Metro area restaurant takes on two robotic servers to deal with a shortage in workers

Bella is not your ordinary food server.

“B3 your meal is ready,” she intoned to her customers. “Tray four has your meal.”

At the New Fresh Wok restaurant in Falcon Heights, she’s one of two robots on the wait staff.

We asked Min Zhang, a restaurant associate, if they’re both good workers.

“Yes,” she laughs. “They run fast and take a few plates at one time.”

Thean Ang is the founder of Durabotics, an Eagan robotics company.

He says he’s been renting the two devices to the restaurant since June — with some human backup.

“Mainly the robot can be a runner,” Ang says.  “A waiter can be reinforcing with a customer and talking to them. Be there when somebody says, ‘hey we need something,’  and they will be there.”

The owners say during the pandemic, they had to close for months, then pivot to take out service.  

During that time they say, five employees left to take other jobs.

Now, with their dining room open, they haven’t been able to find replacements.

Ben Wogsland, the Executive Vice President of Hospitality Minnesota, says it’s a familiar problem.

“We’re still down 22,000 workers statewide from pre-pandemic levels in the hospitality sectors,” he explains. “You’re seeing certain businesses that have had to limit their hours or limit their offerings because they can’t find workers.”

Some, he says, are turning to tech.

 “Whether it’s robotics or animating certain processes in the area, using QR codes for ordering, different things of that nature,” Wogsland notes. “There’s been a lot of adaptation in this industry in the last two or three years.”

Bella needs human help, too.

The location of each table in the restaurant is pre-programmed into a touch screen, activated by a person.

There’s also a built-in 3D program that provides depth perception, like a pair of human eyes.

“Like it will actually see the table, see the desk, see the people,” Ang explains. “So that the navigation algorithm will have the robot avoid those obstacles and not run into it.”

When Bella arrives at your table, the tray with your order lights up.

Customers have to grab their own grub.

Malika Duggan says she prefers interacting with a human.

She says she’s worked in factories, and has had enough of machines.

“When I come to a restaurant, I like to be served. Food’s good here though,” she says. “It was okay, but it didn’t serve us our plates, and I forgot to take the chopsticks. So a waitress did have to run over and give us our chopsticks.”

Durabotics says it has about six of the devices in circulation in Minnesota and elsewhere in the Midwest.

The units cost about $800 to rent on an open-ended plan, Ang says.

The owners of New Fresh Wok say they like having the robots on their staff… and may add more in the future.  

But they say they’ll always have a human in the dining room to help with culinary emergencies.

One added bonus?

The owners say kids who learn about Bella and her companion, bring their parents to the restaurant — instant customers.   

“Most people like it, some don’t,” Zhang smiles. “They would like to see the robot, and they drive in.”