As labor shortages take hold in the hospitality industry, owners of the Bella Italia chain are turning to robots to provide table service to customers.
Big Table Group, which also owns Café Rouge and Las Iguanas, is testing the robot at its Bella Italia restaurant at Center Parcs Whinfell Forest in Cumbria, in the first such trial by a major restaurant chain.
The BellaBot, made by Chinese company Pudu, can carry up to 40kg on four trays and deliver and retrieve plates from tables with the help of humans loading and unloading its “body”.
Eric Guo, managing director of Spark, which distributes Pudu robots in the UK, said there were 60 working at 20 UK companies and he expected more orders in the coming year. Most operate in restaurants, but hotels, supermarkets, nursing homes, pool clubs and bowling alleys are also experimenting with the technology.
“It has become an apparent trend for hotel owners to inquire [about] robot services to help solve the hospitality staff shortage,” he said. Guo added that the bots also help businesses gain social media advertising when customers take videos and post them to sites such as TikTok.
Big Table Group, which operates 150 restaurants under its various brands, said the test was operating at a single outlet and it had not confirmed plans to expand the pilot.
The experience comes as 10% of hospitality jobs remain vacant, according to trade body UKHospitality, as Brexit has combined with the pandemic to spur many European workers, who have played a significant role in the British industry, to leave the UK.
Competition from other sectors – where working hours can be adapted more easily to family life and salaries can be more attractive – is also a factor.
The shortages have led to wage inflation of 13% across the sector as companies try to attract the best staff in areas where there are particular shortages, such as chefs.
Lisa Gibbons, Chief Operating Officer of Bella Italia, said, “We are always open to innovative solutions that benefit our teams, improve service and enhance our customers’ experience.
“By having smart robots perform simple tasks like picking up dirty dishes, our teams can focus on what they love and deliver an amazing experience. The trial is still in its infancy, but we can’t wait to see the impact having an extra pair of “legs” has on culinary satisfaction.