Boxd Wrap - © 2020 Box'd by Paramount

COVID-19 Experience: Fully Digital Front Of House?

Spurred on by the difficulties facing conventional restaurateurs during the COVID-19 lock down, Paramount Middle Eastern Foods has branched out from its Hummus business to offer what it calls ‘fully automated’ restos, erecting a digital barrier between customers and kitchen…

Box'd Freekah Meal - © 2020 Box'd by ParamountThe Freekeh Meal: ‘Middle Eastern Flavoured Grain cooked to a creamy texture’,
with Mushrooms, Salad and Hummus. Top with Spiced Chicken,
Kafta (Beef and Lamb Meatballs) or Tofu.

Box’d by Paramount is a new concept in resto service which fully digitizes the front-of-house experience, creating completely contactless ordering and service system to protect customers and staff from issues such as the spread of COVID-19. It’s important to note that only the front-of-house systems are automated/digitized, and that humans in the kitchen still prepare the food. In fact, Box’d says it’s proud that a single ‘chef’ will be responsible for preparing each order in the back room, limiting staff contact with the food and packaging.

“We are excited to bring the Box’d experience to Toronto,” says Mohamad Fakih, in a news release. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many Torontonians chose to cook their meals at home, but as the restrictions ease and more businesses open people are looking forward to eating out. We understand that people may still be a little wary of public places, so we have created a dining option that is fast, efficient, and safe.”

Chef-developed recipes

At the core of the Box’d experience is a full menu of authentic Middle Eastern lunch and dinner dishes and meal combos designed by Chef Tomer Markovitz, featuring Entrée Salads ($12 – $16), Wraps ($10 – $13) (Kafta version, see photo, top of page), full-course Plated (boxed) Meals ($16 – $17), Beverages ($2 – $4), Sweets ($3 – $5) and Smoothies ($8). Echoing traditional Middle Eastern food culture, there is a good range of Vegetarian and Vegan options. The words ‘fresh’, ‘safe’ and ‘healthy’ are sprinkled generously throughout the news release.

The food looks great in the official menu-page ‘portrait’ photos at the Box’d website. Alas, found the pictures of the actual boxed-up meals oddly off-putting. They reminded me a little, their presentation, of TV Dinners on one hand, and airline meals on the other. But maybe that’s just me. The only way to find out is to try the Box’d experience. Alas, there’s only one place you can do that at this point: the flagship store on Yonge St. in Toronto.

Simplified ordering and service

Ordering is by phone app or in-store kiosk only, making, “express menu options […] accessible in just a few quick and efficient taps.” All Box’d orders come in sealed, sustainable packaging and are passed to customers via individual cubby holes, much like the service model of old fashioned mid-last-century ‘automat’ cafeterias. A digital notification system advises customers on their phones when their orders are ready and where they can be picked up.

The resto of tomorrow?

At a time when restaurant operators are trying to adapt to a new limited-contact service model reality, Box’d may offer a glimpse into the future of take-out dining. The Box’d concept actually integrates several ideas that conventional operators came up with under pressure to adapt to the social distancing rules mandated by health officials during the COVID-19 lock down as well as leveraging phone and digital kiosk ordering and payment technology already in limited use by some Fast Food brands to streamline the customer experience and increase the number of customers who can be served over a given period of time. A few were already offering contactless ‘cubby hole’ style pick-up options before the pandemic hit, saying it helped busy customers ‘jump the line’.

Another innovation, anti-tampering seals, was already in common use before the pandemic, a response by restos (mainly Pizza purveyors) to high-profile reports of widespread cases of delivery drivers snacking on the orders in their care.

The bottom line is, some resto operators, even giants such as McDonald’s, are hinting that at least some of the COVID-19 ordering and service changes they’ve made may become permanent parts of their business models even after the pandemic has passed.

My take

I think Box’d is a brave attempt to meet the anticipated demand by Fast Food diners for higher-quality food prepared and served in safer, low-contact environments.

Is the Box’d business model viable? It doesn’t increase costs by adding extra staff, the way current re-opening models for conventional models do (mainly to support enhanced sanitation and service procedures). Box’d says it just changes the traditional staffing distribution, “by trading front of house order-takers for more chefs and a concierge team,” in the back to make the food faster.

I’ll be interested to see what other, more-established Fast Food joints look like a year from now, after the pandemic is over…

~ Maggie J.

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