Robots with cat-like faces are pitching in at two Vancouver Island restaurants to deliver food and drinks to customers at a time when the hospitality sector is desperate for staff.
Customers are enchanted by the devices, which can be programmed to carry out a multitude of tasks. They sing happy birthday — with multi-coloured lights flashing — and will greet customers.
The robot is cute. The BellaBot model has big round eyes, a smiling mouth and will change expressions. Move close to it and the robot moves automatically to avoid a collision.
Restaurants appreciate the robots’ efficiency because they reduce the number of trips staff make to and from the kitchen.
Clair Zhang, co-owner of Nanaimo’s Driftwood Restaurant, 4711 Rutherford St., said Friday that Bella Holt (the nickname for the robot) is “really useful.”
The robots also function as marketing tools for businesses as they emerge from pandemic restrictions and want to fill their seats.
Bella is mainly used to ferry take-out orders from the kitchen to customers at the front door of the Driftwood restaurant. Packaged meals are carried on the robot’s shelves.
Driftwood obtained Bella in the summer under a three-year lease-to-own program with Edmonton supplier GreenCo Robots, which imports them from manufacturers in China.
At Mantra, 1015 Fort St., owner Dharmendar Sohal, said he bought the robot because the restaurant is short-staffed. “This is a good option for us. … It’s a good helping hand.”
Customers are happy when they see Robbie the robot and enjoy interacting with it, especially youngsters, he said. When children pet the robot, it smiles, its eyes move and it meows.
Sohal will likely get a second robot for Mantra’s other location at 3480 Tillicum Rd.
He expects a new version, able to take orders, will be available soon.
Fort Street Mantra manager Dharna Sohal said Robbie is bringing in a lot of new customers. They share videos of the robot in action as it delivers food and drinks to tables and they tell their families about it.
“When we are busy it is like an extension of me. I can do two things at the same time,” Dharna Sohal said.
It is programmed to know tables by number. Its sounds and volume can be changed. Robbie greets customers at the front and will escort them to their tables.
The robot is charged overnight and can operate for 12 hours on its battery.
When Robbie quietly rolled up to Ian Reid’s table, it was easy to understand what to do. An order of naan bread sat on the top shelf, which lit up.
“You just pick your item off the shelf and then you push a button on its face that says ‘done.’ Then the eyes come back up, it smiles and off it goes.”
The “face” will disappear at times, depending on what it is doing.
Liang Yu, owner of GreenCo Robots, said he’s sent about 30 BellaBot robots across Canada and has a waiting list for 10 more. “There’s definitely a good demand in the market.”
The first in B.C. went into service in a Richmond hot pot restaurant.
Depending on the model, robots cost a little less than $20,000 and up to $30,00.
The lease-to-own program costs less than $1,000 per month for three years, he said.
Robots roll along without bumping into people or furniture by using location and mapping technology.
They can be used for events such as business mixtures because robots can roll around a room carrying food and drinks. A robot will stop whenever someone touches it, Yu said.
A study of one restaurant robot found it made about 500 trips in one day and delivered about 750 meals, Yu said.