Robotic workforce fills restaurant staff shortage caused by Covid

Pudu Bellabot robotic waiter at Vietnamese restaurant Try It Out. Video / Michael Craig

Struggling to find staff during the pandemic, restaurants in Auckland are turning to robots to help with table service.

Dinh Quang Huy, manager of Vietnamese restaurant Try It Out in Burswood, said the company started using a Pudu Bellabot delivery robot after it failed to find servers.

“Since the border closed, we’ve been struggling to find labor, so we had to look at the options and decided having a robot was the best solution,” Huy said.

The Restaurant Association of New Zealand said robots are starting to play a big role in restaurants here and around the world.

Restaurants in Northland, Rotorua and Auckland – such as Try It Out and 108 Tastes in Newmarket – have introduced robot service to address labor shortages worsened by the pandemic.

Huy said the $28,000 Bellabot turned out to be a successful experiment.

“It’s expensive, but it replaces a human staff that we would otherwise have to pay at least minimum wage and juggle shifts. This robot is ready to work at any time,” he said.

Dinh Quang Huy, manager of the Vietnamese restaurant Try It Out with the waiter robot Pudu Bellabot.  Photo/Michael Craig
Dinh Quang Huy, manager of the Vietnamese restaurant Try It Out with the waiter robot Pudu Bellabot. Photo/Michael Craig

Dishes are loaded onto the robot at the kitchen and with the press of a button it will deliver the orders to the designated table.

Huy said customers also shared photos and videos of the robot on social media, which also attracted many new customers.

“We see many families coming in and the kids are so excited when they see their food being delivered by the robot,” Huy said.

A study by Infometrics found that around a third of jobs in New Zealand will be automated by 2036.

Most will work in low-skilled positions in the service sector and industries such as forestry, manufacturing and agriculture.

The NZ Robotics, Automation and Sensing released a roadmap outlining the country’s development in robotics and sensing in January this year.

It predicts that by 2040, 46% of day jobs are likely to be replaced by automation and that by 2025 the number of industrial and service robots in use will double.

Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois said: “Robots are starting to play an important role in restaurants around the world, helping to create efficiencies that can help address some of the staffing shortages we know and, over time, reduce personnel costs in certain areas.”

Marisa Bidois, General Manager of the Restaurant Association.  Photo / Provided
Marisa Bidois, General Manager of the Restaurant Association. Photo / Provided

During the month of April, 53% of association members had to temporarily close due to a lack of staff.

Before the pandemic, a survey found that around 43% of restaurant staff were migrant workers – many of whom were international students or holders of temporary visas who could not return due to border closures.

She said the robots could be used for some of the “less desirable everyday tasks” that would allow people to focus more on skilled work in the hospitality industry.

“So not necessarily replacing people but helping them,” Bidois said.

“We know that people and human interaction are an integral part of the hospitality experience, so we wouldn’t want that to be lost.”

Bidois said the association keeps a close eye on digital capabilities and encourages members to look at how these can help them run their businesses more effectively.

“There are productivity gains to be made using new technologies, so over time we see that they will be adopted by a wider range of businesses.”

The association was also helping to develop the local workforce by attracting and training local talent so that the industry could be less dependent on long-term migrant workers.

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