In the not-too-far-off future, if you’re stuck at the airport at an ungodly hour, at least you’ll have good food to eat, thanks to a wave of high-tech vending machines like the Yo-Kai Express.
Yo-Kai Express is built for high-traffic areas (like airports) and can dispense piping hot bowls of ramen 24 hours a day. Today I got a chance to watch a Yo-Kai in action, taste its wares (it was delicious!) and see how it stacks up among the cohort of new high-tech vending machines coming up.
“Yo-Kai is a Japanese ghost that can appear anywhere at any time,” Yo-Kai Founder and CEO Andy Lin told me in front of his machine at the Metreon in San Francisco. This is pretty much how Lin envisions his machine: popping up anywhere so people can eat at any time. Office buildings, airports, malls, any place where there are a lot of people who might be looking for a quick meal.
There are four menu choices, costing between $11 and $12. Each machine holds 40 frozen bowls of ingredients such as meat, vegetables and noodles. When someone orders their food, there is some secret, proprietary stuff that happens behind the scenes to hydrate and heat the contents, and less than a minute later, out comes a sealed bowl of literally piping hot soup (there’s actually a caution sign warning customers how hot the food is). The machine also gives you a little packet of utensils that includes a spoon, fork, napkin and chopsticks.
Lin says the key to its preparation is that the company has developed a flash freezing process that minimizes the size of the ice crystals that can form and damage the food. Because the food is stored frozen in the machine, Yo-Kai can prepare and freeze everything in a central kitchen. When the machine runs low, it alerts corporate HQ, which can then bring replacements (kept frozen the entire time).
The Yo-Kai made its debut at the Metreon in Feb. 2018, and is now in 14 additional locations including Tesla, Netflix, and Capital One offices in the Bay Area. The machines are free for the company to install, with Yo-Kai collecting all the revenue. This provides offices with a way of providing hot food for office workers, without incurring huge costs.
Lin didn’t want to provide sales numbers, but said that if a machine sells 40 bowls a day, it will recoup its cost in four months.
One of the more interesting aspects of Yo-Kai Express is that in addition to credit card, mobile payments and even cryptocurrencies, the machine will also accept airline vouchers to buy your food. Though there aren’t any Yo-Kais set up in airports yet (the first one goes into SFO in June), Lin said the company is working with United Airlines. By accepting the voucher, if your flight is delayed or you get bumped or whatever and the airline gives you a food voucher, you can use it at Yo-Kai after hours when other airport restaurants are closed, which is very smart.
Yo-Kai certainly isn’t the only company that sees high-end vending machines as the next wave of high-volume food service. Chowbotics’ Sally robot is busy making fresh salads in offices and hospitals, and while it hasn’t come to market yet, Basil Street is developing a pizza machine that heats up frozen pizzas.
Based in Sunnyvale, CA, Yo-Kai has raised $1 million in seed funding, and has a mix of 13 execs, contractors and other employees working for the company. Lin said the company is busy prepping the next generation of its Express box, which will feature two dispensers so people don’t have to wait in line for a long time.
Yo-Kai won’t be able to make your long flight delays go away, but at least that time lost will become more tasty.