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Paramount Fine Foods launched its Box'd automat concept just as the pandemic hit.Paramount Foods

While running errands in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood recently, I spotted a wee café on Bay Street. Burnished wood and mid-century-modern accessories behind the glass made for a charming design moment, yet the setup was simply window-dressing for the main event to the right: The Dark Horse Coffee Automat, a digital vending machine.

Automats are mechanized restaurants, first popularized in the early 1900s, when freshly made snacks could be released with the clink of a coin. The first automat launched in Berlin in 1895, a beauty named Quisisana that doled out sandwiches, glasses of wine, cordials and coffees each day. In North America, about 90 million cups of automat coffee were sold each year in the 1950s. But by the 1970s, their appeal had faded, and they were unable to compete with the newer fast-food experiences and marketing behind Ronald, the Colonel and the King. And while automats have remained popular in places like Japan and the Netherlands – spots known for their love of late-night munchies – their novelty and ease all but disappeared from the North American landscape. Until now.

It’s no surprise that restaurants have been having an exceptionally difficult year. Dana McCauley, director of new-venture creation at the University of Guelph, says that while the obvious reason is COVID-19, the restaurant model was broken long before the pandemic hit. “With margins as low as 4 per cent, restaurateurs needed to find cost-cutting solutions in February 2020, too,” says McCauley. “The automat concept eliminates the server or counter staff, effectively giving the restaurateur $15-an-hour back to the bottom line.” On the flipside, she says, “The community experience languishes with this kind of concept.”

As I poke at the Dark Horse Coffee touch screen on the exterior wall of a Bay Street office building, I flash back to childhood skating lessons. Red-nosed and frosty-toed, I’d push a button and out poured instant joy in the form of a paper cup full of hot chocolate. Followed by a scalded tongue and tears.

No such danger in 2020, as the Dark Horse Coffee automat is preprogrammed to grind and tamp the beans, pull the espresso and heat and froth the milk to my exacting specifications. One minute and 30 seconds later (though it feels longer because you’re staring at a wall), my cappuccino is ready. There’s no whimsical latte art or barista banter, but I got, for about $3.50, exactly what I came for. And with automats, that’s the point.

Max Daviau, VP of retail and partner of Dark Horse Espresso, says that we’re seeing a move toward these types of functional spaces during the pandemic because people aren’t comfortable with sitting (or aren’t allowed) in cafés right now. But that doesn’t mean the coffee can’t be just as good. “Making coffee is a very technical process,” he says. “With the automat, what we have is the Tesla of coffee-making. We’re able to do live analytics and make changes multiple times a day based on the environment. If the machine isn’t used every 15 minutes, we automatically pull a shot to be sure that consistency is maintained.”

RC Coffee developed the technology, and Dark Horse came on as a partner in January, with plans to expand the automats outside of Canada’s downtown cores, where it’s not usually financially feasible for specialty coffee shops to operate. The company plans to launch 100 automats by the end of 2021, with locations across the Greater Toronto Area and in Montreal and Vancouver.

Automats aren’t just for coffee and hot cocoa. PizzaForno automats are popping up across Ontario – at last count there were 20, from Markham to North Bay – where you choose from one of eight types of automated pizza, from Meat Lovers to Honey Chevre. They are ready in three minutes, arriving hot in a box through a slot in the machine. Hoboken, N.J.-based Carlo’s Bakery, of Buddy Valastro fame, has almost a dozen Cake Boss automats in Toronto, full of prepackaged slices of chocolate, rainbow, red velvet and carrot cake. And the new Cubby Smart Kitchen on Toronto’s Queen Street East pairs several menu concepts (Caasa Afghan Bowl, Burlington Charcoal Pit, Kai Poke and Hookt Sea Food) behind one app and a wall of cubbyholes from whence you fetch your freshly prepared food. But before Cubby Smart Kitchen, there was Box’d.

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At Box'd, customers retrieve their orders from a grid of cubbies.Paramount Foods

Conceived by Mohamad Fakih, founder and CEO of Paramount Fine Foods, and launched just as the pandemic hit, the contactless fast-casual Box’d chain turned out to be a prescient move. Eighteen digitalized cubbyholes form a futuristic wall, behind which chefs prepare dishes such as beet hummus and kafta wraps. Customers place their orders using an app or the restaurant’s kiosk, then the chefs box the food and place it in the assigned scanned cubby. Customers then fetch their meal from the de facto kafta advent calendar.

Consulting chef Tomer Markovitz, who previously worked at Toronto’s Parallel restaurant, says he was drawn to the Box’d project in part because he liked the challenge. “Mohamad wanted a modern take on Middle Eastern food that could be served at a very fast pace,” says Markovitz. There are no fryers in the small kitchen, only ovens and TurboChefs, compact high-speed, multifunction ovens used in the food-service industry. “He wanted the menu to be fresh and full of healthier options.” Markovitz says it was fun to think about new recipes and new flavours. “The freekeh is smoked wheat that we cook like risotto, the truffle mujadara is different and delicious, and I would eat any one of the salads any day.” As for the missing element of human contact, he says, “I like the technology and appreciate this sort of initiative. I’m more of a hospitality guy, but I think we did a good job of translating a certain food story.”

Faceless interactions for lattés and hummus are fine for now, but when we’re able to dine out together again, will we crave the tableside repartee, or long for the automat’s anonymity?

Back at Dark Horse, Daviau thinks that post-pandemic, people will be starved for human interaction and a sense of community, but that certain convenient channels, such as grocery delivery, will remain. Along with the growth of the automat, he continues to be bullish about opening more traditional cafés. “We’re excited to be part of this innovation, and we’re also excited to grow our café business,” he says. “There’s no reason the two can’t go hand-in-hand.”

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