Return of the Automat

Understandably, a restaurant industry reeling from a pandemic tsunami, would be fixated on things like streamlining menus, profitability with less tables in service, socially distant seating configurations, a hygienic environment that protects both staff and patrons, and maintaining some semblance of ambience. These are very real, timely and important challenges to overcome in the short-term. But what about mid to longer-term timeframes?

What IF, we stepped back and completely redefined the problem-to-solve not based on adapting the current restaurant model, but by creating an entirely new model? As one chef put it, “doing the same old same old will not work now.”[1] If investing in a dining room redesign and increasing revenue-per seat averages are difficult based on funds, indefinite social distancing norms and patron desire to avoid crowds…what if we name “seating” the problem and eliminate it altogether? What if ALL employees were back of house? What if instead of striking the right balance between on and off-premise dining we went ‘all in’ on the latter? What if instead of abandoning self-serve, we found a way to make it work in the ‘next normal’?

Our inspiration comes from a convergence of thought, a mash-up of the following:

  • Reputable analysts, who claim “restaurants with high off-premise sales prior to the crisis are faring better” and are urging operators to “consider investing in automation to increase productivity and provide contactless solutions.”[2]
  • Two of our recent Thought For Food blog articles – Good to Go (April) and Automation Nation (June)
  • The 8 in 10 U.S. diners who claim “restaurant cleanliness and food safety will matter even more”, 7 in 10 who vow to continue avoiding crowded places and 4 in 10 who plan to “maintain their current use of takeout and social distancing”[3]
  • The 5 in 10 U.S. diners willing to enter into a restaurant to pick up takeout and 6 in 10 who lament “having to plan ahead whenever I want to eat out now”[4]
  • The post-pandemic consumer who is expected to emerge with “a heightened demand for convenience” and require product served ‘at arms length’[5]
  • A really cool show on Netflix, called “History 101”

What IF we resurrected and modernized the Automat?

Quisisana, born in Germany in 1895, was the world’s first automat – a quick-serve concept where food and drinks were served vending-machine style, backloaded in real-time by operators in a kitchen behind the customer’s coin-loaded interface.[6] The convenient format expanded across the world, and to our shores in NYC in 1912, with the last U.S. version – Eatsa – closing prematurely in 2019.[7] It exists today in modified forms in a smattering of countries but the latest incarnation from Toronto – Box’d – is creating buzz. The fully-automated Box’d is well-positioned for the future, complete with digital ordering, a kitchen staff visible through a glass window, and secure and sanitized cubbies that customers use QR codes to access. What’s even better? Founder Mohamad Fakih claims “the cubby system increases orders and sales, relies on only 1 front of house concierge and employs more cooks in the kitchen”[8]

Despite all of these pandemic-aligned features, we believe there is even more room to push the Automat forward and recommend considering new models that:

  • Eliminate dining spaces, focusing on flexibility and capability in the kitchen and minimizing contact risk
  • Make a full commitment to the contactless experience via automatic doors
  • Feature infrared, walk-through temperature screening, like the Narita airport in Tokyo
  • Elevate the experience via continually rotating menus (vs. the static menus within QSR), creating reasons to come back often

When rethinking restaurant business models, we wholeheartedly agree that “technology alone won’t build restaurants in the future, but new and thoughtful technology can make them stronger”[9] and find the Automat concept, inspired by modern day needs, full of potential.

[1] “America’s eateries: The long road ahead (Part one)”,, 5/22/20
[2] “How restaurants can thrive in the next normal”, McKinsey & Company, 5/20
[3] “When Covid-19 ends, here’s how restaurants will win”, QSR, 4/20
[4] “Covid-19: Pain Points”, Datassentials, 5/29/20
[5] “What will the restaurant industry look like after coronavirus?”, Nation’s Restaurant News, 4/03/20
[6] Wikipedia
[7] “Bring Back the Automat”, Treehugger, 6/15/20
[8] “This Automated Restaurant Launched Mid-Pandemic. Is This The Future of Restaurants?”, Forbes, 6/24/20
[9] “National Restaurant Association: 75% of restaurant operators don’t expect to turn a profit in the near future”, Nation’s Restaurant News, 6/15/20

