Written by 7:00 pm Wealth Building Views: [tptn_views]

The Fried Chicken Is in New York. The Cashier Is within the Philippines.

At Sansan Chicken in Long Island City, Queens, the cashier beamed a large smile and really helpful the fried chicken sandwich.

Or perhaps she suggested the tonkatsu — it was hard to inform, since the web connection from her home within the Philippines was spotty.

Romy, who declined to offer her last name, is certainly one of 12 virtual assistants greeting customers at a handful of restaurants in New York City, from halfway internationally.

The virtual hosts might be the vanguard of a rapidly changing restaurant industry, as small-business owners seek relief from rising industrial rents and high inflation. Others see a model ripe for abuse: The distant staff are paid $3 an hour, based on their management company, while the minimum wage in the town is $16.

The staff, all based within the Philippines and projected onto flat-screen monitors via Zoom, are summoned when an often unwitting customer approaches. Despite a 12-hour time difference with the New York lunch crowd, they provide warm greetings, explain the menu and beckon guests inside.

But skeptical customers said they weren’t desirous to join this particular Zoom meeting.

“You hear ‘hello’ and also you say, ‘What the hell is that?’” Shania Ortiz, 25, recalled of a recent trip to Sansan Ramen, a neighboring Japanese restaurant that had a gold-framed, flat-screen monitor arrange within the foyer with a surveillance camera trained on guests. “I never engage,” she said.

The service is the brainchild of Chi Zhang, 34, the founding father of Happy Cashier, a virtual-assistant company that was thrust into the highlight last week, when a social media post concerning the overseas staff went viral.

He was caught off guard. The program has been quietly tested since October, but the corporate’s website has not yet been arrange. The technology is already available in shops in Queens, Manhattan and Jersey City, N.J., including at Sansan Ramen, its sister store, Sansan Chicken, and Yaso Kitchen, a Chinese soup dumpling spot. Two other Chinese restaurants using the service on Long Island asked to not be named, he said.

Mr. Zhang is a former owner of Yaso Tangbao, a Shanghainese restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn that closed in the course of the coronavirus pandemic. He said the experience reinforced the concept that restaurants were being squeezed by high rents and inflation, and that a virtual-assistant model, somewhat akin to that employed by overseas call centers, could help maximize small retail spaces and improve store efficiency.

When the virtual assistants aren’t helping customers, they coordinate food delivery orders, take phone calls and oversee the restaurants’ online review pages, Mr. Zhang said. They can take food orders, but they will’t manage money transactions.

The staff are employees of Happy Cashier, not the restaurants. And Mr. Zhang said that their $3-an-hour wage was roughly double what similar roles paid within the Philippines.

Tipping policy is ready by the restaurants, he said, with one giving its virtual greeters 30 percent of the pooled total every day.

The restaurant industry has long been an entry point for immigrants, and a hotbed for labor violations like wage theft.

But the Happy Cashier model is legal and minimum wage laws extend only to staff “who’re physically present throughout the state’s geographical limits,” based on a spokesman for the New York State Department of Labor.

Mr. Zhang said he expected to quickly scale up by placing virtual assistants in greater than 100 restaurants within the state by the tip of the yr.

The prospect is alarming, said Teófilo Reyes, the chief of staff at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit labor group that has pushed for the next minimum wage in New York.

“The proven fact that they’ve found a solution to outsource work to a different country is incredibly troubling, since it’s going to dramatically put downward pressure on wages within the industry,” he said.

The fast-food work force is already shrinking, and recent technology could further transform the industry, said Jonathan Bowles, the chief director of the Center for an Urban Future, a public policy think tank.

Fast-food restaurants in New York City had a mean of 8.5 employees in 2022, he said, down from 9.23 in 2019, before the pandemic.

Virtual assistants have change into common in customer support and company settings, but are rare within the hands-on restaurant business.

One recent exception got here from Freshii, a Canadian restaurant brand that faced a backlash in 2022 over claims of outsourcing jobs, after partnering with a virtual cashier business called Percy.

Mr. Zhang said his business was different. “It’s a service, we’re providing a tool. It’s as much as them find out how to use this,” he said of his restaurant clients.

Brett Goldstein, 33, a founding father of a man-made intelligence company who made the viral post concerning the virtual staff, said some commenters had described the model as dystopian while many others had been intrigued.

At the Sansan Chicken in Manhattan’s East Village, Rosy Tang, 30, a manager, praised the service.

“This is a way for small businesses to survive,” she said, adding that the fee and space savings it provided could allow her so as to add a small coffee stall to the shop.

In practice, nevertheless, quirks with the model abound.

At the Sansan Chicken in Queens, the virtual assistant couldn’t help a reporter order a sandwich without cheese on a touch pad menu. The assistant said the reporter should order from the in-person staff members on the Sansan Ramen round the corner, which shares a kitchen with the chicken restaurant.

Will Jang, 30, an associate at Goldman Sachs, had lunch on Wednesday on the Yaso Kitchen in Jersey City — and completely ignored his virtual hostess, Amber.

“I assumed it was some commercial,” just like the prerecorded videos in taxi cabs, he said.

Amber, who didn’t give her last name, took it in stride. After studying business administration in college, she said she worked in-person at a fast-food restaurant. She began this virtual job three months ago.

“It’s my first time to work in a work-from-home setup,” she said in front of a virtual backdrop emblazoned with mustachioed cartoon dumplings.

When asked where home was, she demurred.

“I’m sorry, I cannot share any more personal details with you,” she said. “Can I take your order?”

Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

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