‘Bella appears, fluttering her lashes’: Our restaurant critic is served by a robot waiter

BellaBot, a cat-themed robot, is the latest smiley recruit at Senbazuru Izakaya in Dublin

She’s always on time, never calls in sick, never asks for a pay rise and will work any day of the week. That’s Bella. The smiley waitress who glides to your table singing “you are so beautiful when you smile” in Japanese. She is one of a growing number of supercompliant waiting staff who have taken up residence in Ireland. There may be a shortage of human recruits, but she and her fellow bots have arrived, fully charged for a full day’s work in 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, on Dublin’s northside, 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, beneath a billowy canopy of fake cherry blossom. The room is illuminated with a “5D” holographic-projection music system. Sea turtles and shoals of exotic fish swirl on the walls, Japanese music plays and diners tuck into giant bowls of ramen and sushi in large wooden boats.

Hongtao He, who goes by Frank He, opened his izakaya restaurant – an izakaya is an informal bar or restaurant bar that serves alcoholic drinks and snacks – in January 2021. The name Senbazuru means cranes, symbolising good health and good wishes in Japanese culture. BellaBot, a cat-themed robot whom he recruited directly from her manufacturers, Pudu, in Shenzhen in China, arrived in Dublin two months ago. She cost €8,000, so considerably less than a year’s salary for a full-time waiter, and has no additional demands – not even a virtual saucer of milk.

There is no shortage of human waiting staff at Senbazuru, so we are shown to our table and order our food from a living, breathing, smiling waitress. But it’s not long before Bella makes an appearance, fluttering the lashes of her giant bot eyes, singing in a squeaky girlie voice. She heads deftly to a table and stops. As Bella blinks coquettishly, a light strip on one of the four trays starts to flash, and she waits for her human to arrive. Bella may be able to carry up to 40kg, but she is essentially an autonomous trolley. She has no mechanical arm. A waitress unloads the plates, a happy child pats Bella on the head – “I love you,” Bella squeals with an emoji-like expression – the light strip goes out, and she turns around and cruises back to the kitchen.

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A human brings our little bottle of sake to the table; it’s sitting on a wooden box with a tealight to warm it up. It may be that Bella’s not trusted to handle fire. Or indeed to pour sake. But she’s soon back, loaded with tempura and gyoza, singing again. She has a repertoire of six songs, “Happy birthday” being her party piece. But there is, it would seem, no end to her singing talents, as Frank He tells me that any song can be downloaded. A not-so-dumb waiter with a memory capability far superior to us mere humans’.

As Bella rolls back to our table a few minutes later, I’m beginning to think that the same song is on repeat. Layered on top of the 5D music, the crooning novelty is fast becoming a whiny earworm. But the kids in the room are still enthralled, which makes for many happy parents.

Multiple plates of sushi and ramen are loaded on to our table, the volume requiring an annexation of the table beside us. Scheduling seems to be an issue – human rather than bot error, I would imagine – and there’s an urgent requirement to consume the hot dishes in the pile-up. I note that the far savvier two girls at the table beside us just order two dishes at a time, so controlling the pace of their meal.

As the room fills up the friendly bot gets busier. Tables outside, however, miss all the action. Bella may be programmed with 3D omnidirectional obstacle avoidance, but the door is her threshold, and she can venture no farther. It takes two waitresses to offload the plates, but at least the journey from the kitchen is reduced. I wonder if Bella is more a cruiser than a grafter. I would imagine that the equivalent of a kitchen porter would bring far more smiles to the hard-working staff than her smart expressions and multimodal visual, tactile and auditory interactions.

But regardless of these shortcomings, BellaBot is an influencer, prime Instagram and TikTok fodder, inspiring user-generated content on diners’ feeds around the country. It is likely that Tony Wang, the owner of Okura, in Douglas in Cork, was first to spot the opportunity. Like Frank He, he is Chinese, so he was in a position to import directly from the manufacturer, snapping up two BellaBots last year for €15,000, before an increase in demand pushed the price up considerably. Restaurants, airports and hospitals all want in on the bot action; Coca-Cola has signed up with Pudu; and McDonald’s in Slovenia has deployed dozens of Golden Arches–emblazoned bots to deliver food to diners who remove their own trays.

Wang’s robots are named Peanuts and Mimi and they start their evening shift at 4.30pm each day. It’s a busy restaurant, so one of the bots is frequently charged with managing reservations and guiding diners to their tables. It took a day to map out the restaurant using the state-of-the-art path-planning algorithm, followed by some staff training. BellaBot’s 3D sensors check for obstacles up to 5,400 times a minute, and she is capable of stopping at any angle with a response time of as little as 0.5 seconds. If there’s a collision – which none of the restaurateurs has encountered – it would be human error.

At Nevin’s Newfield Inn, between Newport and Achill Island in Co Mayo, a discussion of staff shortages led to a suggestion by one of the team to give robots a go. It seemed like an idea worth exploring, so the owner, John Nevin, contacted Stephens Catering Equipment, which is Pudu’s agent in Ireland. A demo model was quickly dispatched to the west, it was an immediate hit with staff and diners, and they now have two BellaBots in full time employment. It’s not about replacing staff, says Nevin, they just make the job a bit easier, working alongside the front of house team to cart hotplates of food to the diningroom and return the dirty dishes to the kitchen. It allows the front of house staff to interact more with the customers, and everyone enjoys the novelty of the bots.

Robot waiters may not quite be at Wall-E level just yet, but novelty isn’t their only appeal. Their potential to reduce person-to-person interaction and lower the risk of virus transmission is of increasing interest to an industry where adherence to extremely sanitary conditions is the latest version of the first law of robotics (look it up). The robots may be coming not to take our jobs but to truly serve us. And, with luck, to do the washing up too.