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We’ve said it once (actually, a lot more than once), we’ll say it again: university towns are the ideal testing ground for new meal delivery-related endeavors. Little wonder, then, that when launching its next virtual food hall, hospitality platform C3 (Creating Culinary Communities) chose Graduate Hotels, which operates more or less exclusively across America’s major college towns.
C3 specializes in delivery-only restaurant brands that cater to many different food types, from burgers to caviar. For this latest partnership, it will take over kitchen operations at Graduate Hotel properties, effectively turning those spaces into ghost kitchens for its virtual restaurant brands from which customers can order digitally.
A key piece of this news is that food will be available to the entire community, not just guests of the Graduate Hotel. For restaurant brands under the C3 umbrella, that means exposure to tens of thousands of individuals from student body populations, many of whom are already partial to digital ordering when it comes to how they get their meals. Just ask companies like Aramark, which acquired order-ahead app Good Uncle in 2019, Grubify, which was developed by Columbia students, and robot delivery company Starship’s college-centric user base. There are also, of course, the usual suspects: third-party delivery services like DoorDash and Grubhub.
Universities, and university towns with them, are an obvious testing ground for meal-related tech. Companies like C3 and those above have something of a captive audience, given that most campuses feature lots of bodies in a relatively small geographical area, people eating at all hours of the day/night, and a younger audience that has grown up using technology. Add faculty, staff, local residents, and hotel guests to that list, and that’s a massive potential customer base for C3 and its restaurant brands to reach when it launches at Graduate Hotels.
That we haven’t seen more of these virtual food halls on college campuses isn’t surprising, since students have been largely absent from their campuses — and therefore from college towns — for nearly a year because of the pandemic. However, as of last check, many colleges plan to reopen in the spring. Behaviors around how consumers get their meals has already shifted towards more digital ordering and to-go-friendly formats like delivery. By the time class is actually back in session, these behaviors will be even more firmly cemented into daily routines.
Side note: it would not be surprising to eventually see a virtual food hall like C3 team up with a robot-delivery company like Starship to further streamline operations, get deliveries out faster, and make them more socially distanced.
Given all that, it seems C3 picked an optimal time to launch its virtual restaurants in the college town market — before everyone else rushes to do the same.
The Automat Comeback is Getting Legit
Another obvious meal-delivery concept that will in all likelihood hit college campuses one day soon is the net-gen Automat, a point underscored by the recent launch of Automat Kitchen in Jersey City, New Jersey.
These new versions of the mid-century staple are just as they sound: high-tech versions of the old cubby-style system a la Horn & Hardart. The difference nowadays is that instead of dropping a nickel into a slot to retrieve a meal, users can order ahead via an app and use a digitally delivered code to unlock the cubby door.
Towards the end of 2020, I wrote that the Automat would make a comeback thanks both to technology and to the industry-wide change towards takeout meals the restaurant biz has absorbed.
The Automat is well-suited for the pandemic era (which will probably last longer than the actual pandemic) because of it’s quick, cheap, and truly contactless nature. There is no human-to-human interaction involved with either placing a meal in a cubby or scanning a code to remove the food. And as ghost kitchens, delivery-only brands, and virtual food halls proliferate (see above), the Automat format looks increasingly attractive.
Automat Kitchen’s version of it is a hardware/software combo that features made-to-order meals meant to be healthier takes on the comfort foods of yesteryear. It’s located in an office building connected to a shopping mall, so as the population ventures back to physical workspaces and stores, this location will see a lot of traffic.
Automat Kitchen joins the likes of the forthcoming Brooklyn Dumpling Shop as well as Minnow and Starbucks in bringing the automated cubby system to the restaurant experience. Expect plenty of other implementations to emerge this year.
Starbucks is considering more drive-thru-only stores with zero seating, the company said in its recent earnings call. Other possible future formats include significantly smaller location sizes and the ever-popular double-drive-thru lane concept.
Chipotle is testing out carside pickup at 29 of its locations in California. Customers order via the Chipotle app and, upon arriving at the restaurant, hit the “I’m here” button to get their food.
Mealco, a company that helps chefs create delivery-only brands, raised $7 million in seed funding. The round was led by Rucker Park Capital along with FJLabs and others.