Take a look inside Automat Kitchen, a New Jersey restaurant that only serves food using lockers

Automat Kitchen int 1GTL Construction
The restaurant serves diners using 20 lockers.

  • Automat Kitchen in Jersey City, New Jersey, is trying to revive the automat.
  • Its restaurant has no waiting staff and it instead serves all its food through heated lockers.
  • You can order in advance online, or on-site by scanning a QR code.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

It looks futuristic – but it’s actually based on a restaurant phenomenon that boomed during the 1950s before dying out in the US.

New Jersey restaurant Automat Kitchen is trying to revive the automat with modern technology and high-quality food. And in the midst of a pandemic, when diners are urged to avoid unnecessary contact, the timing could hardly be better.

Automats are like self-service vending machines where customers insert coins or use their card to buy hot food. They have a notable presence in countries including Spain, the Netherlands, and Japan, but Horn and Hardart, which dominated the US automat industry, closed the doors of its last New York City site in 1991.

Horn & Hardart's
A Horn & Hardart’s Restaurant at 42nd Street and Third Avenue, New York City, early November 1965. Because of a blackout that hit most of the northeast, crowds jammed the restaurants and ate up almost everything in sight.

The pandemic may give the machines another lease of life.

Automat Kitchen adds a modern twist

While automats typically sell pre-made food, Automat Kitchen, which opened in Jersey City earlier this year, makes all its food to order. Chefs in the kitchen then place the meals in one of the restaurant’s 20 lockers by opening them from the back.

Customers can order in advance via Automat Kitchen’s website or on its app. They can also order on-site by scanning a QR code.

Automat Kitchen order screen w names 2
You can order in advance or on-site.

They are then texted a code when their order is ready, which they enter into the locker to open it. Alternatively, customers can also reply to the text message with the word “open” to open the locker – making it an entirely touch-free experience.

Screens above the lockers show the order status, and when it’s ready the locker lights up.

Automat Kitchen display screen w names 1(1)
The screen above the lockers tell you whether your order is ready.

Customers get their receipt automatically emailed to them after the transaction. Customers can also choose to pay by cash, but most use their phones to get the full experience.

Automat Kitchen has patents that cover any computer-controlled, food locker technology which permits a customer to open a food locker by using a device such as a cell phone to retrieve their food, without ever needing to touch the “locker.” Those patents cover the technology which is now being adopted by several food delivery system manufacturers, it told Insider.

Automat Kitchen rear of cubby wall
Chefs make the meals to order and place them in the lockers from the kitchen.

The restaurant also offers delivery via DoorDash. Though delivery drivers do not currently collect the orders from lockers, the restaurants’ owners say they’re working with DoorDash to integrate orders into the locker system.

Automat Kitchen’s principal owner, Joe Scutellaro, has been working on the restaurant for over a decade, well before the pandemic revived momentum for contactless collection.

Automat Kitchen seating by GTL Construction
Both the restaurant’s interior and menu include tributes to the automat phenomenon of the 1950s.

Scutellaro said he has fond memories of visiting the New York City automats as a child in the 1960s, and wanted to recreate this with an updated look, experience, and menu.

The restaurant’s menu has hot and cold beverages, salads, and sandwiches, alongside more substantial meals.

Automat Kitchen_s menu items by Lily Brown MST Creative PR
The menu includes a range of hot and cold dishes.

It features what it bills as “creative global twists on American classics,” including a massaman curry pot roast, frito pie burrito, and cinnamon beignets.

It also serves a $15 chicken dinner, which includes half a rotisserie chicken, as well as a chicken pot pie, which it calls “an automat classic remade.”

Automat Kitchen_s Chicken Dinner by Lily Brown MST Creative PR
You can even get half a rotisserie chicken from the lockers, served with black beans, brown rice, and spicy sofrito sauce.

Automats boomed, then dived, in the US

The world’s first automat was opened in Berlin in 1895. Horn and Hardart opened the US’ first automat in Philadelphia 1902 and went on to dominate the industry in the US: By the 1950s, the company operated almost 50 automats in Philadelphia and more than 100 in New York. Automats were particularly popular among white-collar workers because of their speed.

A Horn & Hardart automat 1980
A Horn & Hardart automat selling sandwiches in New York City, January 1980.

