Food + Culture

8 Ways Restaurants Are Making Touchless Dining a Reality

For all the unpredictability of this pandemic, one thing remains consistent: we all have to eat. And now that most of us have overcome our mid-2020 sourdough-baking experiments, many have turned to restaurants for comfort, nourishment, and a refreshing change from the day-to-day of cooking.

The restaurant industry has responded to evolving public health measures and customer comfort requirements with creativity and innovation, from at-home meal kits to frictionless drive-throughs. Here are some of the ways restaurants and tech innovators are making sure you can get a safer foodie fix.

1. Grab Lunch From a Cubby Hole

The Box’d cubbies. | Courtesy of Box’d by Paramount

Box’d, a Middle Eastern fusion restaurant with locations in Toronto, Canada, had been planning their touchless take on healthy to-go meals before anyone had heard of COVID-19. Customers order and pay online or at touchscreen kiosks. Each meal is cooked by a chef who then places it in a cubby for retrieval. On the customer side, a digital screen shows their name so they can grab it and go. The cubbies are sanitized between each meal.

You might start to see more of this. Smashburger has plans to roll out a cubby system of its own.

2. Fill up Your Freezer

While your commute these days may only be from your bed to the desk in your living room, you still might not have time to go get takeout every day. Luckily, many restaurants are churning out freezer-friendly versions of their signature dishes so you can stock up. For example, Brodo ships their bone broth across the U.S. while Brooklyn’s Insa, a Korean restaurant and karaoke bar, offers frozen dumplings along with kimchi by the pint.

3. Curbside Pickup Tech Arrives

Curbside pickup can be used at restaurants, grocery stores, and even retail shops.
Photographer: F Armstrong Photography | Source: Shutterstock

New digital technology will allow you to make an order online and pick it up almost instantaneously. It works a bit like your typical food delivery app, but instead of you tracking your driver’s progress, the restaurant knows how far away you are, which allows them to time things perfectly, clearing the chaos of drive-through lanes and parking lots and getting hotter food into your hands. Expect to see this start rolling out from larger fast-food chains first. In the meantime, some restaurants have already tweaked their curbside pickup systems, like allowing customers to specify the car they drive to streamline the process.

4. Touchless Dispensers for Peace of Mind

Touchless hand sanitizer have become commonplace in public areas.
Photographer: Syda Productions | Source: Shutterstock

Not only can you get your squirt of hand sanitizer without touching a communal nozzle, but condiments and beverages can increasingly be accessed with just a wave of your hand.

5. Meal Kits as Entertainment

Mei Mei's scallion pancake breakfast sandwich.
The scallion pancake breakfast sandwich. | Courtesy of Mei Mei

When pandemic monotony and hunger collide, a meal kit from a beloved restaurant might just be the answer. This category of eating falls into “some assembly required,” making it a great fix for a household in need of some entertainment.

Some restaurants and food purveyors will list these options within delivery apps, otherwise you may have to visit their website directly to find them. Some DIY meal kits to get your mouth watering: this Korean BBQ kit available in Los Angeles and San Francisco, these vegan tacos from Cena Taco in L.A., and these scallion pancake breakfast sandwiches from Mei Mei in Boston.

6. Cheers to Cocktail Kits

Mojito cocktail kit from Cannibale, sent to directly to a customer's home.
Mojito cocktail kit. | Courtesy of Kelly Mandeville, Cannibale.

Whether you’re hosting a virtual happy hour or planning a solo Netflix and swill, a craft cocktail can brighten the mood. Look for purveyors of premixed libations, like the margaritas from Anejo in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, or gourmet kits from cocktail bars like Cannibale in Calgary, Alberta, complete with house-made mixes, full bottles of booze, glassware, and a virtual cocktail lesson. Liquor orders may require pickup, though delivery may be available depending on local regulations.

7. Totally Touchless Restaurants

Burger King is one of many fast-food chains now offering totally touchless dining for customers.
Courtesy of Burger King.

Here’s one innovation that will outlast the pandemic: new restaurant designs that capitalize on eaters’ desire for no-contact food retrieval. Fast food giants, including McDonalds, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and Burger King, have all revealed plans for mostly or fully contactless dining.

The new concepts from Burger King include features like a delivery driver–only drive-through lane, a walk-up window for takeout, and QR codes at parking spots to facilitate curbside pickup. Similarly, a new concept from McDonalds would allow customers who ordered through the app to use a priority drive-through lane.

8. Contactless Menus and Payment

Contactless menus have become the norm in restaurants across the country since the pandemic hit.
Photographer: antoniodiaz | Source: Shutterstock

From digital menus delivered via QR code to tap payment, in-house dining became a little less personal, but that much safer, in 2020. Until handshakes are safe again, dine-in restaurant service can be done with fewer interactions between customers and servers with systems like the one from Waitr, which allows customers to view a menu, order, and pay all through a single mobile ordering platform.

Blueprint contributor Zoey Duncan

Zoey Duncan is a writer and book editor based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Find her at  zoeywrites.com.

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