Are automated restaurants the future of dining in Toronto?

Robotic cafes, smart kitchens and cubby restaurants have been popping up around the city during the pandemic

You’re telling me a robot made this coffee?

That’s my thought as I sipped my latte from Dark Horse Coffee Automat. The Yorkville spot is the first automated coffee shop in Canada, and it tastes impeccably similar to how it does at Dark Horse’s chain of human-operated cafes. I almost want the machine to ignore me for a few minutes while it does a crossword puzzle. 

The Dark Horse automat is part of a new wave of spots reacting to shifts in human behaviour that started before the COVID-19 pandemic, but have accelerated in the social distancing era. More and more automated restaurants are popping up, using technology to go contactless and change the dining experience. 

Is this the future of Toronto restaurants?

Dark Horse’s Automat at work.

Don’t use the ‘v’ word

If all goes smoothly, the Automat cafe, a partnership between Dark Horse and self-serve coffee tech company RC Coffee, will soon be ubiquitous. 

The location at 1235 Bay – complete with a window display designed by Mjolk to remind you of the cafe experience you miss during the pandemic – is a limited-time pilot project. It’s the first in what’s planned to be an aggressive expansion: 100 locations by the end of 2021. In addition to Toronto, the company is scouting locations in Vancouver and Montreal. 

But Max Daviau, VP of retail at Dark Horse, stresses that the automats are not a full pivot to robot coffee – they’re an extension. 

“We’re not looking to replace our cafes,” he says. “We still believe in cafes and we still believe people will want to come back to cafes in the long run. We believe in innovation, too, especially during COVID. And so this is something that can exist alongside our cafes.”

Brad Ford is the general manager of coffee at RC Coffee and before that he was a longtime cafe owner and distributor for Intelligentsia Coffee. Without Ford, who Daviau calls “one of the godfathers of specialty coffee in Canada,” he doesn’t think he would have considered the partnership. But he, along with the whole Dark Horse staff, went to a meeting in Mississauga to try Automat-made coffee. 

“Everyone was super impressed,” he recalls, marvelling at the fact that they could train the technology to make a Dark Horse coffee. “It has the signature Dark Horse boldness while still being able to pull tasting notes that you can taste individually, which is one of the defining elements of specialty coffee.”

Ford is careful not to use “the ‘V’ word” when talking about the Automat.

“Because vending machine coffee is notoriously bad,” he says. “The stuff you get at the airport lounge or when you take your kids to the hockey rink or at a hotel breakfast – it’s just undrinkable.

“Here, the coffee comes out pretty much as good as you’re going to get at a cafe. What it’s missing, unfortunately, is the human element.”

Technology has been playing a larger and larger role in the specialty coffee experience over the last decade, says Ford, and the process has been gradually automating anyway to make things more consistent. He is also careful to stress that a barista does make a difference and they are still a big part of the cafe experience. He doesn’t intend for robots to take their jobs.

There are considerably lower overhead costs attached to automats than full cafes. And they’re more pandemic-friendly, with touchless ordering from your phone and shorter wait times.

But a coffee shop is not just about the coffee. It’s a place to hang out and socialize, or even to open your laptop and be alone with a bunch of other people. That’s impossible right now during the pandemic, but it will eventually return. And Dark Horse wants it to return. 

What adding Automats does, says Ford, is bring third-wave-style coffee to places where you otherwise wouldn’t be able to get it. 

“We want to make it so that if you’re in the suburbs somewhere or some part of the city you don’t know very well and you have a hankering for good coffee, you don’t really know what’s what but you see a Dark Horse automat, you know, for sure, you’re going to get a good cup of coffee,” he says. “That’s the real goal here, to make good coffee more accessible throughout the city.”

Even before the pandemic, there were already some customers, many of them office workers, who wouldn’t want the whole cafe experience and would just want a quick coffee to go. Many of them used the ordering app Ritual.

Now, that pickup model has become the dominant cafe experience, and even if people will be starved for social interaction, there’s likely going to be a carry-over of some of that behaviour as things start opening up again. Having both full cafes and Automats lets Dark Horse cater to every kind of patron. 

“We say we’re people first,” says Daviau. “In a weird way, this is about being people-first to a certain group of customers.”

