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New addition increasing hours for staff as customers come to check out BellaBot
When the food arrives at your table, the legless, armless server with a catlike face greets you with a smile.
That description may seem off, but it's the honest truth when it comes to the newest hires at Sushi Island’s two St. John's restaurants.
They’re called BellaBots and the friendly-looking robot servers cost the same as an electric scooter. Sushi Island is the first to give them a try in Canada.
Created by China’s Pudu Robotics, the BellaBot was unveiled about a year ago. The delivery robot can be programmed to bring food to tables and return to collect dishes. It also senses obstacles three-dimensionally and can halt quickly without spilling the dishes it's holding.
It also has a voice function, to let people know it's coming through or say goodbye as it leaves. It has sensors in its tray compartments that let the BellaBot know when the plate’s gone to the table. The BellaBot plugs into an outlet for about four hours and then it’s ready to go for a full business day. Its facial design mimics that of a cat, similar to those in Japanese animations, with a curved top surface giving it ears.
Sushi Island manager Bin Guo first became aware of the BellaBot while chatting on the phone with a friend late last year. The friend was staying in a hotel in Shanghai, China's largest city, and at one point told him to wait for a second because a robot had arrived with his food. Guo asked if they could switch the conversation over to FaceTime video so he could see what his friend was talking about.
"I said, 'Oh, this is nice. What company is designing it'," recalled Guo, who opened the second Sushi Island location last fall during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"So, I get the company and say, 'We are a restaurant, do you have any type of machine for the restaurant to use?' They said, 'Yes, we do.' We talked, and they showed me what Bella can do and how easy you can get it set up. We decided to get one here."
BellaBots are creating a buzz, in the restaurants and online. A recent Facebook post with a video of the robot in action got more than 950 comments and almost as many shares.
While Guo said about 80 per cent of those comments were very positive, a lot of concern has been expressed about whether the BellaBots will leave people out of work. He said that's not the case.
"We are not here to use Bella to replace any server," he said, noting the two locations employ a total of 45 full-time and part-time staff. "The servers still have their jobs. We don't lay off anyone. We don't even reduce any peoples' hours."
He noted the addition of the robot is reducing tension amongst staff over order mix-ups, which tend to become an issue as a restaurant gets busier. Ultimately, staff have the same jobs they had before, but the robots make their work easier.
Our cat delivery robot already delivered her first order to customer.Posted by Sushi Island - Kenmount Rd on Saturday, January 16, 2021
On that front, he said the attention the two BellaBots are receiving from the general public has increased foot traffic of late, particularly around the supper hours.
"After Bella gets here ... more kids want to see Bella and then more families want to see that, too," he said. On Monday night at the Kenmount Road location, he had to call in more staff because the restaurant was so busy.
"I would say we're probably going to schedule more hours for this location and the Water Street location, as well."
While the Pudu Robotics website does not list a price for the BellaBot, a Daily Mail story published last January when the robot was first unveiled indicated it would likely sell for about US$1,299 once it hit the market.
Andrew Robinson is a business reporter in St. John's.