Touchless tech: contact-free innovations for food businesses in the age of COVID-19

Touchless tech: contact-free innovations for food businesses in the age of COVID-19

By
Louise Burfitt
November 3, 2020

Coronavirus has uprooted many things in our lives since the pandemic took hold, not least the way we shop for food and eat in restaurants. As a result, contactless solutions and delivery services have been in high demand as restaurants and other food businesses around the world have been forced to shut their doors.

And in a socially distanced world, even those who have stayed open - like supermarkets and takeaways - have had to quickly adapt to a touchless world. In 2020 contactless convenience has become less of a curiosity and more of an absolute necessity.

The global food technology market will be worth $250 billion by 2022 and this year’s particular requirements have accelerated some tech trends that may have otherwise taken longer to pick up speed. In fact, investment in food and restaurant technology has been one of the few areas that has seen growth in a difficult year for the global economy.

What is touchless technology?

In the food industry, touchless technology is anything - whether device, software or full-blown robot - that limits or removes human contact for the purposes of safety, convenience and efficiency. It manifests in various forms, from contactless deliveries and digital menus to touchless features on drinks dispensers or ordering food from a vending machine. Then there’s the more futuristic side to this trend, which includes robot waiters in restaurants and food delivery by drone.

Trend drivers: coronavirus concerns and cost efficiencies

Touch-free technology was already gaining force before 2020, but the pandemic has dramatically hastened the shift to new technologies. With the need for social distancing and news that the virus can survive on some surfaces for up to days, the move to contactless transactions has been supercharged - even in countries that had been slow to embrace new technologies, like the US, before the virus hit.

Cost efficiencies are another key driver. Restaurants forced to shut with little notice needed to find a way to survive financially - both during enforced shutdowns and afterwards. While populations were locked down, some food service retailers pivoted to offering pickup or contact-free delivery services. Now some have reopened, technologies like ordering via app, robot waiters and touchless dispensers are gaining popularity as food businesses find new ways to turn a profit and continue serving customers in a world where the virus remains a threat.

Exploring the trend: vending machines and contact-free appliances

The humble vending machine – previously a staple of school corridors and train station platforms – is undergoing an extraordinary renaissance thanks to COVID-19. 2020’s vending machines aren’t the retro appliances you’re used to, spitting out stale chocolate bars and crumpled crisps.

Many modern food-vending companies were actually founded with the aim of providing people with fresh food out of hours - and the no human-contact aspect suddenly seems remarkably prescient during the age of coronavirus. In the UK, Healthy Nibbles provides snacks through its 100% cashless vending machines: bestsellers include lentil chips and smoked almonds. Belgian family business Kjure offers full meals in takeaway form from its 40 vending machines across Belgium, including comforting classics like lasagne and meatloaf alongside salads and fish dishes. Farmer’s Fridge offers a similar service in the US while stateside startup Basil Street Pizza is branching out with its gourmet pizza vending machines: customers choose their option through a touch screen and their pizza is cooked to order in under 3 minutes.

Some companies are also adding touchless features to existing appliances. Nespresso has added touchless features to its Momento coffee machine, while French startup BRAAM sell their contact-free coffee machines and water dispensers, controlled via an app, to corporate offices. Coca-Cola also launched a touch-free update to the Freestyle drinks dispenser this year in response to the pandemic.

Re-designing delivery: robots and drones

Food delivery is also getting a contact-free makeover. At the start of the pandemic, food service giants like Starbucks and McDonalds were quick to adapt with contactless delivery services. UK food delivery company Deliveroo also launched its no-contact drop-off in March.

Delivery by drone could become a reality soon too, though it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. Domino’s delivered its first pizza by drone in 2016, and Google and Amazon have been working on the technology to make this possible for years. As well as being touch-free, it eliminates the issue of traffic and associated air pollution. Camile Thai Kitchen, an Irish fast food chain, became the first food company in Europe to complete aviation-grade drone trials this year. UK supermarket Tesco are also conducting drone tests and UberEats was ahead of the corona curve, finalising plans for its food delivery drones last year. However, before drones can become a fully feasible method of food drop-off, there’s legal and regulatory challenges to surmount.