Automation Nation

In 2017, futurists declared “the era of human-centered design is coming to an end…the next user you design for will be a human-machine hybrid…people and computers can be more effective working in tandem.”[1] Fast forward just 3 years and it appears to have already come true. Analysts are describing the global pandemic as “an overnight plunge…the beginning of a human-machine partnership,”[2] a world where “every interaction has a digital foundation”.[3] Simply put “whatever the new normal looks like after COVID, there is going to be more automation.”[4] Consider these signs:

  • Drones. Used in China, France and the U.S. to monitor social distancing and encourage people to “stay at home,”[5] as well as fly coronavirus test samples between hospitals.
image of a drone
  • Robot delivery. Across the world, from Tel Aviv to Grand Forks, ND, “hundreds of delivery robots are traveling on roads or in the air, collectively covering thousands of miles.”[6] This includes contact-free meal and grocery deliveries in Fairfax, VA, where a fleet of 43 robots perform 350 deliveries per day on the campus of George Mason University. According to experts, “consumers in major urban markets can expect their next meal being delivered from autonomous vehicle or delivery robot…autonomous vehicles are going to eventually reach very broad adoption.”[7]
Self-driving delivery robot concept. 3D illustration
  • Robot workers. Meet DBot, able to serve diners and disinfect,[8] Flippy, helping with prepared food tasks – like grilling burger patties for Walmart and frying chicken tenders at Dodger Stadium,[9] Sally, who serves customizable salads, bowls and snacks,[10] and Tally who helps retailers identify stocking needs.[11] Also on the scene are dairy farms using robotic feeding and milking systems,[12] grocery retailers employing autonomous floor-scrubbers,[13] Amazon testing virus-killing prototypes,[14] and Mistubishi’s cobot, safe enough to work alongside human counterparts on the assembly line.[15]
  • Home bots. Prepare the welcome mat for more than just Roomba® as some 74 million robotic household helpers are expected to be shipped in 2024, an increase of +164% over 2019.[16]
  • New Age Vending. Though U.S. vending sales have declined over the years, labor costs and the current health crisis have prompted industries to take a second look. Farmer’s Fridge, maker of healthy vending machines, recently doubled-down on hospitals and other health care facilities to serve more than 30,000 meals per week to workers.[17] Jones Bar-B-Q in Kansas City is currently offering sandwiches and other items through a temperature-controlled vending machine that operates after their 3pm closing time.[18] And “Rice ATMs” have opened 24/7 around Vietnam to dispense free rice to the needy.[19]
  • Contact-free transactions. Not only mobile payment, e.g. Walmart Pay, Apple Pay and Google Pay,[20] but mobile payment-enabled unmanned, self-service microstores like Amazon Go and Quick Eats, that use vision technology and AI to track movement of shoppers and goods.
  • AI-powered ordering. KFC and McDonald’s are testing AI-powered drive-thru menu boards, while Chipotle is using female voice bots to take phone orders.[21]

Preparing for a more automated food and beverage industry will undoubtedly require further investment, e.g. the machines themselves, reassessing packaging to ensure it holds up at new touchpoints (drone or robotic delivery) rethinking service areas (human vs. machine), and digital ordering and payment systems. We also believe it’s an opportunity to redirect the energy machines free up to our mutually favorite subjects: products, customers and building our brands.

Thinking about investing in robotic technology or vending? Here are links to some of the companies we came across in our discovery:

