As worker shortages are felt across the hospitality sector, the 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 out the robot at its Bella Italia restaurant in Center Parcs Whinfell Forest in Cumbria, in the first such trial by a big 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 help from humans who load and unload its “body”.
Eric Guo, the chief executive of Spark which distributes Pudu robots in the UK, said there were 60 working across 20 British businesses and he expected more orders in the year ahead. Most are operating in restaurants, but hotels, supermarkets, care homes, snooker clubs and bowling alleys are also experimenting with the technology.
“It has become an apparent trend that hospitality owners enquire [about] bot services to help resolve the hospitality staff shortage,” he said. Guo added that the robots also helped businesses gain publicity on social media when customers took videos and posted them on sites such as TikTok.
Big Table Group, which runs 150 restaurants under its various brands, said the test was operating in one outlet and it had not confirmed plans to expand the pilot.
The experiment comes as 10% of hospitality jobs remain unfilled, according to the UKHospitality trade body, as Brexit combined with the pandemic to prompt many European workers, who have played an important role in the UK industry, to leave the UK.
Competition from other sectors – where hours may fit more easily with family life and pay may be more attractive – is also a factor.
The shortages have led to wage inflation of 13% across the industry, as businesses try to attract the best staff in areas where there are particular shortages, such as chefs.
Lisa Gibbons, the chief operating officer of Bella Italia, said: “We’re always open to innovative solutions which benefit our teams, improve service and improve our guests’ experience.
“By having intelligent robots conduct simple tasks, such as retrieving dirty dishes, our teams are able to focus on doing what they love and delivering an amazing experience. It’s still early days in the trial, but we’re looking forward to seeing the impact that having an extra pair of ‘paws’ has on dining satisfaction.”