Delivery by robot, meanwhile, is in full swing. Starship Technologies make six-wheeled robots, which load up with food at a restaurant and drop the order at the delivery address. The customer receives a text message to let them know their order is ready, unlocks the bot and collects their food. The robots have previously been trialled in the US and UK, but during the pandemic, their robot workforce has completed over 100,000 deliveries. Other startups honing in on robot food deliveries include Refraction AI and Eliport while companies Nuro and Robomart are developing robotic vehicles that can drive on roads, not just pavements.

It’s not just doorstep deliveries that robots are getting in on. Robotic servers in restaurants are also being looked at with new eyes. Pudu Technology, which makes autonomous robotic waiters, raised over $15 million this July to further develop its offering, while China’s Keenon Robotics already has more than 60,000 robotic servers in action on restaurant floors.

Case Studies: BellyMelly and Minnow

Online food ordering platform BellyMelly has expanded this year with a zero-touch dine-in app aimed at helping restaurants to navigate the era of COVID-19. The first-to-market solution sees customers use the existing BellyMelly app to scan the QR code displayed on their table, loading up a digital menu on screen. Customers order and pay through the app, which helps turn over tables more quickly and reduce contact between customers and servers. The technology has so far been provided to restaurants for free with a small commission taken for delivery and takeout orders.

Meanwhile, Minnow makes are internet-linked pods where restaurants and ghost kitchens can drop off meals for customers to collect later, offering a contactless experience that cuts out face-to-face interaction. The insulated lockers can be used for hot or cold food and meet safety regulations. This August Minnow raised $2.2 million for further development after already adapting quickly to the events of 2020 by added disinfecting UV light to its pods to kill off any lingering nasties. The company is focusing on adding lockers to large-scale residential buildings and restaurants offering takeaway, but hasn’t ruled out adding similar pods to single-family homes in future.

Silver linings: early adoption and increased investment

Unexpected shocks to systems can often accelerate innovation as companies are forced to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Restaurants and food retailers that have diversified this year, moving from dine-in to delivery, or adopting digital innovations, have been more able to weather the storm of COVID-19.

The current situation offers startups a unique chance to accelerate adoption of new technologies. Investment money, while lagging in many sectors, is flowing into restaurant and food tech innovations.

While some of these innovations are costly to implement initially, the food businesses who are willing to give them a try will often see them pay off quickly. The companies who take on board customers’ desire for safety and offer them trustworthy solutions will see increased loyalty and are more likely to survive whatever the next few months will bring.

30-second pitch: Touch-free technology

💻 What

  • Touchless technologies like digital menus and contactless deliveries, alongside innovations like drone deliveries and fresh food vending machines, are helping food businesses adapt to the coronavirus era.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • Technologies that allow some degree of ‘normality’ to resume have become hot topics for food businesses. Before the pandemic, the makers of contactless or touch-free innovations championed them for their convenience and cost-cutting advantages, now retailers and restaurants are giving them another look for health and safety reasons.


⚙️ How

  • Fresh food or made-to-order food from vending machines
  • Zero-touch dine-in apps
  • Contactless food delivery or pickup (e.g. via drone)
  • Use of robots for food delivery or as restaurant staff
  • Touchless appliances (e.g. coffee machines or water dispensers)


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Digitisation was on the radar of many companies in any case, but current circumstances have accelerated the shift to new technologies and incentivised early adoption.
  • Customer preferences now include safety, and the businesses who show they have listened to consumer needs are likely to see increased loyalty. Contactless technologies also help to keep a restaurant or retailer’s workforce safe.
  • Adopting automation in some areas can help restaurants save money, more important than ever during a year of economic hardship.


👎 The bad

  • Technological innovations are often expensive to implement, especially for early adopters, though they can pay off quickly.
  • Some of the more pioneering technologies, like drone delivery, are not yet ready to be widely adopted due to legal regulations.


💡 The bottom line

  • The businesses who listen to customers’ desire for safety and invest in contactless solutions are more likely to weather the COVID-19 storm. And research shows that altered customer behaviour will likely outlast the pandemic, so touch-free technology is a trusted way for startups to future-proof their operations.


Written by
Louise Burfitt

Louise is an editor and writer based in Oxfordshire. When her nose isn’t buried in a dictionary, you’re most likely to find her taking long weekend walks or nurturing herbs and vegetables in her container garden.

Become a FoodHack+ member to get unlimited access

  • Access premium publications
  • Get listed on our directory
  • Join a Global Community

Coronavirus has uprooted many things in our lives since the pandemic took hold, not least the way we shop for food and eat in restaurants. As a result, contactless solutions and delivery services have been in high demand as restaurants and other food businesses around the world have been forced to shut their doors.

And in a socially distanced world, even those who have stayed open - like supermarkets and takeaways - have had to quickly adapt to a touchless world. In 2020 contactless convenience has become less of a curiosity and more of an absolute necessity.

The global food technology market will be worth $250 billion by 2022 and this year’s particular requirements have accelerated some tech trends that may have otherwise taken longer to pick up speed. In fact, investment in food and restaurant technology has been one of the few areas that has seen growth in a difficult year for the global economy.

What is touchless technology?

In the food industry, touchless technology is anything - whether device, software or full-blown robot - that limits or removes human contact for the purposes of safety, convenience and efficiency. It manifests in various forms, from contactless deliveries and digital menus to touchless features on drinks dispensers or ordering food from a vending machine. Then there’s the more futuristic side to this trend, which includes robot waiters in restaurants and food delivery by drone.

Trend drivers: coronavirus concerns and cost efficiencies

Touch-free technology was already gaining force before 2020, but the pandemic has dramatically hastened the shift to new technologies. With the need for social distancing and news that the virus can survive on some surfaces for up to days, the move to contactless transactions has been supercharged - even in countries that had been slow to embrace new technologies, like the US, before the virus hit.

Cost efficiencies are another key driver. Restaurants forced to shut with little notice needed to find a way to survive financially - both during enforced shutdowns and afterwards. While populations were locked down, some food service retailers pivoted to offering pickup or contact-free delivery services. Now some have reopened, technologies like ordering via app, robot waiters and touchless dispensers are gaining popularity as food businesses find new ways to turn a profit and continue serving customers in a world where the virus remains a threat.

Exploring the trend: vending machines and contact-free appliances

The humble vending machine – previously a staple of school corridors and train station platforms – is undergoing an extraordinary renaissance thanks to COVID-19. 2020’s vending machines aren’t the retro appliances you’re used to, spitting out stale chocolate bars and crumpled crisps.

Many modern food-vending companies were actually founded with the aim of providing people with fresh food out of hours - and the no human-contact aspect suddenly seems remarkably prescient during the age of coronavirus. In the UK, Healthy Nibbles provides snacks through its 100% cashless vending machines: bestsellers include lentil chips and smoked almonds. Belgian family business Kjure offers full meals in takeaway form from its 40 vending machines across Belgium, including comforting classics like lasagne and meatloaf alongside salads and fish dishes. Farmer’s Fridge offers a similar service in the US while stateside startup Basil Street Pizza is branching out with its gourmet pizza vending machines: customers choose their option through a touch screen and their pizza is cooked to order in under 3 minutes.

Some companies are also adding touchless features to existing appliances. Nespresso has added touchless features to its Momento coffee machine, while French startup BRAAM sell their contact-free coffee machines and water dispensers, controlled via an app, to corporate offices. Coca-Cola also launched a touch-free update to the Freestyle drinks dispenser this year in response to the pandemic.

Re-designing delivery: robots and drones

Food delivery is also getting a contact-free makeover. At the start of the pandemic, food service giants like Starbucks and McDonalds were quick to adapt with contactless delivery services. UK food delivery company Deliveroo also launched its no-contact drop-off in March.

Delivery by drone could become a reality soon too, though it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. Domino’s delivered its first pizza by drone in 2016, and Google and Amazon have been working on the technology to make this possible for years. As well as being touch-free, it eliminates the issue of traffic and associated air pollution. Camile Thai Kitchen, an Irish fast food chain, became the first food company in Europe to complete aviation-grade drone trials this year. UK supermarket Tesco are also conducting drone tests and UberEats was ahead of the corona curve, finalising plans for its food delivery drones last year. However, before drones can become a fully feasible method of food drop-off, there’s legal and regulatory challenges to surmount.

Delivery by robot, meanwhile, is in full swing. Starship Technologies make six-wheeled robots, which load up with food at a restaurant and drop the order at the delivery address. The customer receives a text message to let them know their order is ready, unlocks the bot and collects their food. The robots have previously been trialled in the US and UK, but during the pandemic, their robot workforce has completed over 100,000 deliveries. Other startups honing in on robot food deliveries include Refraction AI and Eliport while companies Nuro and Robomart are developing robotic vehicles that can drive on roads, not just pavements.

It’s not just doorstep deliveries that robots are getting in on. Robotic servers in restaurants are also being looked at with new eyes. Pudu Technology, which makes autonomous robotic waiters, raised over $15 million this July to further develop its offering, while China’s Keenon Robotics already has more than 60,000 robotic servers in action on restaurant floors.

Case Studies: BellyMelly and Minnow

Online food ordering platform BellyMelly has expanded this year with a zero-touch dine-in app aimed at helping restaurants to navigate the era of COVID-19. The first-to-market solution sees customers use the existing BellyMelly app to scan the QR code displayed on their table, loading up a digital menu on screen. Customers order and pay through the app, which helps turn over tables more quickly and reduce contact between customers and servers. The technology has so far been provided to restaurants for free with a small commission taken for delivery and takeout orders.

Meanwhile, Minnow makes are internet-linked pods where restaurants and ghost kitchens can drop off meals for customers to collect later, offering a contactless experience that cuts out face-to-face interaction. The insulated lockers can be used for hot or cold food and meet safety regulations. This August Minnow raised $2.2 million for further development after already adapting quickly to the events of 2020 by added disinfecting UV light to its pods to kill off any lingering nasties. The company is focusing on adding lockers to large-scale residential buildings and restaurants offering takeaway, but hasn’t ruled out adding similar pods to single-family homes in future.

Silver linings: early adoption and increased investment

Unexpected shocks to systems can often accelerate innovation as companies are forced to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Restaurants and food retailers that have diversified this year, moving from dine-in to delivery, or adopting digital innovations, have been more able to weather the storm of COVID-19.

The current situation offers startups a unique chance to accelerate adoption of new technologies. Investment money, while lagging in many sectors, is flowing into restaurant and food tech innovations.

While some of these innovations are costly to implement initially, the food businesses who are willing to give them a try will often see them pay off quickly. The companies who take on board customers’ desire for safety and offer them trustworthy solutions will see increased loyalty and are more likely to survive whatever the next few months will bring.

30-second pitch: Touch-free technology

💻 What

  • Touchless technologies like digital menus and contactless deliveries, alongside innovations like drone deliveries and fresh food vending machines, are helping food businesses adapt to the coronavirus era.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • Technologies that allow some degree of ‘normality’ to resume have become hot topics for food businesses. Before the pandemic, the makers of contactless or touch-free innovations championed them for their convenience and cost-cutting advantages, now retailers and restaurants are giving them another look for health and safety reasons.


⚙️ How

  • Fresh food or made-to-order food from vending machines
  • Zero-touch dine-in apps
  • Contactless food delivery or pickup (e.g. via drone)
  • Use of robots for food delivery or as restaurant staff
  • Touchless appliances (e.g. coffee machines or water dispensers)


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Digitisation was on the radar of many companies in any case, but current circumstances have accelerated the shift to new technologies and incentivised early adoption.
  • Customer preferences now include safety, and the businesses who show they have listened to consumer needs are likely to see increased loyalty. Contactless technologies also help to keep a restaurant or retailer’s workforce safe.
  • Adopting automation in some areas can help restaurants save money, more important than ever during a year of economic hardship.


👎 The bad

  • Technological innovations are often expensive to implement, especially for early adopters, though they can pay off quickly.
  • Some of the more pioneering technologies, like drone delivery, are not yet ready to be widely adopted due to legal regulations.


💡 The bottom line

  • The businesses who listen to customers’ desire for safety and invest in contactless solutions are more likely to weather the COVID-19 storm. And research shows that altered customer behaviour will likely outlast the pandemic, so touch-free technology is a trusted way for startups to future-proof their operations.


Become a FoodHack+ member to get unlimited access

  • Access premium publications
  • Get listed on our directory
  • Join a Global Community
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Coronavirus has uprooted many things in our lives since the pandemic took hold, not least the way we shop for food and eat in restaurants. As a result, contactless solutions and delivery services have been in high demand as restaurants and other food businesses around the world have been forced to shut their doors.

And in a socially distanced world, even those who have stayed open - like supermarkets and takeaways - have had to quickly adapt to a touchless world. In 2020 contactless convenience has become less of a curiosity and more of an absolute necessity.

The global food technology market will be worth $250 billion by 2022 and this year’s particular requirements have accelerated some tech trends that may have otherwise taken longer to pick up speed. In fact, investment in food and restaurant technology has been one of the few areas that has seen growth in a difficult year for the global economy.

What is touchless technology?

In the food industry, touchless technology is anything - whether device, software or full-blown robot - that limits or removes human contact for the purposes of safety, convenience and efficiency. It manifests in various forms, from contactless deliveries and digital menus to touchless features on drinks dispensers or ordering food from a vending machine. Then there’s the more futuristic side to this trend, which includes robot waiters in restaurants and food delivery by drone.

Trend drivers: coronavirus concerns and cost efficiencies

Touch-free technology was already gaining force before 2020, but the pandemic has dramatically hastened the shift to new technologies. With the need for social distancing and news that the virus can survive on some surfaces for up to days, the move to contactless transactions has been supercharged - even in countries that had been slow to embrace new technologies, like the US, before the virus hit.

Cost efficiencies are another key driver. Restaurants forced to shut with little notice needed to find a way to survive financially - both during enforced shutdowns and afterwards. While populations were locked down, some food service retailers pivoted to offering pickup or contact-free delivery services. Now some have reopened, technologies like ordering via app, robot waiters and touchless dispensers are gaining popularity as food businesses find new ways to turn a profit and continue serving customers in a world where the virus remains a threat.

Exploring the trend: vending machines and contact-free appliances

The humble vending machine – previously a staple of school corridors and train station platforms – is undergoing an extraordinary renaissance thanks to COVID-19. 2020’s vending machines aren’t the retro appliances you’re used to, spitting out stale chocolate bars and crumpled crisps.

Many modern food-vending companies were actually founded with the aim of providing people with fresh food out of hours - and the no human-contact aspect suddenly seems remarkably prescient during the age of coronavirus. In the UK, Healthy Nibbles provides snacks through its 100% cashless vending machines: bestsellers include lentil chips and smoked almonds. Belgian family business Kjure offers full meals in takeaway form from its 40 vending machines across Belgium, including comforting classics like lasagne and meatloaf alongside salads and fish dishes. Farmer’s Fridge offers a similar service in the US while stateside startup Basil Street Pizza is branching out with its gourmet pizza vending machines: customers choose their option through a touch screen and their pizza is cooked to order in under 3 minutes.

Some companies are also adding touchless features to existing appliances. Nespresso has added touchless features to its Momento coffee machine, while French startup BRAAM sell their contact-free coffee machines and water dispensers, controlled via an app, to corporate offices. Coca-Cola also launched a touch-free update to the Freestyle drinks dispenser this year in response to the pandemic.

Re-designing delivery: robots and drones

Food delivery is also getting a contact-free makeover. At the start of the pandemic, food service giants like Starbucks and McDonalds were quick to adapt with contactless delivery services. UK food delivery company Deliveroo also launched its no-contact drop-off in March.

Delivery by drone could become a reality soon too, though it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. Domino’s delivered its first pizza by drone in 2016, and Google and Amazon have been working on the technology to make this possible for years. As well as being touch-free, it eliminates the issue of traffic and associated air pollution. Camile Thai Kitchen, an Irish fast food chain, became the first food company in Europe to complete aviation-grade drone trials this year. UK supermarket Tesco are also conducting drone tests and UberEats was ahead of the corona curve, finalising plans for its food delivery drones last year. However, before drones can become a fully feasible method of food drop-off, there’s legal and regulatory challenges to surmount.