[1] “The Next User You Design For Won’t Be A Human”, Fast Company, 11/20/17
[2] “Marketing to Machines and Augmented Humans”, Inside the Brand, 4/02/20
[3] “Digital Life IRL”, Datassentials Foodbytes: 2020 Trends
[4] “John Piorkowski, Johns Hopkins University
[5] “Social Distancing Enforcement Drones Arrive in the U.S.”, New York Magazine, 4/08/20
[6] “The Scramble for Delivery Robots is On and Startups Can Barely Keep Up”, WSJ, 4/25/20
[7] “4 restaurant tech predictions for 2020”, Nation’s Restaurant News, 12/10/19
[8] “Macco Robotics New “DBot” Modular Restaurant Robot Delivers Food and Disinfects’, The Spoon, 5/18/20
[9] “Walmart testing robot for prepared food work”, Supermarket Perimeter, 12/12/018
[10] “Chowbotics CEO Rick Wilmer combines robotics with fresh food”, Nation’s Restaurant News, 1/22/20
[11] “How coronavirus could accelerate retailers’ robot deployments”, Modern Retail, 4/15/20
[12] “Robots show value in feed efficiency, reduced labor”, Farm Progress, 4/24/20
[13] “Grocery stores turn to robots during the coronavirus”, CNN, 4/07/20
[14] “60 Minutes shows Amazon’s virus-killing robot: says company uses AI to enforce social distancing”, Geekwire, 5/10/20
[15] “Mitsubishi produces new cobot”, Dairy Reporter, 5/28/20
[16] “74 Million Consumer Robots Expected in 5 Years”, Mediapost, 8/21/19
[17] “How Farmer’s Fridge’s healthy vending machines fuel frontline hospital workers”, Bloomberg, 4/15/20
[18] “Kansas City BBQ offers takeout via vending machine, Kansas City Business Journal, 4/14/20
[19] “Hotspots: April 2020 Top Trends & Observations”, Mintel, 4/29/20
[20] “Publix Goes Contactless”, Progressive Grocer, 4/03/20
[21] “4 restaurant tech predictions for 2020”, Nation’s Restaurant News, 12/10/19 and “Digital Life IRL”, Datassential’s Foodbytes: 2020 Trends

Good to Go

Five years ago, an article appeared declaring “The restaurant of the future is a kitchen with a pickup counter.”1 Five years later, the same predictions are still being made — that by 2030 restaurants will “require less square footage due to the increase in delivery and takeout.”2 It’s no wonder 8 in 10 operators were considering off-premise programs a strategic priority, even before the pandemic.3 It’s also clear that the current success of these methods will likely be prominent in the coronavirus aftermath…our new normal. But it begs the question — what should these off-premise programs look like now and once we are through this crisis? Here’s our interpretation:

Tech-enabled. It’s reported that digital orders could account for 15–20% of all restaurant orders in the next decade.4 Unfortunately, many operators aren’t equipped to meet this demand, with less than half allowing consumers to place orders via their website and less than 2 in 10 taking orders via mobile app or virtual assistants (e.g. Alexa).3 Chains like Domino’s and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit are even investing in AI (artificial intelligence) to improve ordering and optimize for hands-free, voice activation.5

Though small now, we think hands-free ordering capabilities may rise in importance as a means to further protect ourselves from touching things (like phones) to our face.

Daypart-savvy. Breakfast growth is attracting new entrants and it’s an area where current players were doubling down prior to the pandemic.

We see dinner showing great promise, having currently replaced lunch as the top traffic-generating meal.6

Method diversified. While the majority of operators claim to have regular takeout, third-party or in-house delivery, less than half claim catering capabilities, and less than a third grab-and-go, curbside, drive-thru or food trucks.

Should current pandemic preferences continue, drive-thru and order-ahead pickup may become table stakes as consumers are significantly more willing to utilize these methods during the coronavirus crisis than they are delivery, curbside or takeout.7

Quality in Transit, Safety At Home. We know experience is important and replicating the restaurant dining experience can be more challenging when food is expected to survive the drive home. As industry insiders say, “Whether dine-in or carry-out, guests notice when the quality of the food, from temperature to taste, are inconsistent.”8

We see two potential solutions in the form of meal kits and partially cooked items designed to finish cooking at home. Why? At present, consumers deem meal kits “the least risky” option and the virus is said to be unable to survive heat.

All told, whether for convenience or safety, we believe off-premise dining has nowhere to go but up.

[1] “Bring your own dining room: the restaurant of the future”, SmartBlogs, 1/23/15
[2] “Restaurants in 2030: More Tech, Less People, Lots of Unknowns”, QSR Magazine, 11/19
[3] “Harnessing Technology to Drive Off-Premise Sales”, Technomic Study with National Restaurant Association, 2019
[4] “Redefining the restaurant of the future”, NRN,10/29/19
[5] “The Artificial Era Has Arrived”, QSR Magazine, 3/20
[6] “Restaurants Down But Not Out: Datassential Survey”,, 3/30/20
[7] “COVID-19 Report 3: Into the Home”, Datassential,  3/19/20
[8] “Survey: Dining out still more popular than takeout, home delivery”, Phoenix Business journal, 1/28/20

Nutrition: All About Me

Personalized nutrition is gaining momentum as informative tests and tools become more readily accessible. We touched on this topic last year and from what we can tell, the attention it receives reflects the estimated projected growth to over $17B in the next 4 years.1 I recently embarked on my own initial screening: the simple, quick, painless process provided some pretty helpful insights that are shaping the way I structure my plate.

“Personalizing is in our DNA” – we have come to expect the flexibility to request things exactly as we like them.1 Whether it’s the specific way our coffee is prepared or Christmas cards that showcase the highlights of the past year of life, it’s hardly seen as a “perk”.


The Hartman group hypothesizes that America’s hyper-personalized eating culture “is a way of resisting the standardization and homogeneity of modern life by imbuing a sense of fun and premiumization”. While this may sound like a theoretical stretch, the plethora of products and services that allow consumers to tinker with health optimization are an indication of the 80% of consumers who believe their emotional and mental well-being is just as important as physical health. And, it seems that more of us are looking for ways to tailor our intake to our gaps. Take Four Sigmatic for example – they make superfood drinking mushrooms to address a range of “transformative magic” for consumers to choose from.


Personalizing dietary choices based on genetics is certainly “next level” but becoming increasingly accessible. I heard Yi Sherry Zhang speak to how they approach testing at GenoPalate (“eat for your genes”), and she broke down their approach in an…approachable format.

My own experience was pretty simple – in less than two minutes, a nutritionist trimmed a few strands of my hair and had me swipe the inside of my mouth with a Qtip. From those samples, I had a comprehensive report on: vitamin deficiencies, a scan of exposure to molds and parasites, a review of my system’s performances (think: respiratory, nervous system, blood, cardio, endocrine, immune).


This is most certainly a momentum that is continuing down the path of more: personalization, information, interest, access and questions. Consumers on the forefront of this trend will look to food and beverage products to solve for specific needs they identify to improve their overall health and wellness.

1 Foodscape, Datassential, 2018.

2 Hartman Group. Food Culture Forecast. 2018

AI + Food

Do you know what you’re having for dinner tonight? Do you know where you’d like to go out to lunch for that birthday celebration coming up in February? How about what new and exciting menu item you might venture out on a limb to try at a restaurant next summer? I honestly can’t answer a single one of these questions and of course, that’s not really the point. What matters is that our hyper-personal flavor preferences are changing at a rapid rate and food manufacturers could benefit from understanding not just what they are today, but to have some indicators of what they might be in the future. That is just one of many – slightly unexpected – ways that artificial intelligence (AI) may come into play in the industry.


We recently heard from Jason Cohen, the founder of Gastrograph AI, about how artificial intelligence can not only uncover, but also predict consumer preferences when it comes to flavor, aroma, and texture.1 An AI platform driven by consumer data, it analyzes individual’s sensitivities and biases to different flavors and informs how those flavors may need to be tweaked based on age, ethnicity and gender of a target audience.

AI is making its way into the food industry in a number of ways. While this industry is not always on the forefront when it comes to technology, the solutions coming forward address areas of tension like labor, supply chain, food safety, and food production.2


AI has the potential to aid manufacturers and retailers in not only understanding but predicting human behavior when it comes to their flavor preferences. Resources like Gastrograph AI could have real, immediate impact on business decisions like new product development and launch plans.1

The reality is that AI doesn’t take the human out of the equation, though. In fact, in ways, it puts more onus on decision-makers to effectively understand and use it to positively impact business.


This is just the start. We know that consumers expect more from the food industry when it comes to transparency and personalization. Couple that with significant gaps when it comes to food management (both production and waste) and it’s clear why testing and adoption of these technologies is increasing. We’ll keep our finger on the pulse as success stories and learnings come forward.

