Women get a coffee from a Dark Horse Coffee Automat in Toronto on Wednesday December 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Women get a coffee from a Dark Horse Coffee Automat in Toronto on Wednesday December 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Vending machine pizza and robotic coffee: Pandemic accelerates restaurant automation

Canadians become accustomed to social-distancing rules, automated food and drink kiosks are gaining appeal

When the founders of PizzaForno began rolling out automated, around-the-clock pizza ovens in Canada, they spent months perfecting recipes.

“We anticipated the No. 1 challenge we were going to have was convincing consumers that they could get a great quality, artisanal pizza out of a machine,” says president and co-founder Les Tomlin.

While it started out slow, he says interest has grown exponentially during the pandemic. The company’s pizza oven in the Ontario tourist town of Tobermory was the most successful pizza machine in the world by sales volume in August, Tomlin says.

As Canadians become accustomed to social-distancing rules, automated food and drink kiosks are gaining appeal.

And with the pandemic accelerating the automation of the restaurant industry, everything from gourmet cappuccino and artisanal pizza to fresh salads and buttercream frosted cake can now be bought from a vending machine.

The vending machine stigma of bad coffee and stale food may linger, but experts say the robotic kiosks and automats of today are challenging the notion that increasing convenience means sacrificing quality.

The new automated restaurants are serving fresh, made-to-order food and beverages that some say rival the quality of conventional food service.

“It’s not just some microwave pizza from a vending machine,” says Dana McCauley, director of new venture creation in the University of Guelph’s Research Innovation Office.

“It’s a freshly prepared pizza.”

Tomlin claims PizzaForno has carved out a whole new segment in the pizza category. “The low-touch economy is here to stay,” he says.

The company now has 22 units in operation and another 85 on order, and is receiving dozens of licensee inquiries a week.

It’s part of a rapid growth in the automation of restaurants and cafes as consumers seek out options that involve little to no human contact.

“Access to food that hasn’t been touched by anybody is very appealing in this day and age,” McCauley says.

The demand is spurring investments in automation and robotics.

“Financially it didn’t make a lot of sense before because the demand just wasn’t there,” says Saibal Ray, a professor in the Bensadoun School of Retail Management at McGill University.

“But the pandemic has changed that. The financial investments in automation are happening much faster than we anticipated.”

For example, the Dark Horse Coffee Automat opened in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood in August, offering contactless, autonomous espresso drinks.

“It’s the same quality coffee you’d get from a barista at a cafe,” says Brad Ford, general manager of RC Coffee, the tech firm behind the robotic barista.

“The only thing missing is the human element and doing the latte art on top, which we may eventually be able to do with a robotic arm.”

While the automat is an old concept that traces its origins to late 18th century Berlin, today’s automated restaurant infuses technology into nearly every step with customers often ordering and paying from a smartphone.

“The app brought back the automat,” says restaurateur Mohamad Fakih, the president and CEO of Paramount Fine Foods. The company operates multiple restaurants including Box’d, a fully automated restaurant that opened in June using a digital cubby technology.

“We knew the automat was the answer for the bottleneck in our industry. We just had to digitize it.”

The restaurant’s kitchen — staffed with human chefs — prepares the food and places orders in a sanitized box, which customers pick up on the other side, eliminating the need for a server or cashier.

Automation has raised concerns about robots replacing jobs, as machines take over duties once performed by humans.

But Fakih says the Box’d restaurant is able to process more orders, moving front-of-house staff into the kitchen.

“We need more chefs in the kitchen and more people delivering the food,” he says. “We’ve also created a new position called a concierge to greet people when they arrive and help them take an order if they’re not digitally savvy.”

Industry experts say automation could help some restaurants recover from crippling pandemic shutdowns.

More than 10,000 restaurants have closed since the start of the pandemic, a staggering number that increases every day, says Todd Barclay, president and CEO of Restaurants Canada.