Delivery by robot, meanwhile, is in full swing. Starship Technologies make six-wheeled robots, which load up with food at a restaurant and drop the order at the delivery address. The customer receives a text message to let them know their order is ready, unlocks the bot and collects their food. The robots have previously been trialled in the US and UK, but during the pandemic, their robot workforce has completed over 100,000 deliveries. Other startups honing in on robot food deliveries include Refraction AI and Eliport while companies Nuro and Robomart are developing robotic vehicles that can drive on roads, not just pavements.

It’s not just doorstep deliveries that robots are getting in on. Robotic servers in restaurants are also being looked at with new eyes. Pudu Technology, which makes autonomous robotic waiters, raised over $15 million this July to further develop its offering, while China’s Keenon Robotics already has more than 60,000 robotic servers in action on restaurant floors.

Case Studies: BellyMelly and Minnow

Online food ordering platform BellyMelly has expanded this year with a zero-touch dine-in app aimed at helping restaurants to navigate the era of COVID-19. The first-to-market solution sees customers use the existing BellyMelly app to scan the QR code displayed on their table, loading up a digital menu on screen. Customers order and pay through the app, which helps turn over tables more quickly and reduce contact between customers and servers. The technology has so far been provided to restaurants for free with a small commission taken for delivery and takeout orders.

Meanwhile, Minnow makes are internet-linked pods where restaurants and ghost kitchens can drop off meals for customers to collect later, offering a contactless experience that cuts out face-to-face interaction. The insulated lockers can be used for hot or cold food and meet safety regulations. This August Minnow raised $2.2 million for further development after already adapting quickly to the events of 2020 by added disinfecting UV light to its pods to kill off any lingering nasties. The company is focusing on adding lockers to large-scale residential buildings and restaurants offering takeaway, but hasn’t ruled out adding similar pods to single-family homes in future.

Silver linings: early adoption and increased investment

Unexpected shocks to systems can often accelerate innovation as companies are forced to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Restaurants and food retailers that have diversified this year, moving from dine-in to delivery, or adopting digital innovations, have been more able to weather the storm of COVID-19.

The current situation offers startups a unique chance to accelerate adoption of new technologies. Investment money, while lagging in many sectors, is flowing into restaurant and food tech innovations.

While some of these innovations are costly to implement initially, the food businesses who are willing to give them a try will often see them pay off quickly. The companies who take on board customers’ desire for safety and offer them trustworthy solutions will see increased loyalty and are more likely to survive whatever the next few months will bring.

30-second pitch: Touch-free technology

💻 What

  • Touchless technologies like digital menus and contactless deliveries, alongside innovations like drone deliveries and fresh food vending machines, are helping food businesses adapt to the coronavirus era.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • Technologies that allow some degree of ‘normality’ to resume have become hot topics for food businesses. Before the pandemic, the makers of contactless or touch-free innovations championed them for their convenience and cost-cutting advantages, now retailers and restaurants are giving them another look for health and safety reasons.


⚙️ How

  • Fresh food or made-to-order food from vending machines
  • Zero-touch dine-in apps
  • Contactless food delivery or pickup (e.g. via drone)
  • Use of robots for food delivery or as restaurant staff
  • Touchless appliances (e.g. coffee machines or water dispensers)


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Digitisation was on the radar of many companies in any case, but current circumstances have accelerated the shift to new technologies and incentivised early adoption.
  • Customer preferences now include safety, and the businesses who show they have listened to consumer needs are likely to see increased loyalty. Contactless technologies also help to keep a restaurant or retailer’s workforce safe.
  • Adopting automation in some areas can help restaurants save money, more important than ever during a year of economic hardship.


👎 The bad

  • Technological innovations are often expensive to implement, especially for early adopters, though they can pay off quickly.
  • Some of the more pioneering technologies, like drone delivery, are not yet ready to be widely adopted due to legal regulations.


💡 The bottom line

  • The businesses who listen to customers’ desire for safety and invest in contactless solutions are more likely to weather the COVID-19 storm. And research shows that altered customer behaviour will likely outlast the pandemic, so touch-free technology is a trusted way for startups to future-proof their operations.


Coronavirus has uprooted many things in our lives since the pandemic took hold, not least the way we shop for food and eat in restaurants. As a result, contactless solutions and delivery services have been in high demand as restaurants and other food businesses around the world have been forced to shut their doors.

And in a socially distanced world, even those who have stayed open - like supermarkets and takeaways - have had to quickly adapt to a touchless world. In 2020 contactless convenience has become less of a curiosity and more of an absolute necessity.

The global food technology market will be worth $250 billion by 2022 and this year’s particular requirements have accelerated some tech trends that may have otherwise taken longer to pick up speed. In fact, investment in food and restaurant technology has been one of the few areas that has seen growth in a difficult year for the global economy.

What is touchless technology?

In the food industry, touchless technology is anything - whether device, software or full-blown robot - that limits or removes human contact for the purposes of safety, convenience and efficiency. It manifests in various forms, from contactless deliveries and digital menus to touchless features on drinks dispensers or ordering food from a vending machine. Then there’s the more futuristic side to this trend, which includes robot waiters in restaurants and food delivery by drone.

Trend drivers: coronavirus concerns and cost efficiencies

Touch-free technology was already gaining force before 2020, but the pandemic has dramatically hastened the shift to new technologies. With the need for social distancing and news that the virus can survive on some surfaces for up to days, the move to contactless transactions has been supercharged - even in countries that had been slow to embrace new technologies, like the US, before the virus hit.

Cost efficiencies are another key driver. Restaurants forced to shut with little notice needed to find a way to survive financially - both during enforced shutdowns and afterwards. While populations were locked down, some food service retailers pivoted to offering pickup or contact-free delivery services. Now some have reopened, technologies like ordering via app, robot waiters and touchless dispensers are gaining popularity as food businesses find new ways to turn a profit and continue serving customers in a world where the virus remains a threat.

Exploring the trend: vending machines and contact-free appliances

The humble vending machine – previously a staple of school corridors and train station platforms – is undergoing an extraordinary renaissance thanks to COVID-19. 2020’s vending machines aren’t the retro appliances you’re used to, spitting out stale chocolate bars and crumpled crisps.

Many modern food-vending companies were actually founded with the aim of providing people with fresh food out of hours - and the no human-contact aspect suddenly seems remarkably prescient during the age of coronavirus. In the UK, Healthy Nibbles provides snacks through its 100% cashless vending machines: bestsellers include lentil chips and smoked almonds. Belgian family business Kjure offers full meals in takeaway form from its 40 vending machines across Belgium, including comforting classics like lasagne and meatloaf alongside salads and fish dishes. Farmer’s Fridge offers a similar service in the US while stateside startup Basil Street Pizza is branching out with its gourmet pizza vending machines: customers choose their option through a touch screen and their pizza is cooked to order in under 3 minutes.

Some companies are also adding touchless features to existing appliances. Nespresso has added touchless features to its Momento coffee machine, while French startup BRAAM sell their contact-free coffee machines and water dispensers, controlled via an app, to corporate offices. Coca-Cola also launched a touch-free update to the Freestyle drinks dispenser this year in response to the pandemic.

Re-designing delivery: robots and drones

Food delivery is also getting a contact-free makeover. At the start of the pandemic, food service giants like Starbucks and McDonalds were quick to adapt with contactless delivery services. UK food delivery company Deliveroo also launched its no-contact drop-off in March.

Delivery by drone could become a reality soon too, though it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. Domino’s delivered its first pizza by drone in 2016, and Google and Amazon have been working on the technology to make this possible for years. As well as being touch-free, it eliminates the issue of traffic and associated air pollution. Camile Thai Kitchen, an Irish fast food chain, became the first food company in Europe to complete aviation-grade drone trials this year. UK supermarket Tesco are also conducting drone tests and UberEats was ahead of the corona curve, finalising plans for its food delivery drones last year. However, before drones can become a fully feasible method of food drop-off, there’s legal and regulatory challenges to surmount.

