Getting food from Toronto restaurant Box’d is a bit different from the average takeout experience.
Customers order from the Middle Eastern fusion menu from their phones, computers or an in-store kiosk. The order goes to the chefs in the back and, in less than 10 minutes, the customer’s name shows up on an electronic screen above a wall of glass cubbies. The guest taps a button to open their cubby and there is their freshly prepared, sealed meal, ready to grab and go.
There’s no cashier taking money, although there is a concierge making sure the process goes smoothly. In the back of the restaurant, chefs – separated from customers by the cubbies and a glass wall – monitor screens that tell them when to start each order, so everything is ready and warm just in time for the customer’s arrival.
The cutting-edge restaurant’s suite of technology helps ensure minimal waiting, fresh food and convenience in ordering, says Karalyn White, executive director of corporate affairs for Paramount Fine Foods. The Toronto-based company operates several restaurant brands including Paramount Middle Eastern Kitchen and Krispo, a new fried chicken brand.
The hypermodern concept was a response to the lineups common at Paramount’s other downtown lunch spots.
“We were finding the lineups were huge… And the pickup and Uber Eats lineups were just as long,” Ms. White says.
Paramount founder and chief executive officer Mohamad Fakih had visited an Eatsa restaurant in California – a now-shuttered quinoa-bowl spot that featured similar cubbies – but believed Paramount’s food could take the idea to the next level.
The vision, according to Ms. White, was to give downtown executives “an amazing chef-driven lunch in record time.”
After working on the concept for two years, Box’d was ready to launch in early March. Then the pandemic hit.
“I went to open Box’d and Mohamad was standing in the middle of Yonge Street for two minutes without seeing a car,” Ms. White says. “We put a hold on [the plan to open], as no one really knew what was going on with the world. After things transpired with the [public health] recommendations the government was making, you’d think we had a crystal ball.”
The design has built-in pandemic benefits: it requires minimal customer-facing staff, has very few points of physical contact and, with scheduled pickups, customers don’t have to wait around.
For now, sales are “okay,” Ms. White says. The restaurant opened June 19, but most office workers haven’t yet returned to the core.
The automated Box’d brand is a pivot from the company’s more traditional restaurants and is expected to drive a major expansion once the pandemic starts to wind down, she says.
Much of the technology at Box’d was created by Givex, a Toronto-based company that started as a gift-card processor but expanded into point-of-sale software and hardware around 2010, says chief commercial officer Mo Chaar.
Box’d, which uses Givex’s kitchen management system, self-service kiosks and online ordering, is the most automated “quick-service restaurant” he has seen in Canada.
Mr. Chaar says restaurants that adopt technology that allows guests to order directly tend to see a pretty quick uptick in sales.
“In an online ordering platform, you have imagery and you can upsell,” Mr. Chaar says. “It reduces wait time and reduces employee wages… Overall, though, a lot of it has to do with consumer [demand].”
Jeff Dover, a Toronto-based hospitality consultant, says Box’d is ahead of the curve with its use of a kitchen management system, software that is just starting to gain traction in some large fast-food and full-service chains. Timing food in a busy kitchen is challenging, so a system that accounts for each item’s prep time can eliminate a lot of mistakes, he says.
“These systems take away human error, so you’d expect they would do a better job,” says Mr. Dover, principal with fsSTRATEGY. “It doesn’t reduce the number of positions you need but makes [the kitchen] more efficient… [which] allows you to take advantage of some of the other opportunities coming.” Those include increased delivery and takeout: “incremental business with little, if any, incremental labour cost.”
Mr. Dover believes it’s a matter of time before the technologies Box’d uses become widespread, particularly online ordering. He cites several reports that found sales go up when customers can order directly, including one he wrote in 2018 after interviewing restaurants about kiosk use. His research found kiosk ordering increased the average check by 15 per cent to 30 per cent, depending on the design of the software.
Mr. Fakih, Paramount’s CEO, says the company is always looking for ways to enhance its workflow by adopting new technology: “Technology is on the agenda at every strategic planning session,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Globe.
He says the company has started deploying some of the Box’d technology at other restaurants, including installing similar cubbies at its Paramount Lebanese Kitchen on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue.
“With COVID-19 case counts rising... technology is now, more than ever, a driver for both guest and staff safety in restaurants and will be important for future growth,” Mr. Fakih says.