Bella the “cat” can sing happy birthdaydeliver a hot meal and return dirty plates to the kitchen.
When the robotic server, which has a kitty face on its screen, isn’t seeing to customers’ needs, it takes a cat nap near the espresso bar.
Next Stop Café became the second Winnipeg restaurant to turn to robotics to help with the daily dinner rush. Bella was hooked up and programmed to start serving tasty dishes on Mother’s Day.
Mona Naghibzadeh, who co-owns and manages the Pembina Highway diner with her husband Payam Jamali, said the $26,000 robot has proven to be a fine investment.
“We keep up with the latest technology because it speeds up work and improves the quality,” Naghibzadeh said. “We still have our servers working, but Bella is helping the servers do their job easier.”
If diners pet Bella, it will kindly ask them to stop. If they get in the way of Bella’s track, it will courteously ask them to move.
While interactions between servers and customers are still a crucial part of the restaurant experience, Naghibzadeh said only a small percentage of customers have had adverse reactions to Bella’s presence at the café. Patrons simply press the buzzer on their table to call for Bella’s assistance.
“When we send (Bella) to tables, 99 per cent are surprised and they like it, 50 per cent ask me to just send Bella. They don’t need me anymore,” Naghibzadeh joked.
Shaun Jeffery, the executive director and CEO of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said he only knows of two restaurants in Winnipeg — Hong Du Kkae and Next Stop Café — that have purchased robot servers.
“Our industry is very adaptable to technology,” Jeffrey said. “Even in my time working in this industry, I’ve seen such a significant increase in the amount of technology they utilize.”
A common misconception is that robots replace hospitality workers, Jeffrey said.
He emphasized the robots are expediters, not servers, and therefore not a substitute for employees. Jeffery believes the addition of robots can allow more time for human interaction, which he believes is a hallmark of the restaurant experience.
“Although there is no substitution for human-provided hospitality in the hospitality industry, I think that there is a place in the future for using additional technology,” he said. “We’re looking for ways to try to serve our customers as best as possible, and what AI does, and potentially can do, is provide an opportunity to have more person-to-person contact more regularly, and take away from some of the non-personal contact.”
Naghibzadeh agreed. Despite the myriad tasks she’s programmed to perform, Bella cannot take orders from customers — a job left to servers — but helps them along the way. However, Naghibzadeh said this assists, rather than takes away from servers.
“If you like your server, you must like Bella too because she’s helping us,” Naghibzadeh said.
Although robot servers have yet to become a widespread phenomenon at local restaurants, Jeffery said he expects more restaurants to invest in similar technologies.
“When you look at the increase in reception, we have to recognize the simple fact that these restaurants are seeing, whether it’s a gimmick or not, they are seeing the benefits (to these) very expensive pieces of equipment,” he said.
Jeffrey said labor shortages exacerbated by the pandemic have played a role in restaurant owners deciding to invest in automated technology.
“A work shortage in the restaurant industry isn’t a new thing, it’s just been expedited from the pandemic,” Jeffrey said. “We’ve gotten to a point now where we’ve had to replenish a lot of our staff after being closed.”
Julia Smith, an assistant professor of labor studies at the University of Manitoba, believes low wages and job insecurity led to the labor shortage in the hospitality industry.
“A lot of servers were just left to fend for themselves. The restaurant closed and there was not a lot (of support) aside from government programs,” she said. “Regardless of the causes of why the workers aren’t there, or aren’t coming back, it’s leading to employers now scrambling to try and find ways to make that up.”
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When asked about automation, Smith said workers have organized in favor and against new technologies. In some cases, Smith said unionized workers have bargained for clauses that require consultation before new technologies are introduced. The important part, she said, is not necessarily the technology itself, but how it is used.
“There is potential, of course, with any new technology, to reduce the workload,” Smith said. “The question we always have to ask is really, who is benefiting from that technology? Is it being brought in to assist workers doing their job and making the job safer….or is it being brought in to boost profits?”
Naghibzadeh said the labor shortage was not the main reason they bought Bella. Rather, it was to help employees. During the Saturday dinner rush, servers can focus their attention on ensuring guests enjoy their meals, while Bella delivers plates from the kitchen to the table.
Given Bella’s success, Naghibzadeh said she and Jamali are looking at investing in more robotic technology, meaning Bella might get a companion.
“Customers here love the robot. You have to love the robot because we’re living in 2022. Not everything is going to be the same as before,” Naghibzadeh said.