Toronto company Percy offers remote work for restaurants

With so many desperate restaurateurs looking for workers, could virtual cashiers taking orders via video chat from places like Bolivia or Nicaragua be a solution?

Toronto startup Percy thinks the time is right for such an idea and hopes to expand quickly in the US, with one of its virtual cashiers expected to start work in Las Vegas this week.

Percy’s virtual cashiers have already been spotted at select Toronto Freshii restaurants in November.

Service sees restaurants place a screen at the order counter. Customers speak to a live person thousands of miles away in a call center. They take the order, pleasantly suggest options or additions, and plug it all into a system that tells workers on site in the kitchen what meals need to be prepared.

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

“We have franchise owners messaging us and saying this is an absolute lifesaver,” Percy co-founder Angela Argo said.

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

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

“We had restaurant owners calling us and saying, I need a Percy tomorrow, or I can’t open my doors. My staff quit, or three of them got COVID and they can’t come for two weeks,” Argo said.

A Percy virtual cashier works remotely at a Freshii restaurant.

Rajesh Patel is a Freshii franchisee 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 that. » Patel said.

Some, however, were outraged by the outsourcing of these jobs. They also pointed out that workers earn nothing close to the minimum wage that would be guaranteed to them in Canada.

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

“For someone living in Pakistan, that’s a lot higher than a salary he’s used to seeing and he can have a really amazing quality of life,” Argo says.

CTV News arranged with the company to speak with one of the workers in Bolivia who said she really liked her job.

« I love doing customer service and the people in Canada have been so nice, » she said.

« Their first reaction is that it’s weird, » she said, but added that customers get used to it quickly.

« I can interact with people who are not in my country. I can also practice my English.

When asked how they felt about the service, most customers seemed supportive.

« I think it will take some getting used to, but it’s great, » said one.

“Nothing seems weirder these days,” laughed another customer.

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

percy virtual cashier 1 6005258 1658975254326A Percy virtual cashier works remotely at a Freshii restaurant.

Many businesses, especially retailers, have replaced cashiers with self-checkouts. Argo says his company creates jobs for humans.

“These are working people. 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 Canadian history and it’s going to get worse, not better, » he said. Lee notes that the birth rate in Canada is well below replacement level and that older Canadians are leaving the workforce.

“There is a desperate labor shortage and these technologies are not taking jobs away from anyone. We don’t have enough workers. We’re short nearly a million workers right now in Canada alone. And that’s what drives it.


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