Delivery by robot, meanwhile, is in full swing. Starship Technologies make six-wheeled robots, which load up with food at a restaurant and drop the order at the delivery address. The customer receives a text message to let them know their order is ready, unlocks the bot and collects their food. The robots have previously been trialled in the US and UK, but during the pandemic, their robot workforce has completed over 100,000 deliveries. Other startups honing in on robot food deliveries include Refraction AI and Eliport while companies Nuro and Robomart are developing robotic vehicles that can drive on roads, not just pavements.

It’s not just doorstep deliveries that robots are getting in on. Robotic servers in restaurants are also being looked at with new eyes. Pudu Technology, which makes autonomous robotic waiters, raised over $15 million this July to further develop its offering, while China’s Keenon Robotics already has more than 60,000 robotic servers in action on restaurant floors.

Case Studies: BellyMelly and Minnow

Online food ordering platform BellyMelly has expanded this year with a zero-touch dine-in app aimed at helping restaurants to navigate the era of COVID-19. The first-to-market solution sees customers use the existing BellyMelly app to scan the QR code displayed on their table, loading up a digital menu on screen. Customers order and pay through the app, which helps turn over tables more quickly and reduce contact between customers and servers. The technology has so far been provided to restaurants for free with a small commission taken for delivery and takeout orders.

Meanwhile, Minnow makes are internet-linked pods where restaurants and ghost kitchens can drop off meals for customers to collect later, offering a contactless experience that cuts out face-to-face interaction. The insulated lockers can be used for hot or cold food and meet safety regulations. This August Minnow raised $2.2 million for further development after already adapting quickly to the events of 2020 by added disinfecting UV light to its pods to kill off any lingering nasties. The company is focusing on adding lockers to large-scale residential buildings and restaurants offering takeaway, but hasn’t ruled out adding similar pods to single-family homes in future.

Silver linings: early adoption and increased investment

Unexpected shocks to systems can often accelerate innovation as companies are forced to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Restaurants and food retailers that have diversified this year, moving from dine-in to delivery, or adopting digital innovations, have been more able to weather the storm of COVID-19.

The current situation offers startups a unique chance to accelerate adoption of new technologies. Investment money, while lagging in many sectors, is flowing into restaurant and food tech innovations.

While some of these innovations are costly to implement initially, the food businesses who are willing to give them a try will often see them pay off quickly. The companies who take on board customers’ desire for safety and offer them trustworthy solutions will see increased loyalty and are more likely to survive whatever the next few months will bring.

30-second pitch: Touch-free technology

💻 What

  • Touchless technologies like digital menus and contactless deliveries, alongside innovations like drone deliveries and fresh food vending machines, are helping food businesses adapt to the coronavirus era.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • Technologies that allow some degree of ‘normality’ to resume have become hot topics for food businesses. Before the pandemic, the makers of contactless or touch-free innovations championed them for their convenience and cost-cutting advantages, now retailers and restaurants are giving them another look for health and safety reasons.


⚙️ How

  • Fresh food or made-to-order food from vending machines
  • Zero-touch dine-in apps
  • Contactless food delivery or pickup (e.g. via drone)
  • Use of robots for food delivery or as restaurant staff
  • Touchless appliances (e.g. coffee machines or water dispensers)


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Digitisation was on the radar of many companies in any case, but current circumstances have accelerated the shift to new technologies and incentivised early adoption.
  • Customer preferences now include safety, and the businesses who show they have listened to consumer needs are likely to see increased loyalty. Contactless technologies also help to keep a restaurant or retailer’s workforce safe.
  • Adopting automation in some areas can help restaurants save money, more important than ever during a year of economic hardship.


👎 The bad

  • Technological innovations are often expensive to implement, especially for early adopters, though they can pay off quickly.
  • Some of the more pioneering technologies, like drone delivery, are not yet ready to be widely adopted due to legal regulations.


💡 The bottom line

  • The businesses who listen to customers’ desire for safety and invest in contactless solutions are more likely to weather the COVID-19 storm. And research shows that altered customer behaviour will likely outlast the pandemic, so touch-free technology is a trusted way for startups to future-proof their operations.