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    Connected Kitchens Are Coming to C-stores

    Integrated technology is helping leading operators succeed in foodservice.

    By Jeff Zazzara, Emerson Climate Technologies Retail Solutions

    Today’s consumer is increasingly food conscious and more discriminating about their dining choices. Convenience stores are gaining market share by offering a new menu of fresher, healthier foods.

    To remain competitive, convenience stores are creating or expanding their foodservice kitchens. Yes, kitchens! Some operators may not consider that they have a kitchen, but if their store is equipped with something as basic as a microwave oven to prepare foods or dispensing machines for hot and cold beverages, they have a kitchen.

    With many factors to consider, including space limitations, speed requirements and customer expectations, convenience stores embracing the shift to foodservice are making investments in store equipment and technologies. Because of equipment costs, convenience stores may start with one core foodservice production item, like a speed oven. With many menu items relying on this core piece of equipment, uptime is critical to meet customer expectations and build a positive brand reputation.

    The addition of new kitchen equipment is one more system for operators to manage in their stores. Expanding into foodservice can increase revenue, but it also creates a more complex store environment to navigate. Equipment management for kitchens becomes even more important as productivity and food quality can directly affect the customer experience, and ultimately the bottom line.

    Many convenience store facilities currently utilize a building management system to control HVAC, lighting and refrigeration. So, why not connect the kitchen equipment into the store’s existing facility management system? This is the simple solution for operators, and it’s an emerging capability today.

    By integrating the management of foodservice equipment with building controls, an operator can use one single platform to control all systems.

    Addressing Operator Pain Points

    Convenience store operators have a lot to worry about. Facility management and equipment maintenance is not their only responsibility. Upon each visit, consumers expect a convenient shopping experience. Wouldn’t it be nice if store operations were also convenient?

    With emerging connected kitchens technology, operators will find it easier to manage the foodservice space, giving them the visibility to closely monitor and control what matters most to shoppers: food quality and consistency.

    Some connected kitchen solutions available today allow operators to:

    • Monitor ice machines to ensure they are consistently producing ice.
    • Measure food temperatures to consistently provide products that are fresh, hot and ready for customers to purchase.
    • Keep up with equipment maintenance, identifying potential failures before they occur to avoid any disruption in day-to-day operations.
    • Extract and analyze system data around the use of kitchen equipment, like ovens or grills, to strategically plan for demand and peak cycles.

    Increasing Revenue Through Menu Management

    As convenience stores expand their foodservice offerings, variety is important. But making menu changes in kitchen equipment programs has traditionally been a slow, manual process. For example, to add new items to ovens across a chain, USB files or manual instructions would be mailed out to each location. Then local store staff would each individually upload the new menu file to their equipment before they could sell the new item to customers.

    The process is slow, unreliable and nearly impossible to monitor for brand and food quality consistency.

    Today, many equipment manufacturers have integrated control technologies into their kitchen systems. If this equipment is integrated into the facility management system, the cooking program can be remotely updated. Menu files can be transmitted from a remote monitoring center directly to the kitchen equipment, reducing the need for store employees to be involved in the process.

    Menu broadcast can reduce the time, costs and in-store staff involvement needed to make these changes as new items are introduced. And there’s validation that the entire system is using the right settings for food quality and brand consistency.

    On average, the traditional method costs a convenience store chain about $40,000 per menu item change, and it could take about six months to implement. New data suggests that most convenience stores change their menus seasonally, and some update monthly. Convenience store operators are able to expedite this process with a connected kitchen, increasing their efficiencies to make menu changes in minutes, rather than months. They also have the flexibility to update menu items more often, adapting to food trends and giving customers what they want.

    Achieving a Strategic Advantage

    Early adopters of the connected kitchen system are seeing additional strategic advantages to menu broadcast. As they are facing competition from other convenience store brands, and from quick-service restaurants and supermarkets offering foodservice, efficient menu adaptability is increasingly valuable. 

    With menu broadcast through connected kitchens, convenience stores can get ahead of competitors when it comes to variety. They have the ability to add, adjust or remove menu items remotely. Implementing limited-time offerings becomes less painful. Quickly adjusting menus to offer regional specials or seasonal options across an entire enterprise can take minutes instead of months. And when they come to an end, those items can be removed with a simple software change, removing the risk of an associate hitting the wrong button that may affect the entire program.

    As convenience stores invest in foodservice equipment to evolve their stores and keep up in the changing retail landscape, a single platform that integrates foodservice equipment management with building controls can help them succeed in this new space. Leading convenience stores today that have adopted the connected kitchen system are seeing multiple benefits.

    Connected kitchens enable convenience stores to increase revenue opportunities by adding new products that meet consumer demands and compete with various foodservice and retail formats. Operators are able to make the most of their foodservice equipment investments while avoiding the headaches that come with adding new systems to an already complex facility. And, with all systems managed under one platform, operators are able to focus on the customer, consistently providing them with fresher, healthier options and a positive shopping experience.

    Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News

    By Jeff Zazzara, Emerson Climate Technologies Retail Solutions
    • About Jeff Zazzara Jeff Zazzara is director of foodservice enterprise product management for Emerson Climate Technologies Retail Solutions business. He is currently leading the development of enterprise services for commercial foodservice operators. He has 18 years of experience in the refrigeration industry with a strong background in the application and design engineering of supermarket refrigeration systems.

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