“It’s been catastrophic,” he says. “Those who are still open say they’re barely keeping their nose above water.”

Barclay says technology will play a role in the restaurants of the future, with increasing automation continuing after the pandemic, especially in more casual dining settings.

But he says there’s also a massive pent up demand for the human connection and social interaction eateries can offer.

“Many people tell me they can’t wait to sit down with their friends and family and enjoy the hustle and bustle and noise of a typical restaurant because we’re social creatures,” Barclay says.

Still, McCauley says automated restaurants will likely thrive in high-volume settings, like food courts, as well as places that don’t justify opening a full cafe or restaurant, like a ferry terminal.

It will also help restaurants with the cost of doing business.

Jarrett Vaughan, professor in the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, says labour is often 30 to 40 per cent of a restaurant’s overhead.

He says automation could help reduce those costs and potentially be more reliable.

“It can be hard to find a labour force in some areas, especially in city centres where it’s more expensive to live,” Vaughan says.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Black Press file photo
Clare’s Corner: Baking the day away

My grandmother was a fantastic baker, and it’s a hobby she’s passed down through generations

A BC Hydro outage is affecting nearly 4000 customers in Kitimat. The cause of the outage is under investigation. (Screenshot/BC Hydro Outage Map)
Cable fault responsible for Kitimat power outage, BC Hydro says

At its peak, the BC Hydro power outage affected near 4,000 customers

Graph showing the 2020 passenger totals at the Northwest Regional Airport in Terrace. (Submitted/Northwest Regional Airport)
New year brings an end to a turbulent 2020 at Northwest Regional Airport

Passenger totals half of what they were in 2019

Wireless voice and data services are out for those on Telus as of Thursday (Jan. 14) afternoon across Western Canada, Telus Support said in a recent Tweet. (Black Press file photo)
UPDATE: Telus services restored across Western Canada

Telus said they are monitoring the situation to ensure connections remain stable

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons was appointed to the NDP cabinet as minister of social development and poverty reduction after the October 2020 B.C. election. (Hansard TV)
B.C. job training fund increased for developmentally disabled

COVID-19 has affected 1,100 ‘precariously employed’ people

B.C. driver’s licence and identity cards incorporate medical services, but the passport option for land crossings is being phased out. (B.C. government)
B.C. abandons border ID cards built into driver’s licence

$35 option costing ICBC millions as demand dwindles

sdf
2nd in-school violence incident in Mission, B.C, ends in arrest

RCMP notified of local Instagram page with videos (now deleted) showing student assaults, bullying

BC Emergency Health Services has deployed the Major Incident Response Team (MIRRT) as COVID-19 positive cases rise in the Williams Lake region. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
B.C.’s rapid response paramedics deployed to Williams Lake as COVID-19 cases climb

BC Emergency Health Services has sent a Major Incident Rapid Response Team to the lakecity

(Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
RCMP say ice climber seriously injured after reportedly falling 12 metres near Abraham Lake

Police say man’s injuries were serious but not life-threatening

U.S. military units march in front of the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021 in Washington, as they rehearse for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, which will be held at the Capitol on Wednesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden aims for unifying speech at daunting moment for U.S.

President Donald Trump won’t be there to hear it

Williams Lake physician Dr. Ivan Scrooby and medical graduate student Vionarica Gusti hold up the COSMIC Bubble Helmet. Both are part of the non-profit organization COSMIC Medical which has come together to develop devices for treating patients with COVID-19. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Group of B.C. doctors, engineers developing ‘bubble helmet’ for COVID-19 patients

The helmet could support several patients at once, says the group

A 17-year-old snowmobiler used his backcountry survival sense in preparation to spend the night on the mountain near 100 Mile House Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021 after getting lost. (South Cariboo Search and Rescue Facebook photo)
Teen praised for backcountry survival skills after getting lost in B.C.’s Cariboo mountains

“This young man did everything right after things went wrong.”

Most Read