Fleet of Cat-Faced Robots Helps Serve Customers at Framingham Restaurant

La Cantina Italiana in Framingham, Massachusetts, is family-owned and has been in business for 77 years; the BOTicelli sisters are now assisting the staff

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The family-owned La Cantina Italiana restaurant in Framingham, Massachusetts, has been serving up great Italian food for 77 years. But it's the way they're serving it these days that has people talking.

Food is arriving at tables via a friendly fleet of robots.

"They are the BOTticelli sisters," said owner Lee Mencoboni, who named them. "The two small ones who seat people are Leonarda and Michaelangela. The ones who bring drinks to the tables or out in the lobby for people waiting are Bella and Stella."

The cute cat-faced bots, which have animated facial expressions, arrived about a month ago.

"In this day and age, we have to stay current," explained Mencoboni. "I wanted them because it was something cutting-edge, and I felt that we would figure it out as we went forward. But they weren't here for more than a couple of weeks, and I saw immediately how streamlined everything became."

The robots know the table numbers and are programmed to maneuver the floor plan. They lead customers to their tables, tell them the daily specials and deliver food and drinks. They will stop if they sense objects in front of them or to the side.

"I was a little bit freaked out myself by them," said Jennifer Mencoboni, Lee's daughter. "But, you know, as the days went on … they're helpful and people seem to love them, so we're definitely getting used to them."

The bots aren't replacing any employees — they are assisting them so the humans can deliver better customer service. But they have filled a void amid continued staffing shortages.

"It's like the floodgates have opened and everybody wants to be out," Jennifer Mencoboni said. "We're just getting busier, but we don't have a lot of staff. We're trying, but it's definitely been difficult, so they have helped a lot with that."

"The efficiency, they've been great," said Micah Smith, Lee Mencoboni's son. "I'll give you an example. A table of four on a busy Saturday night orders their second round of drinks. In the past, that second round of drinks might sit at the bar for seven or eight minutes because that server is at another table taking a meal order. Now, they order that second round of drinks, the robot brings it out and they're getting it right away. So that's awesome for us, but it's awesome for the consumer, as well."

They've been a big hit with the customers.

"The biggest surprise is the looks on people's faces when they come in," said Lee Mencoboni. "I knew we were going to surprise people, but, you know, last night, there was an older lady and her son, and she was hysterical. She just loved it, she was laughing."

They can even sing "Happy Birthday" while delivering a dessert with a candle in it.

The Massachusetts Restaurant Association say some restaurants in the state have experimented with different robots, but this is still a bit of a novelty around here.

"We had one customer come in … he does business in Japan," said Smith. "He said, 'These things are everywhere. You know, on the golf course, they're flying around and bringing drinks.' So it's definitely coming, and we're ahead of the curve, which is great."

And being ahead of the curve is where Lee Mencoboni likes to be.

"You know, if you're going to be in this business, and you love what you do and you plan on staying for a while, you need to know what's going on," he said. "You have to stay with it."

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