Inexplicably, I’ve always wished I could have experienced the Automat in its heyday. Created at the tail-end of the Nineteenth Century, Automats consisted of a wall of cubbies containing simple food and beverage items users could unlock for a nickel. It was essentially fast food before fast food existed.
Fast forward to 2020, and it looks like I may yet be able to experience the concept, albeit a higher-tech version of it.
As we chatted on this week during our Editor podcast, the Automat is making a comeback. That’s thanks to restaurant companies launching cubby systems that are equipped with temperature control functionality and that can be unlocked with a user’s own smartphone. Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is the latest to iterate on the old concept, following in the footsteps of Minnow, Brightloom (née Eatsa), and others.
The resurgence makes sense, given the restaurant industry’s sudden shift to off-premises formats and simpler foods that travel well. Which is why I can think of no better location for Automat 2.0 than outside a ghost kitchen.
One of the major selling points for ghost kitchens is that they allow restaurants to operate without incurring the costs of a front-of-house operation. The ghost kitchen as we know it is also specifically designed to serve off-premises formats. Up to now, that’s been primarily delivery, but the pandemic has generated so much interest in ghost kitchens that we’re now seeing different styles of the concept emerge, including those that offer pickup. Kitchen United lists both options on its website, as does DoorDash (for its DoorDash Kitchens facility). Having a pickup option means restaurants can still take advantage of the ghost kitchen format without necessarily coughing up the sky-high commission fees associated with delivery orders.
At the same time, the pandemic continues, and even if it were to magically disappear tomorrow, our heightened expectations around cleanliness and “contactless” restaurant experiences are here to stay. Which is to say, customers are going to want minimized human contact for restaurant transactions for a long time to come.
It doesn’t get more minimized than the Automat. By way of a hypothetical example, imagine a virtual deli that has a kitchen space from which it fulfills online orders. It would fulfill delivery orders, but also maintain a cubby system outside to hold any pickup orders. Throw a few tables and chairs near the machine where those who want can eat onsite. Other than the smartphones and the digital ordering, the setup isn’t hugely different from the original Automat concept.
Of course, some ghost kitchen companies choose to locate their facilities in former warehouse districts that don’t get much foot traffic. But as we outlined in our recent Spoon Plus report on ghost kitchens, that’s the exception, rather than the norm right now. Most ghost kitchen operators will tell you location matters, and the closer you can locate one to customers, the better.
And actually, we’re already trekking towards this automat-in-a-ghost kitchen future. Besides the above examples, Starbucks launched its Express stores in 2019 that act as ghost kitchens for nearby locations and include a wall of pickup lockers onsite. Other fast food chains have whittled their dining room concepts down to more to-go-friendly formats, and many of these orders are now being fulfilled in ghost kitchens.
Automats were originally a precursor to fast food. These days, it seems like fast food may yet prove to be the forerunner to Automat 2.0.
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You may remember a year or so ago when I wrote about Domino’s partnering with a company called what3words to delivery food to street corners, parks, and other non-traditional addresses.
It seems what3words is at it again with food delivery, this time partnering with Honest Burgers in London to deliver to random swaths of grass in the city’s Clapham district.
What3words’ platform divides the entire world into 3m x 3m squares, which are GPS coordinates. An algorithm then converts the coordinates into three-word addresses to give each a unique (and often bizarre) name (see image above). With this technology, you could literally choose a random patch of a park sans any notable landmarks or other identifiable items and get your burger delivered to your exact location.
The program with Honest Burgers is only running for a few days and restricted to Clapham. But with more of the restaurant experience taking place outside the four walls of the business, a technology like this could become huge. That’s assuming the restaurant biz makes it through winter and and once more heads to outdoor spaces.
Cracker Barrel’s gone the ghost kitchen route. The company said at its earnings call this week that it plans to convert one of its locations in Indianapolis, Ind. to a ghost kitchen that will handle large-scale catering orders as well as some individual orders placed via third-party delivery services. The store will also be used to help fulfill delivery orders from other nearby Cracker Barrel locations during busy times, like the upcoming fall/winter holiday season.
Meanwhile, Shake Shack said this week it has expanded curbside pickup to 40 percent of its stores, and that roughly one third of all app orders are being placed for curbside. The company has plans to extend curbside to 50 of its locations by the end of September, and is also exploring the possibility of more drive-thrus and walk-up windows.
The New York City Council passed a bill that lets restaurants add a “COVID-19 surcharge” of up to 10 percent to a customer’s bill for up to 90 days after indoor dining reaches full capacity. In other words, for the foreseeable future. The bill is an attempt to help restaurants generate additional revenue as the struggle to keep the lights on continues.