Food for Talk
Imagine sensors warning you of out-of-stocks, apps ensuring foodservice equipment is safe.
For anyone in charge of a network of roller grills, coolers or heating bins, a modern convenience might be a smartphone app, something that would send an alert if coffee temperatures at a store were too hot or deliver efficiency reports on a chain’s refrigerators.
Unfortunately, such apps are largely food for the imagination. That’s because for these apps to work, heating and cooling devices need to digitally “talk.”
“Legacy equipment is an issue because the life cycles of some of these devices is long,” especially with regard to more robust workhorses such as ovens and fryers, says Charlie Souhrada, director of member services for Chicago-based North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM). “And from an operator’s perspective, most just want the equipment to work reliably and consistently. They know technology can monitor food and diagnose issues, but most operators just want to move [product].”
Simply put, demand for connectivity, at least in the past, wasn’t there.
“Most legacy devices don’t have USB [universal serial bus] ports or aren’t equipped for Cat5 or Cat6 [Ethernet] cables or Bluetooth [wireless technology],” says Mike Merrill, a social-media consultant and director of marketing for ReachLocal Inc., Woodland Hills, Calif. “But if [these devices could] be connected to the Internet … it changes how you manage maintenance, so you can use foodservice [analytics] in the cloud to see when performance [is optimal], then roll that up through a lot of stores.”
While such incremental savings may not help single stores, Merrill says, the pennies grow exponentially for large chains.
That’s not to say benefits don’t exist for independents. Merrill and others believe “talking” devices will eventually yield benefits for the industry, especially as the channel moves further into foodservice.
Maintaining proper food-safety protocol is an obvious opportunity. “When you think about FDA regulations, E. coli and food handling, [device] communication can be one way to back up your current [processes] and know when equipment needs maintenance,” Merrill says. “Technology today can even tell you when a particular knife was used, or when it was last sharpened or sterilized.”
Such futuristic discussion may not seem so farfetched in an age of GPS tracking and even cellphones, but the legacy hurdle is just one part of the larger puzzle.
The language with which devices communicate has yet to be standardized. Barry Haaser, executive director of LonMark International, San Jose, Calif., says his organization is working to develop standards, which up until now have been “largely proprietary” or created by individual companies and essentially closed to other devices.
The not-for-profit LonMark has based its work on international standards that enable the free flow of data from one device to the other, regardless of manufacturer. “Once you have the data, there comes the ability to integrate all kinds of things,” Haaser says. “There’s the possibility of feeding data to screens in the store and mobile devices like iPads and phone apps. There’s no limit.”
Still, while standardization is a necessary step toward device connectivity, a bigger issue may be more cerebral: an apparent “crisis of the imagination.”