The popularity of automats has since dwindled in the US, and Horn and Hardart’s last NYC site closed in 1991. As software and hardware progressed, San Francisco chain Eatsa developed a chain of more high-tech alternatives, but it closed its doors in July 2019, too.

The pandemic, however, is giving automats a new lease of life. Some companies are trying to innovate beyond the traditional automat models, and “the time certainly seems right,” according to Tim Sanford, editor of trade publication Vending Times.

Alongside Automat Kitchen, the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is rolling out new-look automats, too. Its 24-hour locations, set to open in the spring, will let customers control their orders using their phone. The sites will range in size from 500 square feet to 1,000 square feet, and the lockers light up in blue for chilled items, and red for hot to-go orders.

Brooklyn Dumpling Shop with modernized automat lockers
Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is reviving the automat in New York City.

Front- and back-of-house automation mean the restaurants could roughly halve their labor costs, developer Stratis Morfogen told Insider’s Nancy Luna. The company plans to open a site at the Oculus at the World Trade Center with mega-mall developer Westfield, Morfogen said.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Alchemista used to provide corporate catering for Moderna and TripAdvisor. It’s now using food lockers to deliver chef-made meals.

Alchemista
  • Alchemista is deploying temperature-controlled food lockers in offices and residential blocks.
  • The lockers sell chef-made meals, are cleaned by UV light, and are contactless.
  • Company CEO, Christine Marcus, told Insider why she decided to get into the food locker market.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

When the pandemic hit, business dried up for Boston-based corporate catering company Alchemista.

It had previously provided food for staff at companies including Splunk and TripAdvisor. As people switched to working from home, Alchemista was left with only one main client – pharma giant Moderna, which has developed a coronavirus vaccine.

But Alchemista’s CEO, Christine Marcus, used this as an opportunity to pivot her business. It’s launching a network of patent-pending food lockers, which will be deployed across offices, schools, and residential blocks and stocked with chef-made meals.

The company is focused on expanding them to residential buildings, Marcus told Insider, but also plans to roll them out to offices, college, and university campuses.

The lockers are simple to use. You scan the QR code on the locker’s tablet screen, which takes you to a payment site. After you’ve paid, the locker unlocks. This means you don’t even need an app to use them – and the whole process takes four seconds, Marcus said.

Because they’re contactless, they’re suitable for use during a pandemic, too.

from on Vimeo.

The lockers are temperature-controlled, with different versions available for heated, ambient, and refrigerated meals, and they use UV light, which the company said kills 99.9% of bacteria.

As well as an on-demand service, Alchemista lets you order up to 12 hours in advance, too, via its website.

Alchemista doesn’t just provide the lockers. It provides the food, too. It has an in-house culinary team that makes the meals and delivery drivers who bring them to the lockers each day.

Alchemista pivoted to food lockers after its corporate catering business came to a “screeching halt”

Before the pandemic, companies were trying to boost their corporate perks with offerings such as free meals to attract staff in cities with competitive labor markets – like Boston.

Alchemista launched in the Massachusetts city in 2012 to provide off-site, high-quality, chef-made meals to businesses who would essentially outsource it with the management of their food and beverage program. At first, Alchemista used third-party restaurants, but by 2019 it was delivering around 2,000 meals a day, and restaurants might not be able to keep up.

With this in mind, it decided to launch an in-house culinary team, which went on to provide most of its meals. It also launched operations in New York and Washington, DC where it experienced rapid growth, Marcus said.

Unfortunately, the pandemic caused the business “came to a screeching halt,” because it exclusively provided corporate catering, she said. “COVID basically brought our business to a complete stop, except one customer,” she added.

The business pivoted to food lockers selling individually boxed meals. Alchemista had the technology to deploy them before the pandemic, but because corporate catering was focused on encouraging staff to be social, people weren’t interested.

Alchemista food locker
Alchemista’s food lockers are six foot tall.

As well as chef-made meals, the lockers also sell charcuterie kits and snacks such as bagels made by a local bakery. This means the lockers can give smaller food businesses the opportunity to reach more customers.

Alchemista also provides high-tech contactless vending machines that allow customers to select products using an app.

Marcus said the trend of companies providing corporate catering would continue after the pandemic but as people adopt flexible working patterns, companies might pivot to food lockers instead. “I think it’s going to be a very different world when people go back to work,” she said.