This cafe is just for show. It’s behind the window display at Dark Horse Coffee Automat’s Yorkville location.

Automated restaurants with a human touch

The Automat concept didn’t arise out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The window where Dark Horse’s pilot Automat sits previously belonged to PizzaForno, a series of 24/7 pizza ovens that automatically cooks your pizza to order. There are already 20 locations throughout Ontario and it’s been expanding throughout the pandemic. 

Carlo’s Bake Shop ATMs have also been popping up throughout the city, vending out colourful slices of cake loaded in daily from the New Jersey bakery run by reality TV chef “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro.

The term “automat” itself dates back to 1950s New York. You’d grab a dish from a series of stacked windows, unlocking it with a nickel. Now, they’re looked back at through a lens of nostalgic Americana. So the automated restaurants concept isn’t so much futuristic as retro-futuristic. 

Those automats were promoted as if the food was made by robots, but it actually took quite a bit of hustling by real people to cook the food and fill the slots. And there are a handful of new restaurants that are following suit. 

Box’d is a new concept from Middle Eastern restaurant chain Paramount Fine Foods that launched in June. Like others, the idea preceded the pandemic. 

You place an order either on the restaurant’s app or website, or go directly in and order on a touch-screen (similar to the ones now commonplace at McDonald’s). When your order is ready, it appears in one of 24 sleek-looking cubbies, which you unlock by pressing. You’ll soon be able to unlock it from your phone, which means you could easily order and pick up your food without touching anything at all – a major boon in the COVID era. 

The idea is not to automate out the workers, says owner Mohamad Fakih. It’s actually allowed them to reemploy a lot of them. 

Like Dark Horse, Fakih says he still values the human element, and that Box’d actually works in service of it. For starters, there’s a “concierge” there at all times to welcome you or help you with your order. You can see the cooks working to make the food to order behind the cubbies, and the name of the chef appears on the bag. There are typically four or five chefs working at any given time, he says, which is around the same number of people working at a regular Paramount.

“I got into the restaurant business because I love smiling to people, I love people, I don’ want to take that away,” says Fakih. “I love the people that work at my restaurants too, and I want them to succeed. This is a way to give them the toolbox to do that instead of overwhelming them.”

In the pre-COVID era, there’d be a major lunch rush in areas heavy with office traffic.

“All our businesses were focused on five hours,” says Fakih. “And we’d have to cram five times as many sales into that time.”

At Box’d, the chef’s screen only shows the order that’s 10 minutes away from being picked up. If the food has been in the cubby for more than eight minutes, they’re instructed to check on the quality of the food and contact the customer or replace it. So, unlike a usual fast food lunch rush, the food is never left sitting. And the customer never has to spend a long time within the four walls of the restaurant at a time when we’re all meant to be staying home as much as possible.

Box’d is one of three new concepts Paramount launched during the pandemic; there are also the the “cloud kitchens” Krispo Chicken and Mas E Mo pizza, which only do takeout and delivery. It’s one way to increase cash flow and profitability in a time when everyone has had to pivot, Fakih says.  The next step is to combine the concepts under various roofs. 

Cubby Smart Kitchen officially launched two weeks ago in Moss Park. Similar to Box’d, it sends orders straight to cubbies for pickup. There are five different menus you can order from, each with its own restaurant name. You can get burgers, poke bowls, fish and chips, Afghan food, or combine a bunch of dishes into one order. 

CEO Jay Yordi says contactless ordering is the present, while the future of dining is combining a bunch of different concepts at once.

We’ve seen that with the rise of ghost kitchens – separate delivery-only “restaurants” operating out of the same kitchen and existing primarily on food apps – which have been proliferating even more during the pandemic. Cubby essentially gives those kitchens a home, while building the tech needed to facilitate them into a restaurant concept.

Cubby focuses on takeout and delivery, and is purposely located on a convenient delivery route. (It’s on all the major delivery apps.) There are plans to expand, and they could tailor the offerings to the neighbourhood the restaurants are located in.

Similarly to Paramount’s Fakih, Yordi insists that this isn’t a way to take the food business out of the hands of people and put it into the hands of robots. There are hosts here too, and the food is cooked to order and the customer’s name is written on the bag. 

“Tech is important, but never as important as the human touch,” he says.


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