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, Amazon.com and GrubHub, 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, Panera Bread and CKE Restaurants are investing in kiosks and tablets so customers can also feed their misanthropy.
Customers who eschewed human servers spent more money, according a recent CKE test in Tennessee, Puzder said. Panera has ordering kiosks in some locations, and McDonald’s is toying with burger-building touch screens and automated latte makers in a handful of its restaurants. Casual-dining chains, like Chili’s and Olive Garden, have tablets so customers can pay at the table instead of waiting for a server.
Higher labor costs are also fueling the automation craze. At the beginning of this year, 14 states raised their minimum rates. A $15-an-hour minimum wage will take effect in New York City in 2018 and in California by 2022.
“This is not a vending machine, it’s an automated restaurant.”
Denis Koci, 30, co-founder and CEO of Box Brands in Los Angeles, maker of Burritobox, said his company can become the Redbox for food. There are 25 burrito-dispensing machines already in areas like Hollywood, California, and Madison, Wisconsin, and 50 more are slated for the next month or so, Koci said. There’s one planned for Grand Central train commuters in New York.
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.
Unlike Burritoboxes, the pizza machines are unbranded so local pizzerias and packaged-food companies can label and fill the machines with their own pies. Pizzerias in Sarasota, Florida, and Chicago are experimenting with them. Each one holds 108 slices and reheats them in a conveyor oven in about one minute and 40 seconds.
Lynnie Cook, 65, the founder of 24/7 Pizza Box, said he has orders for more than 100 of the $29,920 machines. He expects to sell 2,500 in 2017.
“Our time is getting more precious,” Cook said. “You’re going to have people bringing food to where the businesspeople are working, or just making it more convenient.”
Robotics have made their way into the back of restaurants. Sushi Station, a conveyor-belt-style sushi restaurant in Elgin, Illinois, has two sushi-roll makers from manufacturer Autec. Add rice paper, press a button, add a filling, and voila. The robot costs $19,000. There’s also a machine that makes perfectly shaped rice for nigiri. The robotics help the restaurant supply the roughly 1,000 rolls it sells each day.
“It does wonders,” said Aki Noda, president of Sushi Station in Elgin. “We can teach employees in a day or two a job that would probably take a year for a sushi chef. You’re not going to have any issues of people falling behind.”
Big G’s Pizza in Chicago, known for its mac-and-cheese slices, is considering buying 24/7 Pizza Boxes, but co-founder Jeronimo Gaytan isn’t completely sold yet. He’s talked to the company about lowering the machine’s reheating temperature so his chain’s New York-style crust doesn’t end up too crispy. Gaytan also would like to see how the first pizza machines perform in Sarasota before committing.
“Are people actually cool with buying a pizza slice from a vending machine?” he said.