Restaurateur Mohamad Fakih on Box’d, Canada’s first fully automated restaurant

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“It’s all based on digital cubby technology”: Restaurateur Mohamad Fakih on Box’d, Canada’s first fully automated restaurant

Earlier this spring, restaurateur extraordinaire Mohamad Fakih was all set to launch his latest casual dining concept, Box’d, in the Financial District. And then along came Covid-19, effectively putting those plans on hold. The CEO of Paramount Fine Foods says growing up in Lebanon during a civil war gives him some perspective on the current crisis. Here, he explains what Box’d is, how it works and why he’s not scared to open a new business during a global pandemic.

You came up with the idea for Box’d—a contact-free restaurant—before Covid-19. So, where did you get the crystal ball?

I know! And what’s so funny is that the contact-free concept was the part of the business I wasn’t so crazy about. I’m a people person, I have always believed in the power of human interaction. Even though the whole idea of Box’d is digital takeout and delivery, I wanted there to be a concierge at the door to greet customers as they come in. That person will still be there, only now, as well as helping people who aren’t digitally savvy get familiar with the process, they will also be handing out gloves and making sure people maintain physical distance. Customers will be able to order at the kiosk in the restaurant or from their desk, using their phones. Box’d is a franchise concept. I can imagine it working well at sports arenas, where people order their meal from their seat then pick it up at halftime, or on university campuses, so students can pick up meals between classes.

Can you give us a little more detail about exactly how it works?

It’s all based on digital cubby technology. The cubbies form a wall between the front of the restaurant, where there’s a small dining area, and the kitchen in the back. Each order is assigned to one chef and one chef only, who will prepare it, seal it, sanitize the outside of the box, sanitize the cubby, then put the order in the cubby for the customer to pick up on the other side. This way, only one person has touched an order. When your order is ready, you receive a scan code to your phone, which corresponds to the scan code on your assigned cubby. For those people who order at the restaurant kiosk, their name will appear on a digital screen when their food is ready. It will also tell them which cubby their food is in, and how many times they need to tap the door so it opens up.

This reminds me of the old automat restaurants from the 1950s—and also a bit of The Jetsons. Were you inspired by anything in particular?

Definitely the old automats, but there is a whole additional aspect in terms of the technology involved. There are versions of this concept in Europe, like Amsterdam’s FEBO—that was definitely something that inspired me. Aside from the tech, the key difference is that our food is made to order, so it’s nothing like a vending machine. Because of the wall of cubbies, customers won’t be able to see what’s going on in the kitchen, but there are lots of chefs back there and all the food is being made fresh to order. Our consulting chef is Tomer Markovitz, who previously worked at Parallel.

What kind of food are we talking about? Paramount is famous for its Middle Eastern cuisine. Will the menu at Box’d be similar?

It’s the same, but it’s also different. There are a bunch of different salad options—tabbouleh, wedge, panzanella, fattoush—and then there are several protein options, like spicy chicken, portobello, strip loin. Paramount’s signature hummus, which people love, is on the menu, too, but customers will be able to add interesting flavours to it, like black truffle. There will also be wraps and hot sides. I want people to understand that Middle Eastern food isn’t just shawarma and barbecue. The slogan for Box’d is “When you taste a culture you understand it.” I have always believed in the power of food to solve the world’s problems.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on food right now.

That’s true. We are seeing a lot of people struggle right now; there’s a lot of unrest being exposed. But it’s also true that at the same time, people are opening their hearts and trying to help one another. I helped to organize a fundraiser for the Mississauga Food Bank and we raised 1.3 million dollars in only seven days. That just goes to show that even when people are suffering economically, they will still reach into their pockets and wallets to help others.

Are you nervous about opening a business during a global pandemic?

I’m not scared. Actually, I love the idea of being one of the first new national brands to open after the restrictions relaxed. I want to provide hope and optimism to other small business owners. You have to understand that I grew up during a civil war in Lebanon. My family and I would have to live in a bunker for a few weeks at a time. When we finally emerged, even though there was devastation all around us, my dad would be smiling. I would ask him why he was smiling and he would say, “Because now we get to rebuild our country.”

That certainly puts things in perspective, but are you concerned about how a recession could dampen your prospects?

I’m hopeful we’re doing what is right for the moment. I know a lot of restaurants are struggling, but I’ve also noticed that the places selling pizzas and burgers have been more resistant. I think people are looking for easy and convenient meals right now. I realize that Box’d is located in the Financial District and a lot of our potential customers might not be back to work yet, but I think this is an opportunity for my staff to start slow and figure things out along the way. We had initially imagined Box’d as a standalone concept, but in light of everything that has happened, I think we will probably start incorporating the Box’d model at some of our other restaurants. There is a lot of change coming—I don’t think we’ll be making 5,000-square-foot restaurants anymore. We’re now looking at opening ghost kitchens that would focus strictly on delivery. Restaurants are in survival mode right now, so we’re figuring out whatever it is we need to do to keep going.

You’ve spoken with the finance minister and the premier, making a case for more support for small business owners. Are you happy with the recently announced commercial eviction ban?

I am happy, but it’s not enough. The Canada Emergency Relief Program only goes to the end of June, and the eviction ban is only effective from June until the end of August. We need the subsidy to be extended so that small businesses have a chance to get back on their feet, and we need landlords to get on board. I’m not anti-landlord—I’m a landlord myself—but I have heard of some landlords bullying and putting pressure on small business owners who are barely surviving, and I just don’t understand it. How can you take rent from someone for 10 years and when they need your support for a few months, you can’t step up?

You don’t seem like someone very well suited to standing still. What was lockdown like at your house?

I wouldn’t say that I was in lockdown for very long. As soon as I was asking my staff to come in and work at my restaurants, I knew I couldn’t be the boss who was sitting at home in his nice house. Going to work meant staying away from my wife and kids, living out of a suitcase at hotels and driving by my house to have visits with my family through a window. It wasn’t easy, but what am I going to do, complain? Covid-19 has been extremely hard for everyone. There are people who have lost loved ones, and I can’t imagine how difficult that is. But I also think that we are so lucky here in Canada where we have so much opportunity. I just want to keep moving forward.