Toronto-based company Percy is pitching remote working for restaurants

With so many restaurant owners desperate for employees, could a solution be to taking orders via video chat from places like Bolivia or Nicaragua?

Toronto-based startup Percy believes the time has come for such an idea and hopes to expand to the US soon, with one of its virtual cashiers set to go to work in Las Vegas this week.

Percy’s virtual cashiers were spotted in some Toronto Freshii restaurants back in November.

The service sees restaurants placing a screen at the order counter. At a call center, customers talk to a live person thousands of miles away. They take the order, pleasantly suggest options or additions and plug it all into a system that tells the employees on site in the kitchen which meals to prepare.

There are currently about 100 Percy employees in call centers in Pakistan, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

“We have franchisees who message us and say it’s an absolute lifesaver,” said Angela Argo, Percy co-founder.

The latest data from Statistics Canada shows that the food and hospitality industry has lost about 171,000 workers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restaurants have been hit particularly hard and have struggled to find and retain staff.

“We had restaurant owners call us and say, ‘I need a Percy tomorrow, or I won’t be able to open my doors. My employees have quit, or three of them got COVID and can’t come in for two weeks,” Argo said.

A virtual Percy cashier works remotely at a Freshii restaurant.

Rajesh Patel is a Freshii franchise owner who has been using Percy for several months.

“If someone calls in sick or we have a team member on vacation, we can use Percy for this.” said Patel.

However, some are outraged by the outsourcing of such jobs. They have also pointed out that the workers are nowhere near the minimum wage they would receive in Canada.

Argo says the workers earn at least two to three times their local minimum wage. In Bolivia, the minimum wage is about $5,000 per year. In Pakistan it is closer to $2,000.

“For someone living in Pakistan, it’s much higher than the wages they’re used to seeing and they can have a really incredible quality of life,” Argo says.

CTV News has arranged with the company to speak to one of the employees in Bolivia who said she really loves her job.

“I love customer service and the people in Canada were so nice,” she said.

“Their first reaction is that this is weird,” she said, but added customers quickly get used to it.

“I come into contact with people from my country. I can also practice my English.”

A virtual Percy cashier works remotely at a Freshii restaurant.

When asked what they thought of the service, most customers seemed supportive.

“I think it will take time to get used to it, but it’s great,” said one.

“In this day and age nothing seems strange anymore”, said another customer with a laugh.

Although one person said he thought the human element was still missing and you expect someone to personally take your order.

Many companies, especially retailers, have replaced cashiers with self-checkout machines. Argo says his company creates jobs for people.

“These are people at work. You see their smiling faces. It’s a net benefit.”

Ian Lee, an associate professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, says this is all the result of a massive labor shortage that could last for the next 50 years.

“We have the lowest unemployment rate in Canada’s history and it’s going to get worse, not better,” he said. Lee notes that the birth rate in Canada is well below the replacement level and older Canadians have left the workforce.

“There is a dire shortage of workers and these technologies are not taking jobs away from anyone. We don’t have enough workers. In Canada alone, we now have nearly a million employees. And that’s what drives this.”

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