Advantage Foods' contactless meal dispenser in Chennai serves up lunch in 90 seconds
Ninety seconds. That's how fast you can get your 'no contact' meal from this dispenser. The sleek ten-foot-tall piece of machinery has a mechanical arm pick up a meal tray and pass it into a built-in microwave before your lunch slides out, piping hot and ready to eat. The best part? You can see every step of the operation because the dispenser is transparent. Launched by Advantage Foods to make customers feel safer while eating out in the midst of COVID-19 fears, the dispenser, with more like it on the way, is located outside Benjarong in Alwarpet.
Advantage Foods (formerly Cool Cream Milano) has a range of restaurants under its umbrella including Writer’s Café and The Marina. So it comes as no surprise that there are a variety of cuisines to choose from - South Indian, Pan Asian, and European. But whether you opt for pasta or payasam - it's pertinent to mention that all meals are nominally priced at INR 99. Thereby, making this option accessible to the masses. The quantities, if you are wondering, are also substantial. A box of Chinese, for instance, packs 80 grams of cauliflower stir fry alongside an 80 ml portion of gravy, 300 gms of fried rice, and 200 grams of noodles. Ample and filling for a quick lunch on-the-go.
A mechanical arm replaces your waiter. An in-built microwave heats up your food. And a QR code preset for four hours ensures freshness
The meal dispenser can accommodate as many as 180 meal boxes - loaded twice a day, before lunch and dinner. Even the freshness of the food being served is controlled mechanically, by means of a QR code. "We've programmed it to four hours, which means any meal box that has been sitting in the dispenser for more than four hours will not be served to you."
Given that the launch of this device (June 19) coincided with the lockdown, orders have been slow. "The machine has been dispensing 20 to 30 meal trays a day. But we're hoping this will double in the days to come," says Tarun Mahadevan who is heading the operation. Also, with customers still learning how to use it - there is currently a member of staff available to walk you through the process. "But the idea is, this should operate independently of assistance, as we go forward," he elaborates.
Some of you might remember a similar multi-cuisine meal dispenser at Chennai Central Railway Station, back in 2015. And it is this same technology that is being used, says Satish ChamyVelumani of Frshly (formerly Atchayam Foodbox) who is partnering with Advantage Foods on this project. This was after much trial and experimentation, underway since 2013. Fast forward to the present, with hygiene being the buzzword on everyone's mind, he tells us, "We are planning to incorporate UV rays for sterilization in the future." Currently, the stainless surfaces are wiped down manually with cleaning agents each day.
The machine has been dispensing 20 to 30 meal trays since the lockdown began. We're hoping this will double in the days to come.
- Tarun Mahadevan, Advantage Foods
But there is one challenge that comes unanticipated. The dispenser was originally built to be stationed indoors. With a 2,400 watt microwave, It has an internal cooling bank which is meant to keep the temperature inside at a constant 18C to 20C.
However, given that the machine is kept outdoors, and in Chennai's tropical climate, "That temperature escalates to 28C to 30C, which reduces the shelf life of the products inside," Tarun says. To counter this problem, newer units with better-equipped cooling systems internal cooling systems are already being tested and will be ready to roll out in a few weeks, Satish says. "These are equipped to go down to 4C and will maintain a temperature of around 10C."
By next month, the operation will be expanded to other parts of the city. "Our second dispenser will be positioned possibly outside one of our Writer's Cafe outlets or an IT park," Tarun shares with us. But at the moment, the company is still gauging feedback on taste and preferences. "What sells on TTK Road may not sell at an IT hub or a railway station," he points out.
Each meal box is priced at INR 99. Available outside Benjarong, Alwarpet from 12 pm to 3.30 pm and 6 pm to 9 pm.