Robotic feline delights diners – Winnipeg Free Press



Bella the “cat” can sing Happy birthdaydeliver a hot meal and return dirty plates to the kitchen.

When the robotic waiter, who has a cat face on his screen, fails to see the customers’ needs, he takes a cat nap near the espresso bar.

The Next Stop Café has become the second restaurant in Winnipeg to turn to robotics to cope with the daily diner rush. Bella was plugged in and programmed to start serving tasty food on Mother’s Day.

Mona Naghibzadeh, who co-owns and manages the Pembina Highway restaurant with her husband Payam Jamali, said the $26,000 robot has proven to be a good investment.



“You have to love the robot because we’re living in 2022,” Next Stop Cafe co-owner Mona Naghibzadeh said of Bella the robot waiter, standing outside the bar where he naps between missions. (Ethan Cairns/Winnipeg Free Press)

“We keep up with the latest technology as it speeds up work and improves quality,” Naghibzadeh said. “We still have our servers working, but Bella helps the servers do their job more easily.”

If the diners pet Bella, he will gently ask them to stop. If they get in the way of Bella, he will politely ask them to move.

While interactions between servers and customers are always a crucial part of the restaurant experience, Naghibzadeh said only a small percentage of customers had negative reactions to Bella’s presence at the cafe. Customers simply press their table’s buzzer to request Bella’s assistance.

“When we send (Bella) to the tables, 99% are surprised and they like it, 50% ask me to just send Bella. They don’t need me anymore,” Naghibzadeh joked.

Shaun Jeffery, general manager and CEO of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said he knows of only two restaurants in Winnipeg — Hong Du Kkae and Next Stop Café — that have purchased robot servers.


Next Stop Cafe owners Payam Jamali and Mona Naghibzadeh bought Bella to help their employees, allowing servers to focus their attention on the human art of ensuring customers enjoy their meals.  (Ethan Cairns/Winnipeg Free Press)

Next Stop Cafe owners Payam Jamali and Mona Naghibzadeh bought Bella to help their employees, allowing servers to focus their attention on the human art of ensuring customers enjoy their meals. (Ethan Cairns/Winnipeg Free Press)

“Our industry is very adaptable to technology,” Jeffrey said. “Even during my time working in this industry, I’ve seen such a significant increase in the amount of technology they use.”

A common misconception is that robots are replacing hospitality workers, Jeffrey said.

He stressed that bots are shippers, not servers, and therefore not a substitute for employees. Jeffery thinks adding robots can allow more time for human interaction, which he says is a hallmark of the restaurant experience.

“While there is no substitute for human-provided hospitality in the hospitality industry, I believe there is room in the future for the use of additional technologies,” said he declared. “We’re looking at ways to try to serve our customers as best we can, and what AI does, and can potentially do, is provide the opportunity to have more personal contact more regularly, and remove some of non-personal contact.”

Naghibzadeh agreed. Despite the myriad of tasks she’s programmed to perform, Bella can’t take orders from customers – a job left to waiters – but helps them along the way. However, Naghibzadeh said it helps rather than crippling the servers.


Jadidi interacts with Bella the robot waiter to enter the table number for a delivery to a customer.  (Ethan Cairns/Winnipeg Free Press)

Jadidi interacts with Bella the robot waiter to enter the table number for a delivery to a customer. (Ethan Cairns/Winnipeg Free Press)

“If you love your server, you must also love Bella because she helps us,” Naghibzadeh said.

Although robotic servers have yet to become a mainstream phenomenon in local restaurants, Jeffery said he expects more restaurants to invest in similar technologies.

“When you look at the increase in reception, we have to recognize the simple fact that these restaurants are seeing, whether it’s a gimmick or not, they’re seeing the benefits (of these) very expensive pieces of equipment,” he said.

Jeffrey said labor shortages exacerbated by the pandemic played a role in restaurant owners’ decision to invest in automated technology.

“A job shortage in the restaurant industry is not a new thing, it has just been accelerated by the pandemic,” Jeffrey said. “We have now reached a point where we have had to replenish a large part of our staff after the closure.


Despite the myriad of tasks Bella is programmed to perform, waiters like Next Stop Café's Shamim Jadidi are still bound to get the most out of the robot waiter.  But Bella is increasingly popular.

Despite the myriad of tasks Bella is programmed to perform, waiters like Next Stop Café’s Shamim Jadidi are still bound to get the most out of the robot waiter. But Bella is increasingly popular. “Fifty percent ask me to just send Bella,” jokes co-owner Mona Naghibzadeh. (Ethan Cairns/Winnipeg Free Press)

Julia Smith, assistant professor of labor studies at the University of Manitoba, believes low wages and job insecurity have led to labor shortages in the hospitality industry.

“A lot of servers were left to fend for themselves. The restaurant closed and there wasn’t a lot (support) outside of government programs,” she said. “Whatever the reasons are that workers aren’t there or aren’t coming back, it’s leading employers to scramble to try and find ways to make up for it.”

Asked about automation, Smith said workers have organized for and against new technologies. In some cases, Smith said unionized workers have negotiated clauses requiring consultation before new technologies are introduced. The important part, she says, isn’t necessarily the technology itself, but how it’s used.

“There’s potential, of course, with any new technology, to reduce the workload,” Smith said. “The question we always have to ask ourselves is really who benefits from this technology? Is it used to help workers do their jobs and make work safer…or is it used to increase profits?”

Naghibzadeh said the labor shortage was not the main reason they bought Bella. It was more about helping employees. During the Saturday dinner rush, servers can focus their attention on ensuring guests enjoy their meals, while Bella delivers plates from the kitchen to the table.

Given Bella’s success, Naghibzadeh said she and Jamali are considering investing in more robotic technology, which means Bella may have a companion.

“Customers here love the robot. You have to love the robot because we’re living in 2022. Everything won’t be like before,” Naghibzadeh said.

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