Worthington.

The restaurant at 6116 Huntley Road will have myriad dishes from the region: jollof rice, whaakey (beans and rice), peanut butter soup, okra soup, goat stew, grilled tilapia, fried plantains and meat pies, owner Emelia Saka said.

A January opening is planned for African Delights in the Huntley Square, at Huntley and East Dublin-Granville roads.

Saka said she had attended culinary school in her native Ghana and decided to stick with the cuisine with which she was most familiar.

“I know how to do everything,” she said.

The restaurant will offer homemade pastries and fruit drinks, among other beverages, but it will not serve alcohol.

Charleys reaches across Walmart aisle

You want fries with that cart of groceries?

Charleys Philly Steaks has opened its first eatery inside a Walmart at 3990 Morse Road in Columbus as part of a pilot program, with plans for 10 more Walmart locations in 2021.

Further expansions across the country are planned.

Limited seating is available as part of the restaurant’s dining space. It offers online ordering, curbside pickup and third-party delivery services, as well as the brand’s mobile app and rewards program.

gseman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary