Food lockers are becoming increasingly popular as a food delivery option. Here’s how they work- customers order food from their favorite restaurants and then pick it up from a food locker.

What are Food Lockers?

As the restaurant industry buffeted by the Covid pandemic pivoted from the physical to digital in order to survive, a Deloitte study concluded that the restaurant of the future had arrived much earlier than scheduled. Indeed, cutting-edge technology was considered a mere add-on before the dark days of Covid that, according to the National Restaurant Association, sounded the death knell for over 110,000 eateries in the US. That same technology, however, has now become indispensable and widespread, and even businesses that had stubbornly held on to their old-fashioned ways have been made to fall in line.
Therefore, online ordering and delivery, curbside pickup, drive-thru, click-and-carry, and grab-and-go have all come in to drastically cut down the interaction of the customers with restaurant staff as social distancing became a necessity to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. However, not ready to rest on their oars, some restaurants have brought in technology that promises to cut human interaction to almost zero. This is being made possible with the help of food lockers.
Food lockers have revolutionized the way customers pick their orders up. After customers place orders, the restaurant employees fill these lockers with food. The lockers hold the food at specific temperatures to keep it safe till it is picked up. The food may be retrieved by delivery agents or the customers themselves with the help of a code. Food lockers can also be opened by replying to text messages or by scanning a QR code, which makes it a totally contactless and hence, safer experience.
Food lockers, in this regard, resemble Amazon Lockers, which may be found in stores, apartments, and neighborhoods.
Both the size and the temperature of the lockers can vary. To store the meals at the proper holding temperatures, some lockers are heated and others are cooled. Ultraviolet light is used in more advanced devices to kill microorganisms.
The importance of digital dining experience for the customers can be gauged from a December 2021 Deloitte report, according to which 64% of the respondents indicated they didn't anticipate going back to their pre-Covid practice of eating at restaurants, and 61% ordered delivery or takeout at least once a week.

Earliest Avatars of Food Lockers

The food lockers of today can trace their ancestry to those used by automats of the 18th and 19th centuries. An automat, simply put, is a fast food eatery that serves food and beverages through vending machines. Before being adopted by restaurants for contactless takeout of meals, rows of food lockers were already in use at automats for selling hot meals.
The first automat opened its doors in Berlin, Germany, in 1895. Named Quisisana, the automat established itself in several parts of northern Europe, and subsequently, the technology was licensed to Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart.
In 1902, Horn and Hardart launched the first US automat in Philadelphia, and by the middle of the 20th century, the company ran over 100 automats in New York and close to 50 in Philadelphia.
The first Horn and Hardart shop in New York opened in 1912, and soon the chain discovered a successful formula. Customers gave cashiers dollar bills and received nickels in return, which they put into vending machines or cubbies displaying the food to extract cherry pie, plates of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and several other menu items.
Apart from the convenience that this kind of dining experience offered to the customers, it performed a latent social function. The dining was cafeteria-style and communal, and the automat acted as a remedy to the snobbery of many of the restaurants in New York. Interestingly, Horn and Hardart was the first chain of restaurants in New York to provide freshly brewed coffee to its patrons for a nickel per cup.
However, the Horn and Hardart automats could not hold on to their success. They didn't reduce labor costs. Employees still had to be deployed to prepare the meals, load them into the vending machines, and wash the cutlery and dishes. Horn and Hardart automats faced considerable flak for 'mistreating' its behind-the-scenes staff. By the 1970s, the popularity of automats started to wane.
Moreover, fast food restaurants like KFC and McDonald's came in with limited menus, but a distinctly recognizable 'taste', and urban consumers started to lean towards lighter meals on the go. Also, as a result of an economic downturn, more and more people preferred to carry their lunches from home. Horn and Hardart's final New York establishment shuttered in 1991. More recently, Eatsa, a San Francisco chain, experimented with high-tech alternatives but fizzled out by July 2019.

How do Food Lockers Work?

Let's now look at the functioning of food lockers. Customers can place an order online or through the mobile app of the restaurant and pick the meal up from the food locker. They can also place orders at the restaurant itself with the cashier, or at a kiosk. Based on the ordering preference of the customers, they either receive a text message notifying them that the parcel is ready or if they intend to pick their food up from the restaurant site, a digital board would inform them that they can pick up their food.
Restaurants have been weighing different approaches to let patrons open the lockers and access their food. The lockers may contain a touchscreen or a PIN pad. Customers need to input the code that was supplied at the time of placing the order. Customers may also scan a QR code or reply to a text message to operate food lockers.
All that the customers or food delivery executives have to do is scan a code with their mobile devices to access the right compartment. This quick scan-and-take procedure ensures that orders don't get mixed up and drastically cuts the time needed to wait for the food to arrive. Orders dwell for a short duration in the lockers, which lets the lockers handle several orders every hour.
In order to cut down on the time that customers may spend at the restaurant, and to prevent the building up of a crowd in front of the restaurant, customers may be given the option to select pick-up times while placing orders.
Food lockers are arranged in rows and stacked one on top of the other, and restaurant employees keep replenishing them throughout the day.
The size of the cubicles and food lockers can frequently be adjusted to fit a restaurant's specific requirements. For instance, four years ago doughnut and coffee company Dunkin' Donuts experimented with food lockers big enough to hold a dozen doughnuts, as well as the signature Box O' Joe, which serves 10 cups of coffee.

