Robotic revolution may gain advantage staff, clients in Guelph’s meals service sector

Denny’s robot, Bella, makes its way back to the counter after serving some customers at the Guelph restaurant.

If you’ve eaten at Denny’s restaurant in Guelph’s north end over the past couple of months and you’re now fretting about the robot revolution, your worries are likely unfounded.

While the restaurant recently added a robotic server — affectionately named Bella — to its team, the device is intended only to help its human counterparts, not to replace them.

“It has no hands, it can’t take an order,” local Denny’s general manager Manny Santos said, scoffing at the idea the robot might take the place of a staff member. “It’s more of a help to the servers.”

Bringing food on a tray to a table of eight or nine people would require a server to make three trips, but Bella makes it possible to bring all the food and condiments, too, in one trip, Santos explained.

While Bella might not take the place of a human staff member, her existence may be related to a labour force shortage that can be expected to continue for years, said Charlene Hofbauer, executive director of the Workforce Planning Board of Waterloo Wellington Dufferin.

“Those sorts of things may become part of our regular lives,” Hofbauer said.

She was speaking not just of robot servers like the one seen at Denny’s, but also of automated ordering kiosks like at McDonald’s restaurants, and the self-checkouts that have been a mainstay in grocery stores for years.

Rather than viewing these technologies as things that take jobs away from people, Hofbauer said they are helping employers find ways to keep their doors open in an increasingly challenging labour market.

“We are hearing those things where restaurants are having to close two or three days a week because they don’t have the staff,” Hofbauer said.

If restaurants have to be closed more often, they may not be making the profits necessary to keep the business viable, she said. If they close entirely, their existing employees lose their jobs.

The restaurant industry is not the only one experiencing a labour shortage.

There were 4,500 job postings in the Guelph area in September, Hofbauer said, noting that some of those postings might represent multiple positions.

At the same time, there were roughly 4,600 people seeking jobs, she said.

“We might even be looking at a situation where we don’t even have enough people for all of those jobs,” she said.

There are multiple reasons for the shortage, including an increase in retirements and a significant reduction in immigration due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hofbauer said.

While increased automation won’t necessarily fix the problem, it could be one solution going forward — one that might even create new types of jobs where employees benefit from new skills, she said.

Mark Hurson, in partnership with his fiancée, Lesley Bell, has a local food business seemingly without employees.

“It’s just like a pop machine really,” said Hurson of the Pizza Forno location he and Bell recently opened on the University of Guelph (U of G) campus.

It is large machine that cooks and dispenses pizzas on demand for customers.

While behind the scenes, someone must deliver the product to the machine, it is otherwise completely automated, with no one on-site to take an order or do the cooking.

It has been open outside of the U of G arena since September, and the business was profitable in its first month, something that would be far less likely for a traditional restaurant, said Hurson.

The concept eliminates many headaches that come with running a food business, he said.

“It’s hard to manage staff, and it’s hard to do scheduling, and it’s hard to pay people,” Hurson said.

But Hurson also wanted to fulfill a perceived need.

Having spent a lot of time at arenas with his hockey-playing kids, Hurson noted there weren’t many options for food — possibly owing to the challenges of managing a traditional food-service business.

“There aren’t very many 24-hour options available,” he said.

Likewise, Santos says Denny’s robot — which has the face of a cartoon kitty cat, sings Happy Birthday, and is a favourite amongst the youngest patrons — is about providing better service to customers.

“We try to enforce that that is the most important thing when it comes to Denny’s,” she said.

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: When a Denny’s customer contacted the newsroom suggesting Denny’s new robot server might ‘eliminate staff shortages as well as some of the costs associated with human workers, the Mercury Tribune wanted to take a closer look at the reasons for and impacts of increased automation in the industry.

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