COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on America’s food industry: disrupting supply chains, forcing businesses to halt dine-in options, and infecting workers on the front lines. As food service businesses consider the best path forward, Blendid is also thinking critically about how contactless automation can help stabilize business while protecting workers and consumers in a post–COVID-19 world.
I talked with Shawn LaPean, Blendid’s Vice President of Business Development, about how the food industry can rethink the foundational elements of preparing and serving food.
How are high-volume food service businesses dealing with the new normal?
Businesses are still in the process of determining what the “new normal” is and how best they can succeed in consideration of new consumer demands. It’s clear that food service providers must limit human-to-human contact, but many are also grappling with how to best serve customers and how to stretch their budget further.
What specific changes are food service providers grappling with?
Of course any food service provider that wants to survive in the immediate future must take steps to minimize human-to-human contact and establish strict guidelines for any workers that prepare and serve food. Concepts previously thought of as futuristic— such as contactless, robots, and automation — are quickly going to become must-haves for many providers.
Food service providers must also contend with significant factors like fluctuating labor needs based on demand and changes or setbacks to their supply chain. Those who serve essential industries such as healthcare and grocery stores are being forced to adapt on the fly based on updated requirements or new reports about how the virus can be transmitted. Alternatively, food service providers who deal with colleges and universities and non-essential businesses that have simply closed down are pivoting their business model and looking at ways to supply their products directly to the consumer.
What will be the near-term focus for many food service providers?
The immediate near term is in flux, but strategizing for the future must be part of any plan moving forward. Many companies will need to look critically at their budgets for both the short and long term. In the immediate future, how can they financially support the changes that will allow consumers to feel safe again? In the long term, how can they ensure financial stewardship during an emergency or unexpected event like a pandemic?
Another important step will be for businesses to look at how to brace for the effects of the economic downturn. The first step toward stabilization will be looking at how to build margin in a lower-volume world. Businesses must strategize new approaches to preparing and serving food that maximize value while minimizing preparation and serving costs. Many will be forced to lean on existing infrastructures such as food delivery services (DoorDash, GrubHub, Uber Eats, etc.) or build new infrastructures to produce output in a consumer-friendly manner. New-age robotics are a great option for food service providers, because they allow you to address the customer concerns of today while also activating new areas of opportunity.
Why do you foresee contactless and automation as two of the top areas of focus?
A recent survey found nearly 65 percent of respondents will only consider eating at restaurants that have implemented technologies like contactless payments, digital menus, and service robots. So we know consumers are concerned about what measures businesses are taking to limit human-to-human contact. Companies that are able to provide a contactless experience and leverage automation technologies will have the greatest chance of success in the near future.
Contactless robotics also add immense value to current marketplace strategies. For example, contactless robots allow companies to easily support rush periods and shifts in demand since they are typically able to replicate tasks at a very rapid pace. This approach allows providers with limited labor to redeploy their workers to other, more complex tasks and save repetitive tasks for the robots. By leveraging contactless robots, food service providers can also expand their offerings and spend more time thinking strategically about how to improve their business and operations.
What are some relatively easy changes food service providers can make to deploy contactless automation?
Committing to changing is the first step. Putting off planning and innovation when it’s needed most is in direct opposition to good stewardship. Then, identify prime opportunities where you can implement contactless automation with relative ease. For example, reconfigure a low-volume area while you have the time to do so and workers are not on-site. While you may need to make some minor plumbing and electrical changes, you can easily activate an autonomous solution such as a Blendid kiosk.
How can struggling food service providers deploy new technologies in an efficient and cost-effective manner?
As with any initiative, there should be consideration of the costs and benefits as well as the tangible and intangible benefits. When considering new technology, a business should look at how long it will take for them to recoup their investment and whether they can create the appropriate environment to help that technology succeed. For a kiosk like Blendid, our customers have seen unheard-of margins. If you place a Blendid kiosk next to another food kiosk or food concept, we believe you will see the return on investment within a year with appropriate volumes.
How is Blendid shifting or doubling down on its business practices to ensure customers get a contactless experience?
We’ve updated our protocols for kiosk cleaning and food handling in the post-COVID world to meet or exceed the requirements of the local health department and NSF International. Our top priority is protecting the safety of our customers and workers, and we had this goal in mind while updating those protocols. We’re also proud to say our autonomous robotic kiosk operates in a contained and sanitary environment, and consumers can see all of the robot’s actions as it prepares and serves blends and self-cleans.
Check out our video to see Blendid’s contactless, autonomous food kiosk in action.