Our restaurant review is served by a robot waiter – The Irish Times
She is always on time, never calls in sick, never asks for a raise and works any day of the week. It’s Bella. The smiling waitress who creeps up to your table singing “you’re so beautiful when you smile” in Japanese. She is one of a growing number of super-compliant servers that call Ireland home. There may be a shortage of human recruits, but she and her robot companions have arrived, fully loaded for a full day’s work at restaurants in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Carlow and Mayo. Is this the high-tech future of our restaurants?
An early dinner at Senbazuru Izakaya in Fairview, North Dublin, is far from dystopian. Four cochin, the traditional Japanese red paper lanterns, hang above the entrance, and a giant pale pink lucky cat greets us as we walk inside, under a canopy inflated with faux cherry blossoms . The room is lit by a “5D” holographic projection music system. Sea turtles and schools of exotic fish swirl on the walls, Japanese music plays, and diners feast on giant bowls of ramen and sushi in large wooden boats.
Hongtao He, who goes by the name Frank He, opened his izakaya restaurant – an izakaya is an informal bar or restaurant that serves alcoholic drinks and snacks – in January 2021. The name Senbazuru means cranes, symbolizing good health and good wishes in Japanese culture. BellaBot, a cat-themed robot he recruited directly from its makers, Pudu, in Shenzhen, China, arrived in Dublin two months ago. It cost €8,000, considerably less than a year’s salary for a full-time waiter, and has no additional requirements – not even a virtual saucer of milk.
There’s no shortage of human wait staff at Senbazuru, so we’re shown to our table and order our food from a lively, breathing, smiling waitress. But it wasn’t long before Bella made an appearance, blinking her giant robot eyes, singing in a squeaky girlish voice. She deftly walks over to a table and stops. As Bella blinks coquettishly, a strip of light on one of the four trays begins to flash, and she waits for her human to arrive. Bella may be able to carry up to 40kg, but it’s essentially a self-contained cart. She doesn’t have a mechanical arm. A waitress unloads the plates, a happy child pats Bella on the head – “I love you,” Bella shouts with an emoji-like expression – the light strip turns off, and she turns and walks back into the kitchen.
A human brings our small bottle of sake to the table; it sits on a wooden box with a tealight to warm it. Bella may not be trusted to handle the fire. Or pour sake. But she’s back soon, loaded with tempura and gyoza, singing again. She has a repertoire of six songs, “Happy birthday” being her party track. But there seems to be no end to her singing skills, as Frank He tells me that any song can be downloaded. A not-so-dumb server with far greater memory capacity than humans.
As Bella returns to our table a few minutes later, I start to think the same song is repeating itself. Lying to the 5D music, the crooning novelty quickly becomes a whiny earworm. But the kids in the room are still captivated, which makes many parents happy.
Multiple plates of sushi and ramen are loaded onto our table, the volume necessitating annexation of the table next to us. Scheduling seems to be a problem – human error rather than bot error, I imagine – and the hot food in the pileup is urgently needed. I note that the two much more savvy girls at the table next to us simply order two dishes at a time, thus controlling the pace of their meal.
As the room fills up, the friendly bot gets busier. The tables outside, however, miss all the action. Bella can be programmed with 3D omnidirectional obstacle avoidance, but the door is her threshold and she can’t venture any further. It takes two waitresses to unload the plates, but at least the trip from the kitchen is reduced. I wonder if Bella is more of a cruiser than a grafter. I imagine the equivalent of a kitchen porter would bring far more smiles to hard-working staff than his intelligent expressions and multimodal visual, tactile and auditory interactions.
But whatever those shortcomings, BellaBot is an influencer, prime fodder for Instagram and TikTok, inspiring user-generated content on diners’ feeds across the country. It is likely that Tony Wang, the owner of Okura, at Douglas in Cork, was the first to seize the opportunity. Like Frank He, he’s Chinese, so he was able to import straight from the manufacturer, nabbing two BellaBots for €15,000 last year, before a surge in demand drove the price up dramatically. Restaurants, airports, and hospitals all want in on the bot action; Coca-Cola signed with Pudu; and McDonald’s in Slovenia has deployed dozens of robots emblazoned with the Golden Arches logo to deliver food to diners picking up their own trays.
Wang’s robots are both called Okura — that’s the name of the restaurant, so it makes sense, he says — and they start their evening shifts at 4:30 p.m. each day. It’s a busy restaurant, so one of the Okuras is often in charge of handling reservations and guiding diners to their tables. It took a day to map the restaurant using the state-of-the-art route planning algorithm, followed by staff training. BellaBot’s 3D sensors check for obstacles up to 5,400 times per minute, and it’s able to stop at any angle with a response time as short as 0.5 seconds. If there is a collision – which none of the restorers encountered – it would be human error.
To Nevin’s Newfield Inn, between Newport and Achill Island in County Mayo, a discussion of staffing shortages led one of the team members to suggest trying the robots. It seemed like an idea worth exploring, so owner John Nevin contacted Stephens Restoration Equipment, who is Pudu’s agent in Ireland. A demo model was quickly sent west, it was an immediate hit with staff and diners alike, and they now have two full-time BellaBots. It’s not about replacing staff, says Nevin, they’re just making the job a little easier, working alongside the dining room team to transport hot plates of food to the dining room and back. dirty dishes in the kitchen. This allows reception staff to interact more with customers, and everyone appreciates the novelty of the bots.
Server bots may not be quite up to scratch Wall-E level for now, but novelty isn’t their only appeal. Their potential to reduce human-to-human interactions and reduce the risk of virus transmission is of increasing interest to an industry where compliance with extremely sanitary conditions is the latest version of the first law of robotics (Look for it). The robots may not come to take our jobs but to really serve us. And, hopefully, do the dishes too.
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