Lunch is ready in minutes, whirs and clicks.
A mechanical arm hovers over the options, then picks a tray and pushes it into an inbuilt microwave chamber. The meal slides out gently: fluffy schezwan fried rice and Hakka noodles, crunchy with vegetables. In the smaller compartments on the side, there is cauliflower manchurian, as well as vegetables in soy sauce.
As contactless dining gains popularity in a world battling COVID-19, restaurants are finding innovative ways to gain customer confidence, and keep their doors open. As for Advantage Foods, they seem to have hit upon a way to draw customers back: even when their doors are closed.
Advantage Foods is run by Tarun Mahadevan, and includes popular city restaurants such as Benjarong, Writer’s Café, China Town and The Marina, under its umbrella. Tarun’s father, M Mahadevan, well known for starting Hot Breads, oversees the international business, which includes bakeries around the world, in addition to partnering with well-known brands such as Saravana Bhavan and Anjappar. Together, they are collaborating with Frshly (a first-of-its-kind dispenser machine that stores and serves hot food to customers) to make dining more accessible in this age of physical distancing.
Standing around the hulking 10-foot-high machine, Tarun explains how their speciality kitchens will load about 150 packs of food before lunch and dinner. Since they have a slew of restaurants to choose from, they are currently looking at one South Indian, one Pan Asian and one Continental meal option everyday.
“We want to provide hot, fresh, simple food,” says Tarun. While all the food is vegetarian, as the team continues to work on the technology, menus will change through the week. Right now, a staffer will be on hand to help customers, but eventually, the machine will work with just a QR code, so you can get a hot meal at any time using your mobile phone.
Their strongest selling point however, is pricing: every meal will cost below ₹100.
Mahadevan, who just got back to Chennai from Auckland where he was setting up a bakery, before the lockdown began, is looking at taking the machine, which is made in Coimbatore, to his partners across the world.
“The fear economy has kicked in, even in New Zealand, Malaysia, Dubai — where there are no lockdowns — we are only seeing 25% of our restaurants filled,” he says, adding that this provides diners with contactless access to restaurant meals. Additionally, since it is set outside, it is not subject to lockdown timings.
He is clear that affordability will be their mainstay. “I’m focussing on sourcing. We get vegetables from an organic farm in Thindivanam. Rice from Red Hills… We will not compromise on quality, instead I am buying directly from farmers so it is cheaper,” he says. They are also using innovative hacks. “We are making chappatis in the bakery sheeter, normally used for croissants. “This way we get 800 chappatis done in an hour and a half,” he says.
The first machine, set up outside Benjarong, will start running from Friday, after which Frshly will be set up in high traffic locations across the city. “I’m taking it to Dubai, a partner wants to stock it with Ambur biryani and set it up in the Metro stations; Saravana Bhavan in Toronto wants one. In Singapore, Anjappar can use it so people can get their biryani at 3 am, contactless,” says Mahadevan.
Satish Chamyvelumani, who has been working on the machine since 2013, had launched a version in 2015, which was installed in railway stations and airports for a while. “We have been running multiple pilot projects around the country to improve the technology,” he says, adding, “This isn’t a one sandwich machine, we can do multiple cuisines with it.” Already, Tarun is planning chilled dessert trays, with tiramisu, apple pies and pastry.
Mahadevan says, “The days have come when you have to run a lean and mean operation.” With partners in 16 countries, and multiple brands, he states that now, survival is key. And this machine is his way of packaging decades of brand building in one, re-heatable tray.
“We have set up so many runways over the years,” he says. “Now, we want to land and take off from them.”