While self-serve kiosks are already used in numerous restaurants to improve the speed of service and labor efficiency, kiosks are now being used to help revive another sector of the foodservice industry — onsite corporate dining. Employee restaurant services have been the only consistently declining foodservice segment in recent decades, according to figures provided by the National Restaurant Association. The segment peaked at $1.976 billion in 1987, after rising steadily since 1970, when the NRA began collecting sales data. From 1987 on, the segment's sales tumbled steadily to a low of $409.5 million in 2011, before beginning an upward movement for the next four years to $459.3 million in 2015.
The employee feeding industry's long-term decline has been attributed to corporate downsizing. Competition from commercial foodservice outlets, less structured meal times and more diverse consumer food preferences have also contributed to the drop in employee feeding.The versatility of self-serve kiosks could be key to reviving corporate dining. The micro market, a self-contained store in a location without an employee to monitor it, has already brought new efficiencies to corporate dining. The newly developed self- order kiosk further improves on the micro market by removing the need for the patron to place orders at the counter.
"This is going to do for (manual) foodservice what micro markets did for vending," said Ray Friedrich, CEO at Sterling Services Inc., a Canton, Michigan-based refreshment services company that has implemented a new kiosk solution designed by Digital Checkouts at both Ford and General Motors cafeterias in addition to several others.
"We're able to serve twice as many people," he said. "The labor saving is phenomenal. The productivity is just phenomenal."
A new idea
The Digital Checkouts solution allows employees to place and pay for orders online or at a kiosk, then pick up their freshly prepared meals at the counter. The hot, fresh food is prepared in a nearby kitchen before being moved to the serving counter.
There is no need to place orders at the counter, wait in line to get the order, then pay at the cashier. The automated system reduces employee wait time significantly and allows orders to process faster.
Sterling Services, 10 years ago, played a pioneering role in developing self-serve micro markets. The team is now following up on its micro market leadership by adapting that technology to manual foodservice.
Adapting micro markets to manual foodservice operations
The micro market was Friedrich's first step toward improving efficiencies in his corporate dining locations. He kept an employee at the location for one-to-two weeks to instruct patrons on using the micro market kiosk. After that time period, he reassigned the employee to other tasks in his operation.
The self-order kiosk has made that process even more efficient by eliminating counter ordering. Once orders are placed via kiosk or phone, they pop up on a digital screen at the food prep counter for assemply.
After the preparer finishes assembling the order, he or she taps the screen and the order appears on another screen where patrons pick them up.
The patrons can also pick up packaged items such as snacks and beverages in the cafeteria and pay for these items at the kiosk.
The micro markets removed the subsidy that the client had to pay when there was a cashier, but the self-order kiosk goes a step further to improving ROI. Where the micro market required a $10,000 to $12,000 investment and yielded a three-year ROI, Friedrich said the self-order kiosk is under $5,000 and is expected to yield a one-year ROI.
Friedrich has deployed the Digital Checkouts solution in eight of his 26 manual feeding operations. In one of the General Motors cafeterias, for example, there are two free-standing kiosks and one tabletop tablet where employees can place orders and pay. In some locations, he is now providing fresh food to order with only one or two employees.
Changing the economics
Thanks to the self-order kiosk, Friedrich has been able to provide onsite manual foodservice for an 800-employee General Motors facility in Warren, Michigan. Previously, he could not have considered providing manual food in a location with fewer than 1,000 to 1,200 people.
"There was a time when you couldn't run a cafeteria (unsubsidized) with 800 people," Friedrich said. "Technology is the only way to do that. They love the technology. They love what we do for them. It's making us extremely competitive. I think this will change corporate dining."
(Editor's note: This is a 2-part series on self order kiosks for corporate dining. Part 2 explores how Friedrich's team developed the self-serve kiosk solution.)