[1] “52 Things We Learned & Experienced at Foodscape 2.” Datassential. Datassential: Issue 57. September 2018.
[2] “6 Examples of Artificial Intelligence in the Food Industry.” Garver, Krista. Food Industry Executive. April 2018.

Future Farms of America: Listen Up

The future of farming likely looks very different than what you might think. I recently visited a number of farms in western Minnesota where the Redwood County Farm Bureau hosted a tour that exposed us to modern agriculture production – the practices, challenges and opportunities on the horizon for the industry. This outing came on the heels of many other discussions over the past year at events, including Esca Bona and Expo West, focused on “good food movements” and further confirms the systemic changes underway.


People will always have to eat. It’s one of the things we love about being in this industry – it’s always changing, but it’s always in demand. However, the population is growing at a rate that requires farmers globally to increase production by 70%1 in coming years to feed the 9.1 billion people expected to be alive in 2050. Simultaneously, income levels are increasing within developing countries which gives consumers a larger voice to demand quality food products that align with their nutrition needs and preferences.

This is forcing a number of farming components to change dramatically and rapidly. The two that stand out from the discussions highlighted on our farm tours? The growers and the technology.


According to the 2012 agriculture census, growers who are older than 65 outnumber farmers who are younger than 45 for the first time in history.1 The prediction is that farming will continue to consolidate to more mid- and large-scale farms and that the younger farmers will approach the business from a “farm-management” position. Research indicates that Millennial growers are educated (57% have a bachelor degree), tech-focused, and business-savvy.2 They also view farming as a business and a lifestyle – and that as a demographic they are highly purpose-driven.2 This was backed by every farmer who spoke on the tour, who shared that the passion is rooted in much more than the business itself. For younger growers, it is truly a way of life.

Technology showed up in some surprising ways along the tour, but most interesting was the impact it is making on effective farming practices. The dairy farm we visited was managed by people but operated by robots. The implementation of robots allowed this farmer to remain in business – without it, the labor costs would have been too much to compete with larger producers. Apart from robots, many farms rely on imaging from drones to inform soil and field analysis. This data can be critical in maximizing production through planting, spraying, monitoring and harvesting.


Spending a day in the life of a farmer sheds light on the incredibly complex and dynamic business we know as agriculture. The next generation has steep challenges ahead that will depend on innovative thinking and a purpose-driven approach.

[1] “Trending 2050: Future of Farming.” McMahon, Karen. Syngenta. Thrive. Spring 2017.
[2] “Millennial are Increasingly Making Key Farming Decisions.” Maulsby, Darcy. Syngenta. Thrive. Winter 2017.

Can You Make the Logo…Smaller?

Illustration of the shift in Tyson Foods corporate logoSpeaking at the 2017 Consumer Analyst Group of New York, Tyson Foods President and CEO Tom Hayes talked about a new vision for the company and unveiled a dramatically new corporate logo. A stark departure from the thick white font atop a red and gold seal, the sleek “T” stands out for its simplicity and–dare I say–boringness compared to the sea of food and beverage logos out there.

Such a digression away from the original logo indicates much more than a corporate culture shift. In fact, Tyson has embraced what designers call responsive branding.


There is no arguing that when it comes to your brand, consistency and repetition is still incredibly important. But what has changed is how consumers interact with brands. As Matty Bruning, interactive designer at JT Mega explains:

Brands are now living in an increasingly diverse and fluid digital landscape. We need to make sure our brand elements are diverse, flexible and fluid enough to degrade gracefully as visual real estate becomes scarce. - Matty Bruning, Interactive Designer

In short, the spaces our logos occupy are getting smaller and more varied thanks to an increase in technology and social platforms. Before, as the curators of our brand communications, we could be confident in our assumptions about what our brand elements would look like when appearing on printed materials, websites, billboards, etc. In the new digital ecosystem, logos get squeezed to anything from a 40 x 40 social media profile image to a 16 x 16 pixel icon on the tab of a browser window. With the proliferation of sharing on an ever growing number of platforms and devices there is no telling where or how your brand presence will display online.

