Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Sushi Robots and Vending-Machine Pizza Will Reinvent the Automat

Decades from now, historians may look back on 2016 as the year Earthlings ate pizza from vending machines, bought burritos from a box in New York’s Grand Central Terminal and devoured sushi rolled by robots.

“Automation is coming whether we want it to come or not,” said Andy Puzder, chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants Inc., which owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast-food chains. “It’s everywhere. It’s in everything.”

At a time when more consumers are embracing hand-made artisanal foods, 24/7 Pizza Box, Burritobox and Sushi Station are headed in the other direction. Vending-machine pizza will start popping up in Florida later this year and chipotle-chicken burritos, accompanied by guacamole and salsa, can now be ordered from an automated box. Sushi-making robots from Japan are already operating in U.S. restaurants and university cafeterias.

Vending machines are a $7.52 billion business that’s growing in the U.S., according to researcher IBISWorld Inc. Sales rose 3.3 percent last year and are expected to gain 1.8 percent a year, on average, through 2020. But most have nothing to do with freshly cooked food. The leaders are Outerwall Inc., which dispenses movies through Redbox, and Compass Group Plc, which sells snacks.

Millennials, accustomed to apps and online services such as Uber Technologies Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and GrubHub Inc., increasingly don’t want to interact with other humans when ordering dinner, calling a cab or stocking up on toilet paper. That’s why eateries including McDonald’s Corp., Panera Bread Co. and CKE Restaurants are investing in kiosks and tablets so customers can also feed their misanthropy. (...)

For those who may think eating lunch out of a vending machine is gross, Koci said he understands.

“I get it. But this is not a vending machine, it’s an automated restaurant,” he said. “There are real humans making the burritos. Everything is handmade.”

No, those humans are not super-small and no, they don’t toil in the machines. The burritos are made in kitchens that also supply restaurants, sometimes flash-frozen, and then shipped to the boxes. They’re defrosted before going into the machines. An employee checks the boxes once a day to make sure there’s fresh inventory.

The vending machines harken back to the Automat, a 20th-century fast-food restaurant that featured cubbyholes with food items behind glass doors. Put coins in a slot and the door would open for a gratuity-free snack or meal.

The bright orange Burritoboxes are higher tech. They have a touch screen, mobile-phone charging station and live-chat customer service in case there’s an issue. It takes about 90 seconds to heat a complete meal, including Cinnabon-brand gooey bites for dessert. Customers can watch music videos on the touch screen while waiting.

by Leslie Patton, Bloomberg | Read more:
Image: 24/7 Pizza Box