Server machine: UK restaurant chain Bella Italia trials robot waiter

As worker shortages are felt across the hospitality sector, the owners of the Bella Italia chain are turning to robots to provide table service to customers.

Big Table Group, which also owns Café Rouge and Las Iguanas, is testing out the robot at its Bella Italia restaurant in Center Parcs Whinfell Forest in Cumbria, in the first such trial by a big restaurant chain.

The BellaBot, made by Chinese company Pudu, can carry up to 40kg on four trays and deliver and retrieve plates from tables with help from humans who load and unload its “body”.

Bella Italia restaurant in Bristol
Bella Italia has more than 90 restaurants across the UK. Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Eric Guo, the chief executive of Spark which distributes Pudu robots in the UK, said there were 60 working across 20 British businesses and he expected more orders in the year ahead. Most are operating in restaurants, but hotels, supermarkets, care homes, snooker clubs and bowling alleys are also experimenting with the technology.

“It has become an apparent trend that hospitality owners enquire [about] bot services to help resolve the hospitality staff shortage,” he said. Guo added that the robots also helped businesses gain publicity on social media when customers took videos and posted them on sites such as TikTok.

People interact with the BellaBot delivery robot at the Pudu booth at the CES tech show in Las Vegas.
People interact with the BellaBot delivery robot at the Pudu booth at the CES tech show in Las Vegas. Photograph: Joe Buglewicz/AP

Big Table Group, which runs 150 restaurants under its various brands, said the test was operating in one outlet and it had not confirmed plans to expand the pilot.

The experiment comes as 10% of hospitality jobs remain unfilled, according to the UKHospitality trade body, as Brexit combined with the pandemic to prompt many European workers, who have played an important role in the UK industry, to leave the UK.

Competition from other sectors – where hours may fit more easily with family life and pay may be more attractive – is also a factor.