Golden Plates 2021: Robots come to the rescue at understaffed B.C. eateries

Engineer Liang Yu says that they can be seen as assistants to busy servers

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      Staff at the Mantra on Fort Street in Victoria take pride in their sumptuous lunch buffet. With different vegetarian and nonvegetarian curries offered every day, regular customers can look forward to a variety of dining options.

      That’s not the only unique aspect of this comfy eatery in the same block as NDP MP Laurel Collins’s riding office. Mantra on Fort Street also has a mechanical device that delivers drinks, cutlery, and other goodies to diners.

      During a recent visit, the Straight videotaped this robot bringing a jug of water to the table.

      It’s a creation of GreenCo Robots, an Edmonton-based company headed by engineer Liang Yu.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, he said that about 30 of his firm’s robots are in use across Canada.

      “The idea is not to replace people completely,” Liang emphasized. “The robot is more like an assistant that’s doing the labour-intensive work—repetitive work—so we can liberate ourselves.”

      Liang Yu shows off one of his delivery robots.

      Mantra on Fort Street was the first establishment in Victoria to order one of these labour-saving devices, but not the first in B.C. That distinction belongs to the Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Richmond’s Lansdowne Centre.

      According to the B.C. Hotels Association, its members’ greatest concern is a scarcity of workers. The B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association has expressed alarm over the lack of available staff.

      Liang said his products rely on artificial intelligence to help restaurateurs cope with this labour shortage.

      “In the restaurant industry, the waiter and waitress can cover more tables if they have an assistant to do the busing task and passing the dishes,” he stated. “And at the same time, the robot doesn’t share tips, so it actually increases the tips for the waiter or waitress.”

      Liang said that his company’s robots carry four trays. Each is large enough to carry two medium-size plates or one large plate.

      Through the use of LIDAR (an acronym for light detection and ranging) technology, robots follow a prearranged map within the establishment to reach different tables. Once they stop at the kitchen or at a table, a kitty face transforms into a console-control panel.

      “Of course, the robot can be used for catering for business-mixer functions as well,” Liang noted. “They can carry food samples or drinks or a glass of wine. While people are mingling in the crowd, the robot can cruise around to offer those samples.”

      Video: Watch one of GreenCo's delivery robots cruise through an empty Calgary restaurant.

      Depending on the model, a GreenCo robot costs from about $20,000 to more than $30,000. “We do have a three-year lease-to-own program,” Liang said. “To enter that program, the monthly cost will be below $1,000, which is less than half—or about a third—of the minimum wage.”

      GreenCo Robots was launched late last year as a subsidiary of the GreenCo Group of Companies. It has one subsidiary focusing on health devices and another dedicated to LED lighting and solar-power products.

      Liang believes that robots can play a role in encouraging people worried about COVID-19 to return to restaurants.

      “Lots of people are still shy to dine in sometimes,” Liang stated. “I think the robots are not only helping improve the operational efficiency for the restaurant, they also attract more customers to dine in the restaurants. That gives them one more reason to come back and support local businesses.”

      He revealed that as a kid, he enjoyed watching sci-fi movies, which is where his interest in robots originated. He likened the rise of robots in the restaurant industry to the growing popularity of automobiles about 100 years ago.

      “If you think about it, a vehicle is a robot in some ways,” Liang said.