The result: detailed and/or complex logo designs become unrecognizable when scaled down.

Illustration of a complex logo design that becomes unrecognizable when scaled down


Both retail and foodservice companies need to proactively begin the responsive logo design process for existing brands and corporate logos.

As mobile, e-commerce and smart technology advances affect how we interact with food and beverage brands, responsive logos are needed to ensure consistent, continued brand recognition among customers. Investing in responsive logos will make it easier to adjust to shrinking screens and heightened UX demands in the future.


While logos for all new brands should be approached with this new branding lens, Bruning descrbies how to approach existing logos for responsive-design:

Account for all brand experiences

Consider all the ways your audience will interact with your logo, including digital environments and device usage.

Illustration of considering all the ways an audience will interact with a logo

Design a logo continuum

Responsive logo design means thinking of your logo not just as a graphic, but as a system of modular components that allows you the flexibility to iterate several versions of your logo, each successively distilled until you reach the most basic yet recognizable element. This will ensure consistency across all mediums, technology platforms and devices.

Illustration of a logo as a system of modular components

Just some Thought for Food

The Reality of Virtual Trade Shows

March marks the beginning of a much anticipated–and somewhat derided–season in the food sales industry: trade shows. This month, we’re busy finalizing booth graphics, email blasts, customer events and lead capture plans for many of our clients. Despite the nuances of each channel, there is one universal objective: maximize valuable face-time with current and potential customers.   

Which is why a February 2 headline in the IFDA daily e-newsletter caught my attention: “Jake’s Finer Foods Has Partnered with vFairs to Deliver an Interactive, Virtual Food Show.”

Many of you will remember virtual trade shows as a tech trend that began back in the 90’s that never gained real traction. But recent advancements in tech, mobile and other devices made me wonder if virtual shows were worthy of a second look. I called in our digital mavens, Sandri Dekker and John Schneider, for their expert opinions.


Through conversations with media partners and many of you, we know that the travel and resources required to attend trade shows are increasing. For some customers, it has meant additional scrutiny about the ROI of attending. Which makes a virtual/digital trade show, in theory, attractive to many in the industry.

We contacted the team at VFairs to give us a behind-the-scenes look at Jake’s Finer Foods showcase and understand what’s happening in the virtual trade show space:

Much like an in-real-life (IRL) event, the show floor allows attendees to navigate a series of manufacturer booths.

Much like an in-real-life (IRL) event, the show floor allows attendees to navigate a series of manufacturer booths.

Courtesy of VFairs

Once inside the booth, customers can click on various tabs to learn more about products, download marketing materials, or even live-chat with a sales representative.

Once inside the booth, customers can click on various tabs to learn more about products, download marketing materials, or even live-chat with a sales representative.

Courtesy of VFairs


The current virtual trade show platforms fail to create an authentic supplier-customer interaction. Tech vendors are focusing too much on replicating a trade show floor, rather than optimizing the content with current technologies.

Trade shows are intended to bring our brands, products and company to life with customers in exciting ways. While the technology potential for virtual trade shows is enormous–video, live chat, interactive digital engagement and virtual reality–we’re still waiting to see a company successfully execute a virtual solution.


As an agency, we understand that virtualized sales events will become more prominent across the food-business landscape as resources are tightened and time becomes an even more valuable commodity. We also know that these events–regardless of technology savviness–are important to attend. Here are our top 3 ways to maximize your participation in an upcoming virtual event:

Be Strategic with Graphics

In a virtual environment, graphic space is small and limited. Opt for close-in product photography, your company logo, and short but informative copy. 

In a virtual environment, graphic space is small and limited. Opt for close-in product photography, your company logo, and short but informative copy.

Talk Like a Human

We naturally type/write more formally than we talk. In a live-chat environment with customers, keep it conversational and don’t be afraid to inject some personality.

In a live-chat environment with customers, keep it conversational and don’t be afraid to inject some personality.

Bring Content to Life

Your content strategy will be largely dictated by the technology offered within trade show hosting platform. Talk with the vendor to see if options like video are available to bring the content to life. 

Just some Thought for Food


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