Technology’s Food Interface

As needs of the U.S. consumer change, modern tools are offering convenience retailers new solutions to craft better foodservice programs.

By Erin Del Conte, Senior Editor

As convenience stores continue to up their foodservice game, technology is offering ways to better meet crucial goals, from labor management to speed of service to food safety to tracking orders.

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Boston Retail Partners (BRP) notes “the pervasiveness and ease-of-use of mobile devices offers tremendous opportunities for retailers.” Soon, Gen Z will proliferate the workforce, a generation that has never experienced life without a mobile phone.

Customers expect to use a mobile device to order ahead for their meal and beverage and pay for it in advance all via their phone. They also want loyalty points and personalized discounts linked to their phone that can be used at the pump without having to rummage through a wallet or purse to find a card, Perry Kramer, senior vice president and practice lead at BRP, advised me recently.

Many c-stores are already either strategizing or introducing mobile ordering and in some cases even delivery, and linking loyalty programs with payment via an app. However, the mobile realm is only one area where technology is aiding foodservice initiatives.

Food Safety & Transparency
Blockchain is a technology that came about with the concept of Bitcoin, and today it is getting a lot of buzz. Blockchain is a continuously growing list of online records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography, that can be accessed via the internet.

Blockchain eliminates the need for paper records and one place it could become especially useful to c-stores is in the area of food safety and the overall logistics chain of food, Eric Richard, education coordinator, International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, told me recently.

“In essence a consumer, a store or a distributor can count at any moment where a specific product is, so they’re able to track the whole logistics food chain in real time. It really gives the consumers a peace of mind knowing that the c-store, has the capability to know where their product is at any given time.”

If a foodborne illness were to break out, it could be tracked—using blockchain—within hours rather than the days or weeks it takes currently. It also allows a retailer to look at a shipment of lettuce, for example, and know exactly where it is at any time.

This builds complete transparency around ingredients and products. And we all know transparency is a huge demand of customers today.

Blockchain is still in its conceptual phase, but the need for transparency with food and ingredients and clean labels is not going to go away—if anything it’s expected to grow, and technology can help pave the way for giving customers the information they desire.

Food Ordering
Today, more c-stores are looking to technology to seamlessly integrate foodservice within their operating systems. One example is Verifone’s Commander Site Controller software platform that now incorporates food configuration. Sayre, Pa.-based Dandy Mini Marts, which operates 64 locations, is one of the many c-store chains using the technology.

When a customer orders food via an employee or an ordering kiosk the transaction interfaces with the kitchen production system, which then shows the item so the kitchen staff can prepare it. This helps with labor management and order accuracy.

The technology now can also interface via the drive-through, and the order appears on a confirmation board so the customer has a chance to confirm what they ordered. The result is accurate, faster orders, which in turn can result in increased sales.

Employee Scheduling
Technology can also help retailers with labor management. As the gig economy continues, many c-store employees are working many different jobs at once, and balancing shifts between those jobs can become problematic.

At the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) Show this past October, Danielle Mattiussi, vice president of operations for Maverik Inc., noted that the Salt Lake City-based chain started making changes after exit interviews turned up a surprising trend. Some 47% of employees were being let go after a no-call-no-show because it was easier for them to leave than to conform to the schedule. Meanwhile, employees with multiple gigs struggled to get enough hours.

Maverik tackled these challenges by adding a new management software, that is also available via an app. Now, schedules can be planned two weeks in advance. Store directors can post available shifts and employees can opt in, allowing for more flexibility. Maverik then began working on an employee-pooling feature where employees can opt in to pick up shifts at multiple stores. Maverik expects to see reduced turnover and also see a benefit when it comes to correct sizing for the seasonal workforce.

Are Drones Done?
Robotics and drones are another area of continued innovation.

While the likes of Amazon and 7-Eleven might be testing drone delivery, Daniel Burrus, an American technology futurist, told me he does not expect drones to take off as the food/product delivery vehicle of the future.

“Drones are a way of signaling, ‘we’re doing really cool stuff,’” Burrus said, but added if Amazon gets going with drones in a major way, so will all other retailers.

“You’ll have more drones than birds,” Burrus said, the Federal Aviation Administration would never allow it.”