Hungry? No worries. India’s first fully automated, multi-brand, food retail-facilitator is here. Shonali Muthalaly on Atchayam’s Foodbox that offers a range of choices

You press a button to talk to your grandmother. You press a button to call a cab. You press a button to buy movie tickets. “So, I thought why can’t you just press a button and get a hot meal?” Satish Chamyvelumani looks delighted at his obviously rhetorical question.

Barely pausing for breath, he quickly continues, “It has to be fresh. It has to be hot. It has to be fast.” Easy? Not really. There’s more to this story.

After two engineering degrees followed by an MBA from the U.S., Satish worked in the U.S. for more than a decade. While he loved travelling home to Coimbatore, there was just one catch. “We took the train. And I enjoy the train. But I just don’t eat on it. Especially when I’m with my family. Because I’m worried about the hygiene...” Then, one day as he was driving between projects in the U.S., an idea struck him. “What if everyone has access to food from trusted sources when they travel?” He grins excitedly. “Then, I thought, what if they could just press a button for it?” He leans forward, “Then, wouldn’t it be awesome to have multiple choices.” And finally he jumps up adding, “And why can’t we do it right here — in India?”

He leads the way to Atchayam’s Foodbox, grandly standing at the front of the Taj Club House ballroom, fronted by a sleek computer. The ungainly machine has a friendly air about it, like an extra on The Muppet Show. In motion, it’s even more endearing. Satish uses the touch screen to choose from a variety of local restaurants, ranging from Amravati, offering full meals to biriyani from Aasife Brothers.

Once he makes his choice, Satish walks to the back of the machine to point out how it selects the right meal from the range of options, heats it and then trundles it out to a waiting customer. All this in 90 seconds. With home-grown technology. No wonder Satish and his team are so proud. As we peel back the cover of the food package, releasing a puff of fragrant steam, they stand back and gaze at the machine fondly, like it’s a particularly bonny baby.

“My first question was — does the technology for an automated restaurant even exist,” says Satish. As it turns out it didn’t and the toughest, fiddliest part of their job was putting it all together. “And now we have India’s first fully automated, multi-brand, food retail-facilitator,” he says, with a dramatic sweep of his hand. The first Atchayam’s Foodbox was set up at Koyambedu last year on a test run. (“Don’t call it a vending machine,” states Satish, firmly.)

This ‘automated restaurant’ enables customers to make food and restaurant choices on touch screens, paying via credit or debit cards. (In an attempt to be completely democratic, they also have the option of paying by cash since they will have staff stationed at each outlet.)

Calling this a turning point in the food-retail industry, co-founder and serial entrepreneur Ramesh Narayanan says that they now have two Foodboxes, both in Chennai. (The second is at DLF IT Park.) The vision is to take it across the country, tying up with local restaurants in each city. He says, “We have already tied with Ticket Goose, the second largest online ticketing portal for buses in India. Now travellers can book tickets and food simultaneously,” he says, adding, “The food will be delivered to the seat.” They are also working on similar tie-ups with organisations such as IRCTC and Southern Railway.

The grand plan is to open six additional outlets by 2015 across South India. “Since it’s a mobile platform was can take it to trade shows, tourist spots and exhibitions as well,” says Ramesh. As it turns out, it’s surprisingly easy to move. “We set this one up in a couple of hours — and I carried it in myself,” Satish beams, adding with a laugh, “And trust me — I’m not that strong!”

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