The compact nature of food lockers – Alchemista’s larger versions have space for 19 meals and are roughly 6 foot by 2.6 foot – enables companies to reduce their real estate footprint, compared with on-site catering.

It’s not just offices that Marcus has her eyes on. In Boston, she’s rolling out lockers in the lobbies of residential blocks, where people can collect restaurant-made meals prepared by James Beard award-winning chefs, including wild mushroom risotto, paella, and braised beef.

Marcus hopes to expand even more in the future, too. She envisages the food lockers could be deployed across train stations, bus stops, college campuses, and schools.

Dynamify, a company that provides software services to contract caterers including Alchemista, told Insider demand for food lockers had “exploded” during the pandemic, especially in pharma companies and hospitals.

“In the long-term, we don’t believe food lockers will completely replace traditional restaurant pick-up,” Dynamify’s CEO, Maxwell Harding, said.

“However, we do see food lockers persisting in restaurants with 24/7 customers, particularly manufacturing sites and hospitals,” he added, noting they’re particularly useful for staff working night shifts.

Food lockers are also being used in restaurants for customers who don’t want to dine in. Burger King, KFC, and Smashburger are all launching food lockers, and Automat Kitchen and the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop are attempting to revive the automat.

Read the original article on Business Insider

KFC, Burger King, and Smashburger are all bringing food lockers to their restaurants. Here’s why they’re poised to be the next big thing in fast food.

China food lockers
A customer gets her breakfast orders from an automatic locker of Freshhema Pick’n Go, an online breakfast order service, in Shanghai, July 17, 2020.

  • Food lockers could offer restaurants a new lease of life during the pandemic.
  • The lockers are temperature-controlled and often unlocked via an app or with a pin code.
  • Automats could also make a resurgence, as people look for contactless ways to collect food orders.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Food lockers have boomed in popularity during the pandemic as a contactless way for customers to collect food.

Chains including KFC, Burger King, and Smashburger have all announced plans to bring food lockers to their restaurants.

The trend has been around for way longer than the pandemic, and isn’t just being used by restaurants.

A Horn & Hardart automat 1980
A Horn & Hardart automat selling sandwiches in New York City, January 1980.

Food lockers, in their most basic sense, are devices that are used to store food, often for customers to collect. In this way, they’re a little like the Amazon Lockers located in neighborhoods, apartment blocks, and inside stores.

The lockers vary in size, and they can be different temperatures, too. Some are heated, while others are chilled, to keep food at the right temperature until customers can collect them. More high-tech models even use UV light to kill bacteria.

Fast food restaurants have rolled out food lockers during the pandemic

Though some restaurant chains already had them in the works pre-pandemic, many have pivoted to food lockers over the past year, as they focus on new methods for delivery and collection.

Customers can order food in advance online or via the restaurant’s app and then pick it up from the locker.

Food delivery drivers can also use the lockers to collect orders.

Restaurants are experimenting with different ways for customers to unlock the lockers. In some cases, the lockers have a pinpad or touch screen. Cstomers need to enter a code sent to them when they placed their order. Other lockers can be opened by scanning a QR code or even by replying to a text message.

Food lockers can also help facilitate in-store social distancing during the pandemic. They remove the need for customers to interact with restaurant staff when it’s not necessary. Many restaurants also let customers select a collection time when they place their order, which reduces the amount of time they spend waiting in the restaurant and the number of customers waiting there at the same time.

Burger King and Smashburger are rolling out new-look restaurants with food lockers this year.

Mobile Burger King
Burger King is rolling out food lockers at its new restaurants.

KFC trialed food lockers at four restaurants in Japan in October, and it also uses similar lockers at its dubbed “restaurant of the future” in Moscow. The automated store, which involves minimum human contact, uses conveyor belts and robots to put food orders in lockers at the front of the store.

Customers retrieve their food using a code, and can pay either by card or using a biometric facial recognition system.

North Carolina-based chain Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken is rolling out heated food lockers in some of its stores, too. The lockers are stacked on top of one another with individual heating systems.

“We just want people to feel safe, regardless of how they perceive the virus,” Rise CEO, Tom Ferguson Jr., told Insider. “Not only do the food lockers provide a contactless transaction, they also add convenience. The biggest plus for us at Rise is it’s freed us to focus on the culture in our kitchen that makes running a restaurant worth it.”

