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

Stock photo by Alex Chambers on Unsplash
Langley Arts Council hosting ‘make your own jewellery’ class

Participants will use a saw frame to pierce out their own pendant design on Thursday, Jan. 28

Jeremy Pue of White Cloud Productions. (screenshot)
Aldergrove filmmaker hopes to capture local stories in 2021

Though Jeremy Pue did not receive a Storyhive grant, he is finding other avenues to make his film

Langley RCMP are looking for witnesses to an apparent shoot out between two vehicles in Langley City and Brookswood on Saturday morning. (Langley Advance Times files)
Shots fired between speeding cars in Brookswood, Langley City

One or both cars were firing shots at the other in the middle of the night

Township of Langley civic facility. (Langley Advance Times files)
Budget shortfall shrinking in Langley Township

Staff showed council a tightened up budget, without borrowing, on Monday

A Langley woman said she was shaken by the angry encounter. (Google Maps)
Woman shaken after belligerent encounter with unmasked man in Langley store

A man angry about vaccines berated a fellow shopper, a witness said

Syringe is prepared with one of B.C.’s first vials of Pfizer vaccine to prevent COVID-19, Victoria, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 caseload stays steady with 465 more Tuesday

No new outbreaks in health care facilities, 12 more deaths

Flags line the National Mall towards the Capitol Building as events get underway for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Joe Biden arrives at U.S. Capitol for inauguration

About 25,000 National Guard members have been dispatched to Washington

A memorial for the fatal bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335 near Tisdale, Tuesday, October 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards
‘End of the road:’ Truck driver in Humboldt Broncos crash awaits deportation decision

Sidhu was sentenced almost two years ago to eight years after pleading guilty to dangerous driving

Cumberland photographer Sara Kemper recently took the top spot in a Canadian Geographic photography contest. Photo by Sara Kemper
B.C. photographer takes top Canadian Geographic photo prize

Sara Kemper shows what home means to her in Comox Valley photo

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

New Westminster TV production designer, Rick Whitfield, has designed an office in a box for British Columbians in need of a private workspace. (BC Box Office photo)
PHOTOS: B.C. man designs ‘box office’ solution for those working from home

‘A professionally designed workspace on your property, away from the distractions of home’

Chilliwack ER doctor Marc Greidanus is featured in a video, published Jan. 18, 2021, where he demonstrates and describes effectiveness of various styles of masks. (Youtube)
VIDEO: Emergency room doctor runs through pros and cons of various masks

‘We’ve been asked to wear a mask and it’s not that hard,’ Greidanus says.

(Pixabay photo)
VIDEO: Tip to Metro Vancouver transit police helps woman 4,000 km away in Ohio

Sgt. Clint Hampton says transit police were alerted to a YouTube video of the woman in mental distress

A woman types on her laptop in Miami in a Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, photo illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Wilfredo Lee
British Columbia government lax on cybersecurity practices, auditor reports

The audit did not highlight a specific threat, but it found breaches in cybersecurity are increasing globally

Most Read