There’s a new server at Noodle Topia in Madison Heights.
This fairly short server with protruding ears brings orders to the table and returns to the kitchen, just like the others. But Bella, who has the face of a cat, is a robot.
The robot looks like a rolling bookshelf, with four trays, a touchscreen, and an upward-facing infrared camera that helps it navigate around the dining room. A staff member loads food for the table onto one of the trays, enters a table number, and the robot takes off for the table.
It’s a scene right out of the Jetsons, without the flying cars overhead. Customers pull out their cellphones and snap a video as Bella rolls up to the table.
“Here I am!” Bella says chirpily. “Hello, dear guest. Please pick up and don’t forget to hit confirm,” it tells the diners, indicating which of the four trays they can find their food. A diner can hit confirm button atop the robot to send it back, but Bella senses the trays are empty and returns on its own to the kitchen.
The robotic cat was developed by Shenzhen, China-based Pudu Robotics. It looks like a cat and can act very much like one as well. Customers can remove the food from the tray and then pat or stroke the cat behind the ears to get it to purr. If the robot has been pet for too long, it gets fussy, and gives an exasperated expression. Just like a real cat.
Hola, another robot that the restaurant added recently, serves as a busboy. The two robots cost the restaurant about $800 a month to rent, a cost-effective way to get the work done during a labor shortage.
Although the industry added back many of the jobs lost during the pandemic, a majority of restaurants in Michigan remain understaffed. According to data released this week from the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, 87 percent of operators in the state say their restaurant currently does not have enough employees to support its existing customer demand.
While Bella and Hola can help out at Noodle Topia, they can’t fully replace a restaurant staff. They don’t take orders, collect cash, or answer questions about the menu items. On a recent afternoon, Bella delivered pork buns, lamb kebab, and plastic cups of water but it wasn’t utilized to deliver other beverages or the restaurant’s famous hot bowls of long, handmade Chinese noodle dishes, even though Bella was only one of two servers on the floor.
“It might spill,” a human colleague explains.
Noodle Topia is at 30120 John R Rd. in Madison Heights