Amid the pandemic, it seemed like a small, contactless miracle: Refrigerated lockers were installed as a pop-up at Hudson Yards in New York City, designed to dispense seafood bento boxes and sake pairings and unlocked via a code on customers’ phones.
The lockers, part of a project called “Restaurant Unlocked” organized by the Japan Food Product Overseas Promotion Center (JFOODO), stayed in NYC for about a week. The pop-up was not without hiccups: pandemic-delayed certifications meant that the sake needed to be delivered separately, and a planned Los Angeles pop-up in January had to be canceled when lockdowns tightened in the state.
Still, a contactless locker seemed like the right solution for the moment. After all, refrigerated lockers already are widely in use in Japan, where some supermarkets offer them to keep perishables cool while shoppers continue to shop for other purchases. They’re also available in some markets in the U.S. (as well as Japan) to store groceries or medications delivered to homes. The U.S. pop-up featured lockers designed by Minnow.
“We planned this after the pandemic hit,” says Yuki Suzuki of JFOODO’s Overseas Promotion Division. “We tried to come up with an idea to introduce the best seafood and sake pairing experience safely and contract-free.”
Why can’t that be extended to bars and restaurants, which need a way to maximize contactless sales? Maybe a locker isn’t exactly the right technology, but vending machines and other mechanisms already exist and can do the job.
After all, remember when we thought that Champagne-split-dispensing machines and bottled cocktails bundled into refurbed Coke machines were the next big thing? Why aren't they in greater—or, really, any—use right now, when we most need contactless serving options?
The short answer is that they're locked up within shuttered hotels, bars and restaurants. At NYC’s Existing Conditions, for example, two 1960s vintage soda machines, enameled red and black and rigged by co-owner Don Lee, held illuminated rows of bottles containing prebatched Martinis, Manhattans and highballs. Visitors to the bar would purchase a token at the host stand for the Instagrammable instant gratification of pulling out a bottle. Wouldn’t this, of all times, be the perfect time for employing this cute and contactless means of serving drinks?
Unfortunately, in August 2020 the bar closed permanently. “The vending machines, as you would expect, are sitting at the bar unused at the moment,” says a representative for Existing Conditions.
Similarly, in 2016 Moët & Chandon started rolling out Champagne vending machines to a handful of restaurants and hotels, followed in 2019 by machines that included an augmented reality photo booth so patrons could pose for selfies while sipping splits of sparkling rosé.
But as travel fell during the pandemic and many cities prohibited indoor dining, restaurants and bars shuttered and the luxury events for which the machines were sometimes rented were canceled. That meant the Moët & Chandon machines became inaccessible to would-be drinkers. For instance, The Stayton Room, the bar inside NYC’s Lexington Hotel, was perhaps the first location in the city to have one of the machines. The bar “will remain closed until further notice” due to the pandemic, according to a notice on its website.
Although a vending machine situated within—or ideally directly outside—a specific bar would be a useful option for showcasing drinks from a specific venue, maybe a more holistic option would make sense too: refrigerated vending machines to syndicate the growing numbers of ready-to-drink options available from bars and others around the country. Canned cocktails in particular seem right for vending machines.
After all, a purveyor of canned beer has already figured out how to navigate the key hurdles of selling alcoholic beverages via a self-service vending machine: contactless payment and an identity verification mechanism.
In 2018, brewing giant Anheuser-Busch announced a “crypto beer” vending machine at a 2018 blockchain technology summit, in partnership with vending machine company Innovative Vending Solutions and identity verification platform Civic.
Similar to the machines at Hudson Yards used to dispense seafood bento boxes, these vending machines rely on a smartphone app for identity verification plus a QR code on the vending machine. If the person holding the phone is over 21, the machine releases a can of beer. More details on how it all works can be found on Civic’s blog.
While these machines were designed with music festivals in mind—it was given a trial run at South by Southwest in 2019—as well as concerts and sporting arenas, these types of venues all stand empty right now. Why not load ’em up with a selection of canned cocktails like Clover Club’s Social Hour or Los Angeles’ LiveWire, and set up a self-serve station?
This could become a much-needed lifeline for the struggling hospitality industry if vending machines could help them to sell their cocktails safely, efficiently and profitably. That’s the kind of contactless miracle the industry needs right now.