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.” 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.”
- 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”
- 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”
- The post-pandemic consumer who is expected to emerge with “a heightened demand for convenience” and require product served ‘at arms length’
- 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. 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. 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”
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” and find the Automat concept, inspired by modern day needs, full of potential.
 “America’s eateries: The long road ahead (Part one)”, meatingplace.com, 5/22/20
 “How restaurants can thrive in the next normal”, McKinsey & Company, 5/20
 “When Covid-19 ends, here’s how restaurants will win”, QSR, 4/20
 “Covid-19: Pain Points”, Datassentials, 5/29/20
 “What will the restaurant industry look like after coronavirus?”, Nation’s Restaurant News, 4/03/20
 “Bring Back the Automat”, Treehugger, 6/15/20
 “This Automated Restaurant Launched Mid-Pandemic. Is This The Future of Restaurants?”, Forbes, 6/24/20
 “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