Tim York, Markon Cooperative
Tim York, Markon Cooperative

Back in the 1990s, the Produce Marketing Association’s FreshTech conferences introduced us to e-mail, the Internet, Netscape and the suite of Microsoft tools.

Today, technology is evolving ever more rapidly, and big data, nanotechnology, DNA fingerprinting, farm automation, food safety advances and robotics are impacting the entire supply chain.

Are you paying attention or underestimating how these advances apply to your business? What about technology’s potential threats?

Among foodservice operators, new technologies are proliferating. Chains like Applebee’s and Olive Garden are testing tabletop tablets, which enable operators to update pricing and availability instantly and allow for customized meals.

Rapid tech advances require offensive tacticsFast-casual and quick-service restaurants are adopting digital menu boards, which are easier to read and offer flexibility. As a result, service times have decreased and per-customer sales have increased.

Predictably, as the age of the customer goes up, acceptance of technology declines, so it’s incumbent upon operators to provide live interactions for those who prefer it.

Operators are also rolling out restaurant management systems that integrate food purchases, administration and labor into one cloud-based system. Corner Bakery reports that the move to online administration reduces food waste and labor costs and ensures employees are adhering to required break and meal times, as well as arriving and departing on schedule.

As the complexity of the operation increases, so does the need for improved systems.

Employee training is an ongoing concern for operators, who can face a turnover rate of 200% annually. T.G.I. Fridays says technology-based learning management systems reduced training time from 13 to eight weeks, and it recently expanded the system to include tracking of food safety and alcohol-compliance training.

John Barkley, the Culinary Institute of America’s director of strategic initiatives, said the popularity of CIA’s free multimedia content available through Apple’s iTunes network is proof of Web-based videos’ popular appeal: CIA’s content has attracted more than 18,000 subscribers.

Data security is another hot-button issue, with Home Depot, Target, P.F. Chang’s, Dairy Queen (and countless celebrities) among the recent victims of data breaches or malware.

Technology can also empower disintermediation. Uber and Airbnb — part of the so-called sharing economy — have paved the way for apps that could dramatically impact foodservice.

Uber is an on-demand car service that is smartphone based, arrives at your door and whisks you to your destination, and with the company’s low-cost option, UberX, the fares are lower priced than a taxi. Its service circumvents the license, fees, taxes and regulations that traditional services are subject to.

Similarly, Airbnb enables travelers to secure a room, typically in a private home, at a fraction of the cost of a hotel room. Like the Uber driver, this “innkeeper” has not secured operational permits, inspections and approvals, and pays no occupancy taxes.

Some have suggested that services like Uber may be used as future delivery systems for everything from products purchased on Amazon to food purchased from a local restaurant.

Some operators are already partnering with third parties such as OrderUp and PostMates to provide delivery services. Operators such as McDonald’s in Australia, and Burger King and Chili’s in the U.S. are also testing new delivery systems.

So, what does all this have to do with fresh produce?

As our partners in the supply chain face the challenges and opportunities represented by new technology and begin to adapt, are we doing the same? What technologies are you employing to help you better manage costs?

Across the supply chain, making our businesses more efficient and cost-effective is a requisite for survival. What insights are you gaining from Big Data? In January at the PMA Tech Knowledge conference, Elliott Grant, chief technology officer of Redwood City, Calif.-based YottaMark, gave a wonderful talk on how to deploy big data.

Among the questions posed: Are you treating your data like a valuable asset to be tapped? Uber, Airbnb, and Yelp have upended other industries.

Have you invested time to consider potential threats and your unique vulnerabilities? Could someone provide the same quality product or service in a form that addresses your customers’ needs better than you?

If you think the answer if no, are you sure? You’re betting your business on it.

The history books are replete with stories of solid, trusted companies that did not adapt their businesses to new technologies or understand the changing world. Don’t let your company be one of them.

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif., Markon Cooperative, made up of eight North American foodservice distributors. Centerplate is a monthly column offering a peek at “what’s now and next” for foodservice and the implications for the produce industry.


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