Benefits of Food Lockers

1. Fewer errors and confusion- Even though ordering food online is a quick and easy process, customers and delivery agents at times may end up picking up takeout bags not meant for them. Miffed customers may review the restaurant unkindly on social media for perceived 'negligence'. Adverse reviews would be bad news for the restaurant. Food lockers offer a practicable solution to this problem. These lockers are secured with PIN numbers and unique codes and ensure that customers don't access the wrong lockers. Food lockers also prevent food theft.
2. Vital data source- Food lockers furnish crucial information regarding order handoff and food pickup. Food locker solutions connected with the restaurant point of sale (POS) system would provide information in real-time on order fulfillment and food pickup apart from giving staff members a seamless workflow. As a result, instead of being in the dark, restaurant owners would be able to know the duration that meals sat inside the lockers, and when they were picked up. Data generated thus can be used to derive actionable insights to strengthen the pickup process, alert customers about their parcels being ready for pick-up in a more timely manner, make order handoffs more efficient, and generally improve customer service.
3. Tastier meals- The food might get cold and stale if the customer or delivery agents are running late. According to the Deloitte study mentioned earlier, three out of five customers said that they expected the food received through takeout/delivery to be of the same quality as the food served in the dining room. Therefore, serving stale food would reflect poorly on restaurants, and may lead to adverse reviews. Food lockers let restaurants store meals at appropriate temperatures. In fact, with the help of geofencing, restaurants are able to ensure that the food is prepared as close to the customers' arrival time as possible. Notifications on receipt of orders, the preparation of food, and the completion of the food preparation ensure that the customers can time the pickup.
4. Conservation of space- Managing food takeouts may eat up a lot of space in your restaurant, with customers and delivery agents waiting to pick up parcels in front of the restaurant and also inside the establishment. This would make the restaurant unnecessarily crowded, and make a hash of social distancing. Managing space is particularly challenging for ghost kitchens, which are already cramped due to the absence of a normal dine-in area. Food lockers, however, don't use up a lot of space and can be installed at a suitable place on the restaurant premises giving consumers easy, and quick access to meals.

More Ways How Food Lockers Revolutionize Food Delivery

1. Shorter wait times-Having restaurant employees manually distribute takeout orders may avoid order confusion, but it becomes difficult to manage when the order numbers rise. Employees handling the takeouts have to put in a lot of time and effort, and customers have to wait in queues to receive their orders. The longer the wait, the more irritated the customers become. Food lockers, on the other hand, give customers immediate access to their ordered meals. Customers may also be allowed to select their pick-up times and be notified when the order is ready.
2. Optimize staff resources-Food lockers allow restaurants to support curbside pickup without having to devote manpower to that task. Accordingly, food lockers have proved to be extremely beneficial to restaurants facing staff shortages. With the help of its heated food locker systems and touchscreen kiosks, Rise Southern Biscuits and Righteous Chicken in Durham, North Carolina significantly increased its revenue and cut its labor costs, according to a report on While limited-service eateries mostly strive to maintain their labor cost at 25% of their sales, Rise could keep the labor cost at its Durham establishment at around 18% in the first half of 2021, and even saw it going down to around 16%, according to the report.
3. Additional source of income- The food locker concept came back strongly in the wake of the Covid pandemic. As lockdowns and mobility restrictions forced restaurants to close down, food vending machines provided a convenient and contactless way to earn money round the clock. These machines were operational 24 hours even as the restaurant doors remained closed, which proved to be a boon for the customers, especially the midnight snackers. Kitchen employees laid off in the wake of the pandemic could also be rehired by restaurants to top up the vending machines. Under normal circumstances too, food lockers add to restaurants' earnings by providing opportunities for after-hour sales.
4. Give customers more certainty- When customers have to pick their meals up from food lockers, they don't have to worry if the order would be ready on time, or how long it has been in the locker. Instead, the customers are notified immediately after the parcel is kept in the locker. Customers also don't have to search for their parcels and worry about the parcels being mistakenly picked up by someone else. The PIN-protected lockers ensure that food packages are securely held. The whole exercise is extremely easy and quick, which adds to the customer experience and encourages the customers to keep coming back.

Case Studies: Big Brands Using Food Lockers

KFC introduced contactless food pickup lockers at four of its restaurants in Japan in October 2020. Customers can place orders and pay through their mobiles, following which, the restaurant employees keep the food packages in one of the pickup lockers. The customers then use the order code on a PIN pad to open the locker and retrieve the parcels. These lockers could dispense both food and beverages, which suggests that the lockers were not heated.
The fast food behemoth also opened an automated, contactless store in Russia to address the problem created by the pandemic and restaurants closing down for lengthy durations. At this store, called the "restaurant of the future", a robot places the cooked food in a secure box, which can be opened by the customers using a code. Payment can be made with bank cards or through the use of facial biometric data.
Fast casual chain Smashburger, and fast food chain Burger King had also planned food lockers in their new-look restaurants.
Heated lockers of Rise Southern Biscuits and Righteous Chicken have already been mentioned. These lockers are essentially glass cubicles placed over one another. Each cubicle has its own heating architecture, which keeps the meals piping hot, even if they are picked up an hour after they were prepared.
Certain fast food establishments had, in fact, been considering food lockers even before the pandemic. Even as early as November 2018, Dunkin' had been testing food pickup lockers. Customers could use the Dunkin' app to place orders, then simply pick their orders up from the lockers, after opening them by scanning a QR code. Dunkin' planned to use food lockers in stores with high customer traffic in places such as New York.

3 Top Food Locker Suppliers

1. Panasonic-With the help of the Panasonic Connect technology, customers can pick their orders up from food lockers in a very convenient and secure manner at designated areas.

Customers use unique codes to operate the lockers. These secure lockers ensure that the customers don't pick up the wrong parcels from the restaurant counter. What's more, the Panasonic lockers ensure that the freshness of the food is maintained till the customers pick the parcels up.

Moreover, with dedicated hardware being used to store packages, the building where the restaurant is housed would be protected from any potential cross-contamination.

The food locker hardware from Panasonic can connect with the ordering system currently in use at the restaurants, and also with third-party delivery apps. The Panasonic lockers allow restaurants to expand their food sales while leaving sufficient space for the rest of the restaurant operations.
2. Grubbrr- Parcels can be placed in the Grubbrr pickup lockers without the need to search for customers. Customers can rest assured that their food is safe in the lockers pre-assigned to them.

The customers are notified when their parcels are put inside the lockers. They can then scan a QR code or use a PIN number to retrieve their meals. The Grubbrr lockers help in minimizing order or pickup confusion, and food theft.

Customers have the option to arrange a pickup time that best suits their schedule, without having to worry about the food going stale. Grubbrr's lockers are temperature-controlled for keeping the food fresh even if the customers are running late.

Restaurants using such food locker technology can drive down labor and equipment costs, do away with crowding, and hence, boost customer satisfaction.
3. Hatco- It provides a number of food locker systems like the pick-up pod, countertop lockers, floor-mount lockers, and built-in lockers.

The Hatco lockers come with timers with preset temperatures of 149-150 degrees Fahrenheit, and a high temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat can, however, be turned off if the food needs to be held at ambient temperature. These lockers can store food for 45 minutes.

Pizza lockers feature both seller-and buyer-side touchscreens. After the operator enters the customer's name and order code, the customer inputs the code to access the food.

Pickup pods, on the other hand, are individually-insulated, and ambient cubbies, and can be connected through wifi, cellular, or CAT-5 technologies.

Final Word: Where Food Lockers Are Headed

According to National Retail Federation (NRF) research, 93% of consumers take convenience into account when selecting to use the services of a retail business. The study also found that 83% of consumers put greater primacy on convenience than they did five years back.
The pandemic has rejuvenated automats and food lockers, and some businesses are attempting to go beyond the conventional models of automats. Accordingly, Automat Kitchen, which opened in New Jersey in 2021 to prepare food to order, only uses heated food lockers and employs no waiting staff, according to a Business Insider report. Customers receive a code when the parcel is ready. This code need not even be entered into the food locker, but customers can simply respond to a text message to operate the locker. This makes the entire process genuinely contactless.
The quick service restaurant Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is rolling out temperature-controlled and UV-protected automats as well.
Therefore, as is evident, food lockers are staging a strong comeback. In fact, they are even moving beyond the precincts of restaurants. Alchemista, a company that provides patent-pending lockers for storing food, is seeking to expand lockers to residential buildings, sports complexes, offices, and university campuses, Business Insider reported. Food lockers are well and truly on the cusp of becoming the next big food industry phenomenon.