NATIONAL REPORT — The biggest names in convenience foodservice most often get attention for what customers see upfront: craveable menu items, bold seasonal offerings, and a variety of the trendiest flavors and ingredients. To find true success in this blockbuster category, however, convenience store operators must reexamine what lies beneath: the foodservice equipment and technology solutions that serve as the foundation of their programs.
Some of the latest advances in foodservice technology may go largely unnoticed by customers. In 2023, retailers' focus will shift from the customer-facing digital proposition to the operations side, according to Vikram Badhwar, director of restaurant technology and portfolio management for KFC UK & Ireland. During a presentation at NRF 2023: Retail's Big Show, Badhwar said his company will "double down" on robotic automation and artificial intelligence this year.
This is partially due to the rule of supply and demand, as recruiting and retaining employees remains a challenge, which makes it critically important to streamline existing workers' duties in order to reduce errors and lessen the likelihood they will start a new job search.
It's also the result of technology evolution that increasingly benefits smaller retail operations. "Part of this is because the cost of certain innovative technologies, such as automation and artificial intelligence, continues to come within reach of c-store and QSR [quick-service restaurant] operators," John Notte, senior vice president at Chain Link Services, a sister company of Franke Foodservice Systems, told Convenience Store News. "What's interesting is that sophistication of the technology is now allowing some equipment to be either staff- or customer-facing or both, providing more flexibility and convenience."
Notte pointed out that operators are embracing equipment and technologies that reduce repetitive, task-oriented functions, as well as solutions that reduce operational complexity. This includes unit types such as "super-automatic" bean-to-cup coffee machines and robust kitchen production systems that enable easy-to-follow recipes.
James Boushka, digital experience director at Aramark, a Philadelphia-based hospitality company that provides foodservice, facility and uniform services, advises food retailers to include their staff in discussions about what they want and don't want from automation. Getting their input increases buy-in and avoids alienating team members.
"When we work with team members on how to use automation, they do not find it a threat," Boushka said. "If they don't want to do it, or there simply isn't staff to do those tasks, we have to think about how to automate those. It almost futureproofs us."
C-stores that are ready to invest in automation and have sufficiently large kitchens may want to consider installing automated food and beverage transporters. Rapid conveyor systems can deliver orders from nonadjacent prep areas to service points without sacrificing speed. Such systems also can add capacity for drive-thru operations, cutting down on the amount of time customers must wait in line.
"Speed of service is critical to both c-store and QSR operators," Notte said.
Convenience store chains like Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey's General Stores Inc. have invested in technology that enhances the experience of their in-store team members, which in turn helps them better serve customers and deliver a quality guest experience. For example, Casey's has implemented an order management system that consolidates digital orders from the company's website, mobile app, phone, and third-party delivery partners.
On the consumer-facing side, digital ordering kiosks are on the rise and can provide benefits to both customers and retailers. They are easy to place orders on, offer precision in terms of customization and desired toppings, and keep orders organized for the kitchen. Having multiple kiosks helps cut down on lines to place orders at the counter, too.
Additionally, the use of digital menus can drive customer engagement — and sales — by leveraging graphics to highlight new menu items and product promotions.
The Rise of Artificial Intelligence
One of the most intriguing solutions hitting the foodservice market is the integration of artificial intelligence (AI), which can be particularly useful in helping retailers either avoid stocking too few foodservice items and running out early, or stocking too many and finding themselves with excessive food waste.
PreciTaste, a provider of smart software automation, recently launched an offline-first, plug-and-play, scalable solution based on a central hub that assists managers in directing team members and providing precise guidance to streamline their tasks. It includes a prep assistant, which predicts demand and guides teams on how much to prep per day, and a planner assistant, which uses quantity forecasts to produce an automated production schedule.
"The basis for the PreciTaste Suite is an AI generated demand model for the individual location. It is scary accurate at predicting sales and ingredient needs," said Hauke Feddersen, vice president of global operations at PreciTaste Group. "Therefore, the crew does not over or underproduce anymore, eliminating redundant tasks and reducing food waste significantly."
AI uses a blend of historic sales and auxiliary information such as weather, traffic and trade data to create a demand model, Feddersen explained. Each point-of-sale interaction fed to the model serves as positive or negative reinforcement to improve future predictions.
"The models go through hundreds of cycles of self-improvement each day," he said. "When we deploy 10 systems today, tomorrow each of them will predict demand differently based on the individuality of the location."
Some operators have found that AI itself is accurate and helpful, but the human element can present a stumbling block that must be navigated around.
"What we are finding is when they work well together, they work well together. But when the person on the grill ignores the suggestions of the AI, it doesn't like that," Colin McGuire, vice president of corporate systems at Chipotle, said during a panel at the NRF Show. "There is a long way to go to get to that interaction between the human and the technology to really be seamless, but once we do, I think you are going to see this technology in a lot of our spaces."
Regardless of what foodservice equipment and technology solutions retailers select to improve their program's quality and operations, the category will never be free of challenges, but setting themselves up to better tackle those challenges is key to long-term success.
"Every Tesla sold and every smoker quitting is a customer lost to the traditional c-store forever," Feddersen said. "Convenience food is the answer — but making good food is not easy."