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Food Automation Goes Mainstream as Consumers Seek out Self-Service Options

Automated food preparation and production is no longer exclusively the purview of restaurant industry insiders and career venture capitalists. Last week, the robotic pizza vending machine company Piestro closed an oversubscribed equity crowdfunding campaign, with $4.7 million raised from over 2,100 investors.

Piestro aims to create automated kiosks that allow consumers to order pizza according to their preferences, with the machine assembling and cooking the pie. The company promises margins that are more than double that of a traditional pizzeria. While VC funds have been pouring into kitchen automation, especially since the start of the pandemic, this crowdfunding haul shows that the interest in the technology extends to the masses.

The round comes as consumers are turning more than ever to self-service checkout options. Research from PYMNTS’ study “Today’s Self-Service Shopping Journey: The New Retail Expectation,” created in collaboration with Toshiba, finds that 28% of consumers had used self-service checkout for their last in-store purchase, with two-thirds of self-checkout users reporting that they did so because it is faster than traditional checkout. Plus, 41% of consumers report that the reason they use traditional checkout is that is the only option available, suggesting untapped demand for self-service.

See also: Consumers Want Self-Service Checkout Options, But Rarely Get to Use Them

Piestro competitor Picnic is already commercially available, and the company reported in August that demand among restaurants was high, with the company selling out in its first round of pre-orders about a week after launching. In fact, vending machine usage is on the rise after a brief dip in 2020, with vending machine operators’ revenue hurt by consumers’ decrease in mobility. An IBISWorld report finds that the size of the vending machine operators market is expected to grow 5.4% in 2021.

While consumers are already accustomed to utilizing vending machines to get their snack and beverage needs met, they are now increasingly expecting to have self-service options for meeting their meal needs.

For instance, automat chain Brooklyn Dumpling Shop — in which consumers order from self-service screens or from their own devices, picking up their meals from lockers that open when they scan QR codes on their phone or receipt — is rapidly expanding throughout the United States. On Monday (Oct. 4), the restaurant announced five new restaurants in Florida, and last month, the chain announced its intentions to have 125 locations by the end of 2023.

“[Consumers] want two things: They want to be in control, and they want to be in and out fast,” Stratis Morfogen, the restaurant’s founder and owner, told PYMNTS in an interview. He added that the automat model allows the consumer to determine “when they want to order, when they want to pick up, and how quickly they want to be in and out.”

The groundwork for self-controlled restaurant experiences such as these — robotic vending machines and self-serve automats — was laid by the rise in digital ordering occasioned by the pandemic. As consumers have grown accustomed to delivery, they have begun to feel less of an attachment to the idea of who is making the food.

“I’d say partially automated or semi-automated food production is going to be the norm within five to 10 years, no doubt,” Stephen Klein, co-founder and CEO and of kitchen automation company Hyphen, told PYMNTS in an interview. “If you’re ordering from your phone, and the only interaction you’re having with the restaurant is through that digital device, it really doesn’t matter who’s making your food, as long as it’s fresh, fast and consistent.”

Read more: Hyphen’s Restaurant Robotics Fend off Delivery Giants

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