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

The District of Sooke has launched a new online community engagement platform, letstalksooke.ca, where residents can share feedback and stay up to date on projects and initiatives that are happening in their community. (Kevin Laird - Sooke News Mirror)
Sooke launches online engagement portal

The District of Sooke has launched a new online community engagement platform… Continue reading

Island Health declared a COVID-19 outbreak in two houses at the Mount St. Mary long-term care home on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Google Earth)
Island Health declares outbreak at Victoria long-term care home

Resident, staff member test positive for COVID-19 at Mount St. Mary facility

A peacock struts by a pair of lamb siblings at the Beacon Hill Children’s Farm, which remains closed to the public. (Don Descoteau/News Staff)
VIDEO: Victoria petting zoo optimistic about future after 13 months closed

Public helps non-profit Beacon Hill Children’s Farm with nearly $100,000 influx

Vancouver Island Connector and Tofino Bus is putting a 41-passenger electric bus through its paces in a three-month trial run between Nanaimo and Victoria. (Photo submitted)
Electric bus on trial run serving Victoria-to-Nanaimo route

Vancouver Island Connector and Tofino Bus trying out 41-seat electric coach for three months

Sewer construction will mean limited access to West Shore Parkway from Sooke Road for the next week. (Courtesy of the City of Langford)
West Shore Parkway access limited from Sooke Road

Crews working on sewer construction for the next week

A large crowd protested against COVID-19 measures at Sunset Beach in Vancouver on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (Snapchat)
VIDEO: Large, police-patrolled crowds gather at Vancouver beach for COVID protests

Vancouver police said they patrolled the area and monitored all gatherings

A teacher-librarian in Nanaimo was fired in 2019 for checking out an age-inappropriate graphic novel to a student. The discipline agreement was published Wednesday, April 21. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo teacher-librarian fired for checking out too-graphic graphic novel to student

Teacher had been previously disciplined and suspended on two occasions

Aria Pendak Jefferson cuddles ChiChi, the family cat that ran away two years ago in Ucluelet. The feline was missing until Courtney Johnson and Barry Edge discovered her in the parking lot of the Canadian Princess earlier this month. Aria and her parents were reunited with ChiChi in a parking lot in Port Alberni. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
An Island girl’s wish is answered as her cat came back

Courtenay family reunited with cat that went missing in Ucluelet in 2019

FILE – The Instagram app is shown on an iPhone in Toronto on Monday, March 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
Judge acquits B.C. teen boy ‘set up’ on sex assault charge based on Instagram messages

The girl and her friends did not have ‘good intentions’ towards the accused, judge says

Kai Palkeinen recently helped a car stuck on the riverbed near the Big Eddy Bridge. While the car could not be saved, some of the driver’s belongings were. It’s common for vehicles to get stuck in the area due to significantly changing river levels from Revelstoke Dam. (Photo by Kai Palkeinen)
“I just sank a car’: Revelstoke resident tries to save vehicle from the Columbia River

Although it’s not permitted, the riverbed near the city is popular for off roading

Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, walks down the street with an acquaintance after leaving B.C. Supreme Court during a lunch break at her extradition hearing, in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, April 1, 2021. A judge is scheduled to release her decision today on a request to delay the final leg of hearings in Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rich Lam
B.C. judge grants Meng Wanzhou’s request to delay extradition hearings

Lawyers for Canada’s attorney general had argued there is no justification to delay proceedings in the case

B.C. Premier John Horgan announces travel restrictions between the province’s regional health authorities at the legislature, April 19, 2021. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. sees 862 more COVID-19 cases Wednesday, seven deaths

Recreational travel restrictions set to begin Friday

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson is photographed following her budget speech in the legislative assembly at the provincial legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. budget lacks innovative drive, vision during uncertain times, say experts

Finance Minister Selina Robinson’s budget sets out to spend $8.7 billion over three years on infrastructure

Using panels kept cold by water circulating within them, B.C. researchers compared thermal comfort in 60 of the world’s most populous cities, including Toronto. (Lea Ruefenacht)
B.C. researchers use air conditioning to combat spread of COVID particles

Dr. Adam Rysanek and his team have proven a new worthwhile system – a mixture of cooling panels and natural ventilation

Most Read