Every year, one of the most enlightening aspects of the National Restaurant Association Show is the spotlight it shines on the intersection between technology and the consumer foodservice industry. This year was no exception, as vendor booths promoting food ordering mobile apps, interactive digital signage and tabletop touchscreen ordering kiosks sprouted up throughout the TECH Pavilion in the expo hall.
Perhaps the most intriguing technology showcased in the TECH Pavilion this year belonged to a company named Apex Supply Chain Technologies. Although the company started as a vending solutions provider for manufacturing facilities, Apex is now seeking to expand its product assortment of self-serve pick-up stations designed for quick service restaurants (QSRs). At first glance, most of these pick-up stations appear to resemble modular locker units. However, unlike normal lockers, these pick-up stations are designed to marry the primary benefits of takeaway ordering – hot food, made to order, that can be consumed offsite – with the convenience and speed of a vending machine.
How does it work? A customer places a takeaway order ahead of time via mobile app. Once the order is prepared, a restaurant employee will place that order in one of the station’s individual locker compartments. The customer is then notified via app that their order is ready and is provided with either an assigned QR code or numeric code (or both) that is associated specifically with their order. At that point, the customer can walk into the restaurant and input their code into the user interface embedded within the pick-up station. This code unlocks the compartment where their food order is placed, allowing the customer to walk away with their food without ever having to interact directly with a restaurant employee.
Apex touts this technology as being a simple way for QSRs to significantly boost their takeaway sales; it provides busy consumers a simple and convenient way to skip lines when picking up their takeaway orders. Apex has already partnered with 12 consumer foodservice chains in the US to install its pick-up stations in some of their restaurants. Little Caesar’s, for example, received a heated, self-serve order pick-up station designed to keep pizzas warm up until the point at which they are taken by customers. Apex has also created a line of pick-up stations designed specifically for large sports and entertainment venues, where the stations act as concessions staging areas. Apex sees foodservice as the prime candidate for this type of technological innovation and will continue to seek additional partners across the industry.
Image: Apex’s Smart Shelf prototype
Intriguingly, Apex also showcased one pick-up station prototype, dubbed Smart Shelf, which is comprised of individual discreet, open cubbies. Unlike Apex’s other pick-up stations, Smart Shelf – touted for use in QSR establishments that have swift order turnover but no need for controlled access – is designed to be placed in full public view of both customers and staff. Smart Shelf operates using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) in order to identify and match customers to their orders. Once a customer is informed that their order is ready via mobile app, they walk up to be within range of the Smart Shelf’s BLE beacon, which then lights up the specific cubby in which the customer’s order has been placed. Smart Shelf can be programmed to glow a different color if a customer grabs the wrong order, immediately alerting restaurant staff to this issue.
Apex’s novel takeaway ordering solutions – which make order processing and pick-up more convenient for operators and consumers alike – are just the latest sign of the immense transformative potential that advances in technology hold for the consumer foodservice industry. Due to the benefits they provide, it is likely only a matter of time before pick-up stations like Apex’s are found in consumer foodservice establishments across the US.