This week in unpredictable headlines: Robotic cat servers are descending on dim sum parlors in Brooklyn and Queens. The robots can cost owners as much as a 2022 Kia Forte. In exchange, they perform basic duties, like carting around boba and bamboo steamers of har gow, an unlikely and somewhat dystopian solution to cut down operating costs.
BellaBot, the name of the robot most commonly found in New York City restaurants, is outfitted with plastic cat ears and a dozen animated facial expressions. It comes from maker Pudu Robotics, a company based in Shenzhen, China, that recently made landfall in the United States. After debuting at a tech trade show in Las Vegas in 2020, the robots started popping up at restaurants across the United States last August.
Eater critic Robert Sietsema spotted one holding court at New Mulan, a dim sum parlor located above a Flushing food court. Earlier this month, Brooklyn Magazine caught another telling jokes on the floor of Dimmer & Summer, a dim sum restaurant new to Cobble Hill.
The robots cost around $16,000 each; They are programmed with a restaurant’s layout and navigates the floor using laser sensors. Staffers load them with food, punch in the table where an order is headed, and off they go, moving at speeds that can exceed a meter per second. En route, they’re programmed to dodge staffers, bat their eyelashes at customers, and sing happy birthday in voices that would feel right at home on Sesame Street.
However cute, BellaBot is ostensibly a cost-cutting measure, says Michael Wang, chief operating officer of WowRobee, the company that oversees United States marketing and sales for Pudu. “The labor cost is higher in New York City than other places,” he says. “Owners are using the robot to reduce labor costs.”
The robotic servers have been making waves in Detroit, Dallas, and a handful of other United States cities. New York City, where WowRobee is headquartered and labor costs are among the highest, is poised to become the company’s biggest market nationwide. The bots found an early following at dim sum parlors in Queens and Manhattan Chinatown, especially at old-school spots looking to attract new customers.
“Traditional Chinese are getting old,” Wang says. “They need younger customers,” many of whom are more active on social media.
In Bayside, restaurant chain Kyuramen introduced two robots in its dining room to cater to parents with young children and help get the word out about the new location, which opened this summer, according to a spokesperson for the business. The robots, which deliver bowls of ramen and drinks to tables, are also used at the chain’s New Jersey outposts in Long Beach and Cherry Hill.
Kenny Mei, owner of Dimmer & Summer, became one of the first restaurateurs to use the bots in Brooklyn when he opened his Cobble Hill dim sum restaurant earlier this month. He BellaBot to “cut down the running costs” and purchased “improve efficiency” after piloting a similar robot at Dumpling Legend, a restaurant he operates in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
BellaBot hasn’t eliminated the need for any of the restaurant’s front-of-house staff, who still unload bamboo steamers from its shelves to avoid customers from burning themselves. “It’s a marketing tactic,” a manager at Dimmer & Summer admits. The robot is there to turn heads and clog up social media feeds, he says — and if the restaurant’s early crowds are any indication, it seems to be working.
In its current form, BellaBot is essentially a screen on wheels, not unlike the touch-screen kiosks already found in fast-food restaurants across the country. But Wang has bigger plans. In three to five years, he expects the bots to be capable of fulfilling many of the roles traditionally performed by human servers, like placing dishes on tables.
“The robot will never say, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ ‘I am sick,’ ‘I am not happy,'” Wang says. “The only disadvantage is that the robot does not have arms.”
Humans are apparently still good for that.