Plagued by post-pandemic staffing shortages, Palm Palace has found an oddball solution that might just be the wave of the future: robot servers.

Pre-pandemic, the Middle Eastern restaurant on Washtenaw had twenty waitstaff on a Saturday night. “Today, we’re lucky if we have seven,” says owner Ahmad Hodroj. “We had to innovate.” So he purchased two “BellaBots” from China-based Pudu Robotics. Affectionately nicknamed Ms. Pita Bella and Mr. Ali Bella, they carry food to tables and whisk empty plates away.

“I can’t tell you how much it stabilized our waitstaff situation,” says Hodroj. “The quality of the food has also jumped because it doesn’t sit while it’s waiting to be taken to the table.” 

He figures the robots save approximately ten minutes per order and says that customers love them. “They’re like little kitties,” gushes Hodroj. “They meow when you scratch their heads and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in English and Arabic.” He knows that a waiter’s job is more than taking orders: “A waiter deals with people’s emotions, too.” Thanks to their robot helpers, waiters have more time to chat with customers.

Each robot costs $25,000, not including extra batteries, installation, and training. But Hodroj says they are saving the restaurant approximately $500 a day in labor costs, which have shot up along with food prices. That’s helped him largely resist raising prices or shrinking portions. “We are now considered to be one of the more economical restaurants in the area,” he says. “They all think I’m crazy! But as long as we are paying our bills, we will hang on.” 

Despite lower sales during the pandemic, the restaurant managed to give away thousands of free meals to community members in need. Hodroj says the charity was inspired by his Lebanese mother: “She instilled in me that we are a huge family on this single planet. 

“It’s nice to be able to be profitable, but what is more important is to be there for others—because one day you may be the one looking for help.”