Tech

We got waited on by a robotic server to see how some restaurants are addressing the staffing shortage

It delivers food from the kitchen, returns with dirty plates for the dishwasher, and sings “Happy Birthday.” But it’s here to help servers, not replace them.
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Dianna “Mick” McDougall

4 min read

We were sitting in a cozy booth at Prince Tea House in New York’s Chinatown on a recent afternoon, waiting for the pot of rose milk tea we’d ordered.

And then we saw our server, Bella, emerging from the kitchen and coming our way with our tea, smiling broadly and—wait, was she flirting?—winking at us.

No, definitely not flirting, seeing as Bella is a robot. The device’s full name is BellaBot, and it’s made by Pudu Robotics, a company founded in 2016 in Shenzhen, China. Just over four feet tall, with shelves for plates and glassware and pointy cat ears, Bella has a touchscreen for a face. Staff tap it to reveal a range of capabilities, including going to specific tables, returning to the dishwasher area with loaded bus buckets, and going to a table to deliver a candle-topped cake while singing “Happy Birthday.”

After Bella arrived at our table, Shu Yang, the restaurant’s manager, took the pot of tea, poured it for us, and placed it in a ceramic base over a lit candle. As we were taking the first sip of the slightly sweet, pinkish, and delicious tea, Bella gave us one last smile and made her way back to the kitchen.

Suits to a tea: “I’m so glad I have this,” Yang said of the robot, which the restaurant purchased in January 2022. “It’s really helped me a lot.”

With the pandemic, “we were really short for staff a lot of [the] time,” Yang said.

Yang’s staffing challenge is typical. Although December marked 24 consecutive months of job growth for the restaurant industry—adding 2.2 million jobs over those two years—it’s still 3.6% (450,000 jobs) below pre-pandemic levels, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited by the National Restaurant Association.

Yang said business is nearly back to 2019 levels, as it is for many, with 62% of restaurant operators saying that they don’t have enough workers to meet current demand, according to a November survey by the National Restaurant Association.

On busy weekends at the tea house, which seats around 85, there are usually six servers, and Yang said Bella does the equivalent work of another two.

Even when fully staffed, she said, the robot helps servers by delivering food from the kitchen to their tables, running dirty dishes back to the kitchen, and bringing clean dishware to reset tables.

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Bot for profit: WowRobee is a B2B robotics company founded in 2021 and based in Long Island City that sold Yang her BellaBot and sells several models of robots across the country.

Gwen Guan, WowRobee’s marketing manager, told us WowRobee itself has sold more than 100 BellaBots and estimated that another 700 to 900 have been sold in the US by other sellers.

Servi, a robotic server made by California-based Bear Robotics, has about 5,000 robots in restaurants and hotels (including Denny’s and Marriott locations), according to a 2022 article in Hotel Technology News.

BellaBot costs $16,000, with some restaurants setting up financing, paying $600–$700 monthly over about two years, according to Michael Wang, WowRobee’s COO.

Getting started is a bit more involved than charging up the Roomba.

WowRobee programs the robot with a map of the space that includes all walls and tables, with multiple map options to reflect how tables might be configured differently for lunch, dinner, and functions.

“Before activating the machine, we’re going to do the mapping and the installation for free,” Guan said.

Nonhuman resources: Bob Vergidis, the founder of The Point of Sale Cloud, a payments solution company for the restaurant industry, said robotic help for kitchens is very tempting for many of his customers, but the price can be steep.

He recently was impressed by a trade-show demo of robotic pizza makers and deep fryers. L2F’s FryBot, for example, is a robotic automated deep-fryer system that an L2F executive said in 2021, when it was still in development, would cost “approximately $100,000.”

A huge investment, but spending $16,000 on a server robot, in contrast, “seems like the money you would spend on marketing,” Vergidis said. “It’s kind of useful, and it makes [a restaurant] really cool because you will now tell your friends and then they’ll eat there.”

Back at the Prince Tea House, Yang told us the robot “can really catch customers’ attention,” and that when it sings “Happy Birthday,” it “makes customers happy.”

In some ways, even though it’s a sophisticated piece of technology, Bella requires less maintenance than its human counterparts.

“You only need to charge her one time, and she works for the whole day,” Yang said.

“She doesn’t even need to eat,” she added with a smile, “and [takes] no breaks!”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.