California-based Yo-Kai Express is hoping to take airport vending machines to the next level, creating “autonomous restaurant solutions” that can provide fresh hot meals.
Even before COVID-19 forced many airport food concessions to cut back their hours or temporarily close, vending machines dispensing gourmet treats around the clock were popping up in many terminals.
Gone are the days when they contained just chips and candy bars. Many are still focusing on satisfying passengers with a sweet tooth, but provide more niche local products. At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, vending machines developed together with Prepango dispense Sprinkles Cupcakes and Doughp Cookie Dough. At St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL), machines have served up eight-ounce cups filled on the spot with six popular flavors of Ted Drewes frozen custard, a local favorite, since 2015. There is a Reis & Irvy’s frozen yogurt machine on duty at Indianapolis International Airport (IND) that lets customers choose their toppings.
As well as the products themselves, the abilities of these machines are becoming more sophisticated. For example, at San Francisco and San Jose airports, there are machines with robotic baristas that can brew up complicated coffee drinks, created by Cafe X. A similar offering from Costa Coffee BaristaBot is on offer at Austin-Bergstrom airport.
Yo-Kai Express markets its product of the same name as a 24-hour robotic restaurant that can create fresh hot meals including ramen, pho, and rice and noodle bowls in 45 seconds.
Four machines will be installed at Ontario International Airport in Southern California soon. “Hot food vending machines have evolved significantly with regard to product quality, value for the money and the overall customer experience,” said ONT airport spokesperson, Steve Lambert. “Yo-Kai Express meets all of these criteria.”
Yo-Kai Express machines are cashless and accept mobile pay, credit cards and even cryptocurrencies. They have also been designed to accept airline food vouchers received by passengers to compensate for a delayed flight. This could prove especially useful for those on an unplanned overnight layover – hot meals are something that aren’t always easily available for travelers who find themselves in airport terminals when all the concessions are closed.
Beyond convenience, these solutions can also evolve quickly to offer contactless service, which is much-desired in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Farmer’s Fridge operate vending machines that serve up fresh healthy salads, sandwiches and snacks across multiple US airports. “Customers can now pre-order their food through the Farmer’s Fridge app,” said Luke Saunders, CEO and founder, Farmer’s Fridge. “And once they are ready to pick it up, they enter a code on their phone and the Fridge vends their meal.”
Yo-Kai Express is preparing to allow the same. Amanda Tsung, the company’s chief operating officer, said a new contactless ordering and payment option will be added to the company’s app in February or March. “With this, customers can preorder up to four bowls at a time and then move away from the machine while it is cooking to give more social distancing to the next customer.”
In the meantime, Tsung explained that Yo-Kai Express has “increased the sanitizing time of our cleaning cycle for each bowl.” She added that tap and order touchscreens are also being fitted with antimicrobial film.