ChouNan, a Japanese restaurant chain operated by a Thai-based company, The Original Farm Co, Ltd, unveiled its ‘Cloud Kitchen’ vending machines stocked up with its ready-to-eat (RTE) foods. The pilot machine was installed at the Rhythm Asoke condominium in Bangkok, Thailand, in September 2021. Consumers can choose and click on the desired food item on the digital display of the machine and pay for it by scanning the generated QR Code with e-wallets or swiping their credit/debit card.

Cloud Kitchen vending machines stock 50 SKUs curated from ChouNan’s brand portfolio, including its SOULSHI brand of sushi and rice balls, JadeTiger Boat Noodle, Isaan Thai papaya salad, and Sam Kler fermented fish salad. The company claims its preservative-free RTE meals have a shelf life of three days.

The transition from an in-house dining restaurant to RTE food vending machines is part of ChouNan’s strategy to adapt its business model to the fluid nuances of the new normal. The Covid-19 outbreak, the intermittent and protracted lockdowns, social distancing regulations, ban on social gatherings and dearth of tourists dealt a heavy blow to HoReCa operators throughout 2020. With the government closing down shopping centres where most of its branches were located, the ChouNan Group was compelled to diversify its geographic presence and sales channels. If the pilot model proves successful, the company plans to set up 30–50 Cloud Kitchen vending machines in bustling locations in residential areas, offices, schools, universities, transport hubs, hospitals and government offices.

While vending machines were an occasional sight in Thailand prior to the pandemic, their popularity skyrocketed amid the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 as retailers and shoppers sought more safety and convenience. The new range of vending machines facilitates contactless operation and cashless payment, which minimises user exposure to germs. This led to a proliferation of vending machines in educational institutions, offices, factories, hospitals, shopping malls, petrol stations, transit hubs and sidewalks, selling all manner of products ranging from food and drinks to electronic gadgets, face masks, sandals and clothing accessories. Notably, in June 2020, top retailer 7-Eleven launched its first 7-Eleven Vending Café in Pattaya, Bangkok, offering its portfolio of RTE items and ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages in vending machines.

Vending machines with RTE food can go mainstream in Thailand just as they have in Japan, where all manner of machines can be found in every nook and corner of cities, dispensing a wide range of hot and cold RTE food and drinks round the clock. Vending machines installed at convenient locations serving RTE meals round-the-clock address the needs of various time-poor urban consumer cohorts including students, working adults, shoppers, commuters, and tourists. From the HoReCa operator’s perspective, these machines offer a platform for reaching a wider audience round-the-clock, with zero staffing and lower operating costs than a typical restaurant.

With its wide choice of foods in RTE format, ChouNan Group’s Cloud Kitchen ticks the boxes for nearly four in five (79%) Thai respondents in GlobalData’s Q1 2021 consumer survey who seek a greater variety of dishes when consuming food outside the home. Convenience (66%) and no or low preparation required (36%) are also key considerations that the service aligns to. Following in the footsteps of ChouNan, more restaurant operators are expected to roll out vending machines with their signature dishes, effectively pitting their fare against convenience stores that offer RTE meals and snacks to office goers, and commuters.

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