“Smart” technology is intersecting with cultural demands for convenience, freshness and choice to revolutionize the onsite foodservice environment.
Case in point: “Smart” fridge units from vendor Byte Technology that can stock a widely diverse array of fresh meal solutions (including dinner meal kits—see below) that consumers can access by running a credit card. But access is just the start, as the units’ smart technology allows all the products inside the machine to be picked up, examined and put back anywhere and in any order. The unit knows what’s missing when the door is re-closed and charges only the items taken to the credit card.
The technology not only aligns with the needs of the modern flex-hour workplace but also with institutional settings such as hospitals and colleges where hunger pangs and meal opportunities don’t always conform to traditional cafeteria hours.
Lee Mokri, Byte Technology founder and vice president of sales, compares the company’s units to Amazon Go c-stores, which monitor what customers actually take from the premises and charge them for those items with no checkout required—“except we scaled it down to fit in an office or a hospital,” he says.
There are currently some 500 Byte units in the Bay Area of Northern California, including on the premises of heavyweight clients like Tesla, Google and Amazon. At the start of this year, the firm also started licensing its technology across the country, including to major contract dining firms like Aramark, Sodexo and Canteen.
“We really see workplaces as the next big retail opportunity,” Mokri explains. “It is an entirely untapped opportunity as there are hundreds of thousands of offices across the U.S. that are looking for fresh food and have no options right now.”
Even if they do have some options, the units extend the reach of the in-house dining program. As an example, Mokri cites automaker Tesla, which has Byte units all around its production floor because its line workers typically only have a half-hour meal break and they want to avoid having them all rush the cafeteria at the same time. The units offer the workers an easily accessible alternative source of fresh, appealing meal options at minimal cost and bother to the company as the machines can be placed anywhere space and a utility hookup are available, and they require no labor allocation except to do occasional restocking.
In other environments, the machines can be placed in break rooms, vending niches or snack/coffee station areas as an extension of the cafeteria, or they can be the exclusive onsite dining option in venues lacking a café or sufficient population to justify one without a subsidy.
Unlike micromarkets, the smart fridge units don’t require a separate space or—because of the credit card-limited access—a secure environment, so they can go in smaller and more open areas in institutions like hospitals and colleges.
The glass-fronted units, which typically stock around 120 products at a time, have a menu screen that lists what’s available, so customers know exactly what they can find even before they open it. There’s an option to input an email address after the transaction to receive a receipt and get future discount and loyalty program offers.
Meanwhile, the unit sends real-time information back to the operator so they know what and when they need to restock, which can be done either from an onsite kitchen if there is also a café operation onsite, or from a commissary kitchen that serves multiple locations.
Among the products that can be stocked are not only an array of sandwiches, salads, entrees and sweets but also meal kits of the type marketed by companies like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, which lets the Byte fridges serve as a cutting-edge version of the old Home Meal Replacement (HMR) model. But instead of packaging prepared meals for people to take home at the end of the day as with the classic HMR approach, the Byte machines offer that trendiest of home meal options, the pre-packaged meal kit that a customer can quickly assemble and cook to get both a freshly prepared meal and the satisfaction of having made it oneself.
Meanwhile, the meal kit vendors avoid a host of costs.
“Customer acquisition is really expensive [for these companies], but with this, there is no customer acquisition cost,” Mokri explains. “In an office with a hundred employees, every one of those employees knows there’s a HelloFresh fridge in the office, so there’s no customer acquisition or retention cost and no barrier for the customer to [navigate].”
And those customers can make their choices much closer to the time they will be eating while avoiding not just the time lag between ordering and delivery but also the extra expense of having to pay for multiple meals at a time, which many of meal kit firms traditionally require.
“You’re pushing products into their lives rather than pulling them to your products” is the way Mokri describes the marketing advantage.