Vending machine pizza and robot coffee: Pandemic accelerates automation
Automated restaurants are now serving fresh, made-to-order food and beverages that rival conventional food service.
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, says Tomlin.
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.
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.”