- Food lockers could offer restaurants a new life during a pandemic.
- The lockers are temperature controlled and are often unlocked via an app or by a pin code.
- The automaton can also bounce, as people are looking for contactless ways to collect food orders.
- Visit the Business section on Insider for more stories.
Food lockers have grown 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.
This trend has been around for much longer than the pandemic, and is not just used by restaurants.
A food locker, in its most basic sense, is a device used to store food, often for the customer to collect. In this way, they are a bit like Amazon Lockers located in neighborhoods, apartment blocks, and inside shops.
Lockers come in different sizes, and the temperature can also be different. Some are heated, while others are cooled, to keep the food at the right temperature until customers can take it. The more high-tech models even use UV rays to kill bacteria.
Fast food restaurants have launched food lockers during the pandemic
Although several restaurant chains already had them in work before the pandemic, many turned to food lockers over the past year, as they focused on new methods of delivery and collection.
Customers can pre-order food online or via a restaurant app and then collect it from the locker.
Food delivery drivers can also use lockers to collect orders.
Restaurants are experimenting with different ways for customers to unlock lockers. In some cases, the locker has a pinpad or touch screen. Customers must enter the code that was sent to them when they placed their order. Other lockers can be unlocked by scanning a QR code or even by replying to a text message.
Food lockers can also help facilitate in-store social distancing during a pandemic. They eliminate the need for customers to interact with restaurant staff when they are not needed. Many restaurants also allow customers to choose the pick-up time when they place their order, which reduces the amount of time they spend waiting at the restaurant and the number of customers waiting there at the same time.
KFC trialling food lockers in four restaurants in Japan in October, and also used a similar locker in “the restaurant of the future“in Moscow. Automated shops, which involve minimal human contact, use conveyor belts and robots to order food in lockers in front of the shop.
Customers collect their food using a code, and can pay by card or use a biometric facial recognition system.
North Carolina-based Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken has also launched heated food lockers at some of its stores. The lockers stacked on top of each other with an individual heating system.
“We just want people to feel safe, regardless of how they perceive the virus,” Rise CEO Tom Ferguson Jr. told Insider. “Food lockers not only provide contactless transactions, they also add convenience. The biggest plus for us at Rise is that it frees us to focus on the culture in our kitchen that makes running a restaurant worthwhile.”
Although the trend has been accelerated by the demand for contactless collections, food lockers are not a new phenomenon. Several fast food outlets considered it before the pandemic.
Back in November 2018, Dunkin ‘said he was testing the pickup locker in his innovation lab. After placing an order for pickup on the Dunkin ‘app, users simply go to the locker, scan the QR code, collect their order, and leave. Dunkin ‘said it envisions placing lockers in busy stores in cities like New York, so customers who are on the move won’t have to wait in lines whatsoever.
Wingstop said in January 2019 it wanted to introduce lockers to cut labor costs, noting that 75% of its business was collection.
An automaton is like a hot food vending machine
Before restaurants started using them for customer pick-up, automats were already using rows of food lockers to sell hot food. The world’s first automaton opened in Berlin in 1895, although it looks very different from the modern one.
With a prominent presence in countries including Spain, the Netherlands and Japan, automatons are like self-service vending machines where customers insert coins or use their cards to buy hot food.
Individual food lockers sit on top of each other and line up in rows. Staff add to it throughout the day.
Automaton requires fewer employees and a smaller real estate footprint than a standard fast food restaurant.
Horn and Hardart opened the first US automaton in Philadelphia in 1902 and then dominated industry in the US: In the 1950s, the company went into operation nearly 50 automatons in Philadelphia and more than 100 in New York.
The popularity of robots has since dwindled in the US, and The last NYC site Horn and Hardart closed in 1991. As software and hardware develop, the San Francisco chain Eatsa developed a more high-tech alternative chain, but closed its doors in July 2019 as well.
The pandemic, however, gave automatons a new lease on life. Some companies are trying to innovate beyond the traditional automaton model, and “the timing seems right,” according to Tim Sanford, editor of trade publications Vending Times.
While automatons usually sell ready-made meals, a new automaton restaurant opened in New Jersey in 2021 that makes food to order. Automatic Kitchen has a patented order and pick up system that delivers goods to customers via a lockable LCD box wall.
Customers pre-order via their website and get an SMS code when the order is ready. Instead of entering this code into the locker, they can also reply to text messages to open the locker – making it a touchless experience.
That Boston Dumpling Shop also launched a robot with a new look. Its 24-hour location, which opens in the spring, will allow customers to control their orders using their phones. Site sizes will range from 500 square feet to 1,000 square feet, and lockers light up in blue for refrigerated items, and red for hot to-go orders.
Front and back home automation means restaurants can roughly halve their labor costs, says developer Stratis Morfogen. Nancy Luna from inside. The company plans to open a site on Oculus at the World Trade Center with mega-mall developer Westfield, said Morfogen.
Food lockers are brought into residential buildings, workplaces, and university campuses as well
Food lockers are not limited to restaurants only.
Alchemista, which previously provided corporate catering to clients including TripAdvisor and Moderna, has shifted to providing patent pending food lockers. The company is currently focused on expanding it to residential buildings, CEO Christine Marcus told Insider, but is also planning to roll it out to offices, sports centers and university campuses.
You scan a QR code to unlock the locker and then pay via your phone, which means you don’t even need an app to use it – and the whole process only takes four seconds, says Marcus.
Before the pandemic, companies were trying to increase their profits by offering them such as free food for staff. Marcus said this trend will continue after the pandemic but companies may turn to food lockers rather than on-site catering to reduce their real estate footprint.
It will be “a very different world when people get back to work,” he said.
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