Ottawa’s first automated restaurant provides answers to industry’s woes

One local restaurateur is stepping out of the pandemic and into the future with a new restaurant concept that he believes will solve some of the biggest challenges facing the industry.

Amir Rahim, the owner of Grounded Kitchen, Coffee and Bar at 100 Gloucester St., has opened another location on Carling Avenue that not only reduces the need for staff, but also saves money for customers. 

Rahim has spent his whole life in restaurants, from helping out at his family’s Swiss Chalet franchise, toasting buns and taking out the garbage, to working at and eventually owning establishments. He opened the Gloucester Street location in 2010 and says he has cultivated a wonderful community. But when the building was sold recently and the future of his restaurant became unclear, Rahim went looking for new opportunities.

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He found one at 1545 Carling Ave. in a new space with a landlord who is open-minded and flexible enough to allow Rahim to experiment.

In Rahim’s mind, the new Grounded location has been a lifetime in the making. Now 50, he says that a career working in the industry, doing everything from fine dining and quick service to takeout, has led to this.

“The thing I love doing the most, the food I like eating the most, and everything I’ve learned has come together,” he said. 

At its core, the new Grounded is like many other restaurants – it strives for excellent service and delicious food. But that’s where the similarities end. The location, which opened this month, relies on automation and technology to operate with a maximum staff of four.

Rahim’s goal is to find answers to some of the largest issues he sees facing the food service industry: labour shortages, inequity within restaurants, and an unpredictable economy. According to a 2022 report by Restaurants Canada, there were a record 189,000 job vacancies in Canada’s foodservice industry in 2021. Looking ahead, the association predicts that high inflation and rising interest rates “may put a damper on restaurant sales” in 2023. 

Rahim’s solution is to eliminate tipping, as well as the need for staff, ultimately saving money for both the establishment and its customers.

Special lockers designed specifically for food service will keep food warm and alert customers when their meal is ready.

“It’s the concept of using automation to help solve challenges of our staffing,” he explained. “People don’t want to do the job anymore when there are options for remote work with flexibility, benefits, etcetera. These are areas that our industry has been behind in for decades.”

Customers visiting the new Grounded can order on their phones, ahead of time; at a kiosk in the restaurant; or by scanning a QR code at their table. From there, the two-person kitchen staff prepares the meals fresh then places the food, fully plated and ready-to-eat, into the most ambitious of Rahim’s technology solutions: automated food lockers. 

Similar to the pick-up lockers currently used at places like Canadian Tire or Amazon, the food lockers use a QR code to identify and open the boxes. The automated system will keep a hot meal warm inside the locker. 

Customers receive a notification when their food is ready and can access their locker with the code. Tables are already set with cutlery and a hospitality staff member keeps water glasses full, clears tables and assists diners with any questions or concerns. Payment is automatic.

Amir Rahim, owner of Grounded, with his daughter Nova at the downtown location. Photo submitted

“We’ve eliminated order-takers and are training customers to be their own cashiers,” explained Rahim. “There’s still a human being chatting with everyone.”

One of Rahim’s biggest priorities is making sure all of his tech is working seamlessly.

“With automation, it’s great that it’s accessible, but I see why it’s scary because if it doesn’t work it’s super frustrating. Even if you’re savvy with coding or good with technology, it isn’t enough because it’s such a specialized environment that it can be frustrating,” said Rahim. “I am going through, getting it all worked out because It can’t glitch. 

“It’s all great to offer advanced automation, but if it doesn’t work it’s going to piss people off. So I’m taking the time needed to make sure it works seamlessly.”

Grounded is the first restaurant of its kind in Ottawa, but not in Canada. Box’d in Toronto became Canada’s first fully automated restaurant when it opened in 2020 as a solution to social distancing and sanitization protocols during the pandemic. Box’d features similar cubbies where customers can pick up their food.

Rahim was inspired when he visited a booth for Truffle POS Systems, which makes the lockers, at a restaurant food show in Toronto. The new tech showed Rahim a way to bring his ideas to life.

“I’ve always been keen on wanting to find a better way to help our margins,” he said. “I wanted a better business, a better model.

“I always had an issue with wages or lack of, the lack of equity in restaurants, tipping,” he described. “There’s always been something that bugged me about the inequity of staff and serving and tipping.”

A standard point-of-sale system that takes and processes orders in a restaurant usually costs between $6,000 and $10,000. The Truffle POS automated system that takes orders and operates the food lockers at Grounded cost Rahim just under $30,000. The lockers themselves were $20,000 of that cost. Despite the price tag, Rahim is confident that his business model will save money for both his company and his customers.

Amir Rahim, owner of Grounded, wanted the new location’s design to reflect the futuristic, tech-inspired concept that inspired the business.

“If we can convince customers that they can do this, that they don’t need me to tell you what you want, it will work. I want to serve you, I want to provide enhanced hospitality, I want to take my food knowledge into this, but you don’t need me to punch it in for you and collect your payment. If you can order, pick up and pay, it will save us money.”

The biggest selling point for Rahim’s new model, he believes, is not only the money saved by paying fewer employees, he says it also allows him to pay his staff more.

Rahim says he “has faith” in the future of automation in the food service industry, optimism that is backed by findings from Restaurants Canada. Looking ahead, 74 per cent of quick-service restaurant operators said they expect to increase their use of technology in the next two years, though only 25 per cent said they “definitely will.” For full-service restaurants, 15 per cent “definitely will” increase their use of automation, according to the association.

While “there is legitimate resistance to increasing automation and technology at restaurants due to the expense and the perceived loss of personalized service that guests expect from a restaurant,” according to the survey, Rahim is confident that this is the “future of restaurants.”

With the fate of his downtown Grounded location uncertain, Rahim says he may “ride out his years” at the Carling Avenue restaurant, which he sees as a culmination of his entire career. But he’s open-minded.

“This is something I believe we can open more of in a smarter way than a regular restaurant,” he said. “Being the first to do anything is either super brave or super suicidal. I’m either courageous or crazy.”

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