An enthusiasm for reusing discarded materials to create pieces of art and a love of all things robotics has resulted in one of the UK’s most futuristic restaurants in Milton Keynes.
We caught up with Mark Swannell and Joy Gittens, the founders of and brains behind 12th Street Milton Keynes’ sci-fi themed restaurant, to find out more about their unique and exciting venue, packed to the rafters with robots.
The concept for Robotazia is so unique, we’d love to find out more about where your ideas came from?
Our first robot was created in 2015, as a means of repurposing some unwanted boxes. We had so much fun building it and everyone who saw it got so much enjoyment out of it, that we decided we wanted to build more robots out of recycled materials. So, we bought an industrial unit and dedicated the next two years to creating and sourcing robots from across the UK.
Joy used to work for a well-known cosmetics brand within a department store and hated throwing the lovely packaging, from samples and testers, away. With the help of her team and 800+ boxes later, Yslabelle, a glossy golden 2-metre-high robot was born!
This passion for the planet and for creating exciting examples of how everyday house-hold items can be given a new lease of life, led to us building Mike Dyson, a 3-metre Giant bot assembled from 20 salvaged Dyson Vacuum Cleaners, and Audibot, a Transformer robot made from broken and unwanted children’s ride on cars.
We can remember your Robot Café at Milton Keynes Central Library a few years ago. How did that come about?
The library had seen some of our robots and were keen to utilise their empty gallery space to exhibit our collection, helping to encourage more families into the library and to spread the word about Robotazia. We were really keen to take the space, but knew that it would require quite a lot of staff resource and therefore we needed to find a way to cover our costs. This is when we came up with the idea for the café and our first robot waitress, Amy was created.
Our exhibition and café were so successful that we set our sights on creating a bigger and better version of that concept for the future of Robotazia.
How did you decide on 12th Street as the home for your first Robotazia restaurant?
The vision has always been for us to run Robotazia as a Museum and our dream location would be The Point. It’s just such an iconic building in Milton Keynes and the whole look and feel of it is very sci-fi. However, for now at least, that dream is not to be!
We have a friend who manages a business in 12th Street though and they made us aware of a vacant unit, which we went to take a look at and decided it would be perfect for our robot restaurant.
We took possession of our new premises in November 2019, a former nightclub that had been vacant for a while and needed much internal construction work. It was basically a blank canvas with no services, toilets or kitchen, just a big empty space, but perfect for remodelling into our robot restaurant.
We set to work on the building, but we were also keen to increase our profile within central Milton Keynes whilst development was underway and attended lots of local business and community events, from The Big Chat and Milton Keynes Business Achievement Awards 2020 to the ‘On The Road Show’ in thecentre:mk, as well as visiting the children’s ward at Milton Keynes Hospital with our motorcycling robot, Renzo.
How were your plans for Robotazia impacted by COVID?
We were due to open in April 2020, but obviously that couldn’t happen. It was a real struggle, because not only could we not open as planned, we didn’t qualify for any of the Government grants and we still had to pay business rates, so that used up a lot of our capital during the first lockdown.
We were eventually able to open in August, and we’ve had an absolutely phenomenal response. We knew we had something that appealed to children and families, but we have been amazed by the age range of people who love Robotazia, and how far people have travelled to come and see us. We’ve also had amazing interest from the media, including national press, Channel 5’s The Gadget Show, a French magazine and we’ve even had a sci-fi movie scene filmed at Robotazia.
I think what surprises people when the come to Robotazia, is not just the level of commitment we put into our robots and the sci-fi theme, but also the quality and freshness of our food.
Have you been able to operate at all under lockdown restrictions?
We’ve gone backwards and forwards about whether we can operate under lockdown because so much of what we do is about the atmosphere within Robotazia and the robots. However, lots of people have asked about whether they can order our food to take-away as they really love it, so we’re planning to dip our toe in the water and start a take-away service at the end of February. We’re going to look to incorporate the robots in that service too, by having our robots bring take-aways out to customers.
What are your plans for the future and post-covid?
We’ve got a stage in the restaurant and we’d really love to see some events and activities taking place in Robotazia in the future, from quizzes and live music right through to hosting a Cosplay event. We’ve got a fantastic party table that seats 12, so we’d really like to make the most of that when we’re able to. We’ve got robots that sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and we can create a real party atmosphere, celebrating birthdays for people of all ages.
Beyond that, we also have aspirations to open further restaurants. We’ve got plenty of robots and a really great business model, so we’ll definitely be looking to expand and grow in the future.
We’re also really keen to deliver that educational message, through schools and community settings, about recycling and sustainability, helping to inspire young people to build their own robots or pieces of art and creating something new out of materials that might otherwise be destined for the bin. We want to help change mindsets about what is possible, not just in robotics, but through technology and engineering, expanding people’s perceptions, increasing the number of females within those STEM industries and working with young people to open up new and exciting opportunities.
We want to be so much more than a restaurant and we’re really looking forward to what the future holds for our own growth and the recovery of the business and economy in Milton Keynes.