At Elie Maalouf's brunch spot in Gatineau, Que., diners these days are treated to service with a smile — and a friendly meow.
Maalouf has added a cat-themed robot known as a "BellaBot" to the staff at La Buena Déjeuner, as the boulevard St-Joseph diner struggles, like many other Canadian restaurants, to find and retain workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We don't have a name for it yet, but soon we will," Maalouf recently told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "It's not really a purchase yet. It's only just a trial period, though I think he passed the interview."
Maalouf said he came up with the idea of recruiting some non-human help in May, when the worker shortage became especially dire.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, his restaurant had 16 paid employees. By the spring, they were down to eight, and that included members of Maalouf's own family.
"I was [one] of the employees. My wife was [one] of the employees. My sister came and helped us on the weekends, and my father and my aunt were working in the kitchen," he said.
As having only three permanent workers was "not really a way to operate a restaurant," Maalouf began looking into the BellaBot, designed by Chinese company Pudu Robotics, as a temporary solution.
The robot can carry up to 12 hot, heavy platters from the kitchen, Maalouf said, although his servers still accompany it to diners' tables.
It comes with big glowing eyes and pointy cat-shaped ears. It also meows when you pet it, something Maalouf said his patrons especially seem to love.
A few limitations
"My heart pounded a little bit, and I was, like, really excited for the robot to come over here," said one diner, Simon Tesfay. "I'm hoping this is the future."
While the vast majority of La Buena Déjeuner's customers are tickled at the thought of being served by a robotic cat, Maalouf said he understands some might be uneasy with the thought of a piece of technology doing the job of a human being.
This is never going to replace an employee. - Elie Maalouf
The robot does have limitations — it can't refill someone's drinks, it can't hand diners their meals, it can't replace missing table items — but is ultimately a tool to get the restaurant through a difficult period, Maalouf said.
"I really want to make sure that everyone understands this is never going to replace an employee. This only helps us as the employees of the restaurant. It helps us with the workload throughout the day," he said.
"It will never replace good service from good workers."