There's a new, physically distant option on Ottawa's restaurant scene: automated curbside pizza ovens that dispense hot, personal-size pies like dollar bills from an ATM.
"It's basically a pizza vending machine," said Grant Marley, general manager of the Senate Tavern's two locations, on Clarence Street in the ByWard Market and Bank Street in Old Ottawa South, where the carb-cooking kiosks have been set up.
"In three minutes the pizza slides out of the small little hole in front, and you have a cooked pizza ready to go."
Senate Tavern purchased the $160,000 machines from PizzaForno, based in Brampton, Ont. PizzaForno provides the ingredients and training, keeping what the company calls a "small royalty" from each pizza sold. Senate Tavern provides the space and assembles the pies in the kitchen at its Bank Street location, now otherwise shuttered thanks to the provincewide pandemic shutdown.
Senate Tavern has decided against offering takeout meals this time around, so in addition to satisfying hungry passersby, the machines also serve as a hedge against the latest restrictions.
"We tried the takeout route and found there are other ways to help keep the business afloat," said Marley. "We're able to keep our cooks employed — not as much as it used to be, but any little bit helps right now."
Currently, three employees are kept busy preparing raw pizzas for the machines, but Marley hopes to double that number.
Each machine holds up to 70 prepared pizzas, and Marley said each cooks and dispenses between 30 and 60 hot pies per day. He's expecting that number to grow as word spreads.
Marley said the touch-screen machines are safe as can be during a pandemic.
"You're the only one that's having contact with the product that you're taking home. That's a priority for people nowadays," he said.
A robotic arm moves the requested pie from the refrigerated space to the oven, then once it's cooked, boxes it and slides it out. The pizzas range in price from $9 to $13, but if you want to save a buck you can order your pizza uncooked and pop it in the oven at home.
But how do they taste?
Varieties include vegetarian, pepperoni, Hawaiian, meat lovers, barbecue chicken, four cheese and honey and goat cheese. But how does it compare to "real" pizza?
"We're getting that question quite a bit," said Marley, who has tasted it himself. "It's very similar to the artisan crust. It's fluffy. The ingredients are fresh. I was incredibly surprised as a consumer, not just someone who works with the company."
Even after restrictions ease and restaurants reopen, the pizza vending machines will stay put, he said.
"COVID provided an opportunity to get them set up a little bit quicker, but this is permanent," said Marley. "It's not something that's just going to be around for COVID and then disappear."
It's been a boon for PizzaForno, too. The company's co-founder and president Les Tomlin told CBC "low-touch, no-touch" food technology is in high demand during COVID-19, noting the company tripled its business in 2020. PizzaForno currently has 42 vending machines operating across Canada including the two belonging to Senate Tavern.
So is this the future of dining out in Ottawa?
"I hope it's just something that complements it. What's so beautiful about the hospitality industry is the contact and the social aspect with customers," said Marley. "This is just something a little different."