Rise food lockers
Rise is opening food lockers at its stores.

Though the trend has been accelerated by the demand for contact-free collection, food lockers aren’t a new phenomenon. Some fast food outlets were considering them before the pandemic.

Back in November 2018, Dunkin’ said it was testing pickup lockers at its innovation lab. After placing an order for pickup on the Dunkin’ app, users would simply go to the lockers, scan a QR code, grab their order, and go. Dunkin’ said it envisioned locating the lockers in busy stores in cities like New York, so that customers on-the-go wouldn’t have to wait on any lines.

Dunkin' food lockers
Dunkin’ tested pickup lockers at its innovation lab in 2018.

Wingstop said in January 2019 it was looking to introduce the lockers to cut labor costs, noting that 75% of its business was collection.

Automats are like vending machines for hot food

Before restaurants started using them for customer pickup, automats were already using rows of food lockers to sell hot food. The world’s first automat was opened in Berlin in 1895, though it looked very different to modern ones.

With a notable presence in countries including Spain, the Netherlands, and Japan, automats are like self-service vending machines where customers insert coins or use their card to buy hot food.

Individual food lockers sit on top of each other and are lined up in rows. Staff top them up throughout the day.

Automats require fewer employees and a smaller real estate footprint than standard fast food restaurants.

Horn and Hardart opened the US’ first automat in Philadelphia 1902 and went on to dominate the industry in the US: By the 1950s, the company operated almost 50 automats in Philadelphia and more than 100 in New York.

Horn & Hardart's
A Horn & Hardart’s Restaurant at 42nd Street and Third Avenue, New York City, early November 1965. Because of a blackout that hit most of the northeast, crowds jammed the restaurants and ate up almost everything in sight.

The popularity of automats has since dwindled in the US, and Horn and Hardart’s last NYC site closed in 1991. As software and hardware progressed, San Francisco chain Eatsa developed a chain of more high-tech alternatives, but it closed its doors in July 2019, too.

The pandemic, however, is giving automats a new lease of life. Some companies are trying to innovate beyond the traditional automat models, and “the time certainly seems right,” according to Tim Sanford, editor of trade publication Vending Times.

While automats typically sell pre-made food, a new automat restaurant opened in New Jersey in 2021 that makes food to order. Automat Kitchen has a patented ordering and pick-up system that delivers items to customers through a wall of lockable LCD boxes.

Automat Kitchen
Automat Kitchen in New Jersey is attempting to revive the automat.

Customers order in advance via its website and get texted a code when the order is ready. Rather than enter this code into the locker, they can also reply to the text message to open the locker – making it an entirely touch-free experience.

The Boston Dumpling Shop is rolling out new-look automats, too. Its 24-hour locations, set to open in the spring, will let customers control their orders using their phone. The sites will range in size from 500 square feet to 1,000 square feet, and the lockers light up in blue for chilled items, and red for hot to-go orders.

Brooklyn Dumpling Shop with modernized automat lockers
Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is reviving the automat in New York City, home to the nation’s automat boom in the 1950s and 1960s.

Front- and back-of-house automation mean the restaurants could roughly halve their labor costs, developer Stratis Morfogen told Insider’s Nancy Luna. The company plans to open a site at the Oculus at the World Trade Center with mega-mall developer Westfield, Morfogen said.

Food lockers are being brought to residential buildings, workplaces, and university campuses, too

Food lockers aren’t limited to just restaurants.

Alchemista, which formerly provided corporate catering to clients including TripAdvisor and Moderna, has pivoted to providing patent-pending food lockers. The company is currently focused on expanding them to residential buildings, CEO Christine Marcus told Insider, but also plans to roll them out to offices, sports centers, and university campuses.

Alchemista
Alchemista plans to bring its food lockers to offices, sports centers, and university campuses.

You scan the QR code to unlock the locker and then pay via your phone, meaning you don’t even need an app to use them – and the whole process takes just four seconds, Marcus said.

Before the pandemic, companies were trying to boost their corporate perks with offerings such as free meals for staff. Marcus said these trends would continue after the pandemic but companies might pivot to food lockers rather than on-site catering to reduce their real estate footprint.

It will be a “very different world when people go back to work,” she said.

Read the original article on Business Insider