Katja Beck
April 6, 2021
Food Lockers or Cubbies – Food Vending of the Future is Here
Food Lockers or Cubbies – Food Vending of the Future is Here

You might have seen them at your local quick service pizza restaurant.  On-call vending machines that hold your pre-ordered meal and let you pick up your dinner within a certain window of time.  These food lockers, or cubbies for short, offer contact-free food ordering and pick up with ease…and without hassle or long wait times.  But is it as easy as throwing in a bank of cubbies and presto, you’re good to go?  Not quite.  Sure, the technology is available but savvy facility design strategies must be considered for a profitable return on investment.

Why Now?

Cubbies are gaining popularity at the present time not only with fast casual restaurants offering the service, but also with corporate dining, healthcare, and educational facilities entertaining the idea of including cubbies into their business model.  Who can blame foodservice operators for wanting to keep customers and staff safe by offering a socially distant dining experience or process for pick-up?  Cubbies provide the operator with peace of mind by offering the opportunity to remain in business even during the worst of pandemic times and selling food without any personal interaction between members of staff and the customer.  Customers feel safe and can reduce touch and exposure while still enjoying their meals.  It’s a win-win strategy.

Careful…and Essential Planning

Cubbies are trendy …the perfect answer for a new facility and an attractive option for existing facilities.  However, before a cubbie system is installed, careful planning should be conducted to ensure a design that integrates the priorities of the client with smart operational efficiencies to make the ROI feasible.

Quantity Counts

Peak demand times will drive the quantity of food lockers.  Because each cubbie will be dedicated to a specific food order for a specific customer and this cubbie will not become available again until the customer has picked up the order, a sufficient number of units must be available to satisfy the potential demand during peak meal serving times.  A customer ordering a take-out meal will only be completely satisfied if their order is prepared and ready for pick-up within a short amount of time.  Not having an open cubbie available might cause loss of sales to the operator.

Location, Location, Location

The cubbies also must be strategically located within the dining area.  Ideally, the best scenario has the operator loading the units from the back-of-house without having to enter public space.  However, this might not always be feasible.  A corporate dining setting might prefer to locate the system near the entry points to the dining room so orders can be picked up without the customer having to travel far into the traditional dining space.  Often, the entry to the dining room is not directly adjacent to the kitchen.  The foodservice designer must coordinate with the operator to find the best location to ensure safe loading of the cubbies with short food travel distances by foodservice staff while providing convenient access for customers as well.

Other workplace goals might need to be reviewed as well.  For example, a corporate campus might consider splitting up the food lockers and offering several remote locations close to employee workstations, increasing the opportunity for socially distant pick-up.  An educational facility might consider remote cubbies near communal campus hangouts or residence halls to increase student participation in university dining options instead of off-campus offerings.  In these cases, however, an efficient plan for moving food from the central kitchen to the remote locations must be established into the design as well.

Menu-Driven Considerations

Another aspect to consider when planning for food lockers is the menu.  What types of food will be offered?  Will both refrigerated and heated units be needed?  How will orders that include both hot and cold items (think… a hot entrée with a side salad) be stored until pick-up?  Will there be any food safety or even spoilage issues if it is stored longer than anticipated? Ideally, different temperature units are assigned side by side to avoid confusion for the customer, so possible heat transfer must be considered.  Will beverages be offered along with the meal?  If they are, will they be offered pre-prepared by the operator and placed inside the cubbie for pick-up, or will a separate more traditional beverage station be available for the customer?  Beverages offered through cubbies must be bottled or canned because of the relatively quick loss of quality of fountain or brewed drinks.  If alcoholic beverages are on the menu, extra consideration must be given to the control of distribution to minors.

What about Labor?

Business owners regard meal service through food lockers favorably because the number of labor hours can be trimmed by reducing or even eliminating service staff, thereby improving the bottom line.  But it is important to remember there must be staff to adequately handle the loading of orders into the cubbies in a timely manner as well as transporting the orders to the cubbie locations, especially if they are remote.  Again, careful analysis must be done to ensure you are not replacing one type of labor cost for another.

Upsides and Downsides

Both customers and operators can appreciate the opportunity and flexibility to serve meals without any personal contact between the foodservice operation and the customer.   However, the upsides also bring downsides.  A large part of the “eating out” experience is great service and personal interaction, which we will all expect again once the pandemic has been overcome.  Will food lockers become obsolete at that moment?  I wish I had that crystal ball.  My personal opinion is that while restaurants will return to normal, pre-COVID ways of handling business, corporate and educational facilities might want to keep food lockers in addition to their cafeteria offerings due to the time-saving opportunity it offers their staff or students and where personal contact is less important to the dining experience.  Another aspect worth considering is that the older generation who might not be technically savvy will be excluded from this kind of dining experience because of the inability to manipulate an app on a phone or website.  This could potentially equal lost income to the operator.

Questions to Ponder

As with any new(er) invention or work process, open questions remain.  What will happen if meals are not picked up?  Will a refund be provided to the customer and how long does food remain in a cubbie before it is removed by the operator?  How will immediate customer questions or complaints be addressed?  Will there be a point of contact onsite if the order is incorrectly prepared or loaded into the  wrong cubbie?  How can last minute requests by customers, such as additional condiments, be satisfied?  What happens in the case of equipment failure, such as the cubbie not opening for the customer?  Operators will have to create a procedure of handling eventualities before diving into this new opportunity to serve food.

The Take-Away

Cubbies are a viable option for most foodservice segments.  The most important “take-away” is that careful planning and coordination between the end user, the operator, and the design consultant early in the process is paramount for the seamless and successful integration of food lockers into any foodservice operation.

By:  Katja Beck, Senior Project Manager | Ft. Lauderdale

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