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 body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman’s body found in Kootenay National Park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

Interfor’s Castlegar mill is getting $35 million in upgrades. Photo by: John Boivin
Interfor to invest $35 million at Castlegar mill

Project will enhance productivity and competitiveness

A medical worker prepares vials of the COVID-19 vaccines, Chinese Sinopharm, left, Sputnik V, center, and Pfizer at a vaccine centre, in the Usce shopping mall in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, May 6, 2021. Serbian authorities are looking for incentives for people to boost vaccination that has slowed down in recent weeks amid widespread anti-vaccination and conspiracy theories in the Balkan nation. The government has also promised a payment of around 25 euros to everyone who gets vaccinated by the end of May. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
38 new COVID-19 cases, more than 335k vaccines administered in Interior Health

Interior Health also to start targeted vaccinations in high transmission neighbourhoods

FILE PHOTO
Second doses of COVID-19 vaccine will be available, as AstraZeneca supply runs low: Interior Health

Province expecting large volumes of Pfizer BioNTech as age-based cohort immunization program ramps up

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

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

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton superstar McDavid hits 100-point mark as Oilers edge Canucks 4-3

NHL scoring leader needs just 53 games to reach century mark

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

A map showing where the most number of cases were recorded from April 23 to 29. This map, revealing a breakdown of infections by neighborhood, was pulled from a data package leaked to the Vancouver Sun last week (and independently verified).
36 Abbotsford schools flagged for COVID-19 exposures in the last 2 weeks, shattering record

Clearbrook Elementary recorded an ‘exposure’ on all 11 school days

Most Read