Vending was the last thing on Robert Lee’s mind in 2014 when he became CEO of Coolgreens, a fast casual chain dedicated to salads, wraps, bowls, flatbreads and more.
After all, the Oklahoma City-based company built its reputation on freshly prepared, chef-inspired menu items — not your typical vending fare — as it expanded to Texas and Nebraska after its founding in 2009.
And while Coolgreens’ focus has always been on freshness, health and wellness, Lee — like most fast casual restaurant executives working for growing companies — recognized the role technology can play in improving efficiencies and customer satisfaction.
Growth challenges emerge
Shortly after expanding to the Dallas-Fort Worth market last year, the company was looking at a location in downtown Dallas. It was an excellent location for the Coolgreens clientele.
“We want to be in compact, urban, high-dense areas,” Lee said.
But the process of getting the necessary approvals for that downtown location proved to be challenging. Twelve months into the process the company was still waiting to finalize the lease.
“Just the process itself took such a long time,” Lee told this website in a recent phone interview. “There’s got to be a better way than taking three years to get a brick-and-mortar in here.”
“We can’t sacrifice quality or consistency, but there’s got to be a way to have our food readily available in a different format than just strictly brick-and-mortar,” he said. “Our mission at Coolgreens is that we want to be able to provide healthy food to more people in a fast, convenient and good way. It doesn’t have to mean that it’s just with brick and mortar.”
Technology creates new opportunities
Lee and his team were well aware that self-service technology offered new options to serving freshly prepared food. Todd Madlener, company president, noted during the recent Fast Casual Executive Summit in Austin that Chicago-based Farmer’s Fridge was already vending salads, and Alpaca Market in Austin was also serving fresh food in vending machines.
Technology — particularly real-time remote machine monitoring — has made it possible to provide fresh food vending to a work or retail environment, Lee said. (In addition to Farmer’s Fridge and Alpaca Market, three similar concepts were introduced this past year: New York City based, Fresh.Bowl; Fresh’n Lean’s, SmartFridge, in Southern California, a refrigerated kiosk for serving freshly prepared meals and Choice Market’s self-serve Mini Mart in Denver, which sources food from local farmers.)
“I could pull up a dashboard on my cell phone anywhere in the world and see where the transaction happened, the temperature of the machine, and the shelf-life of everything,” Lee said.
He and his team looked at different smart fridge concepts before deciding to test one that allows the customer to open the door by swiping their credit card. The customer can also examine the products before making a selection. Once the product is removed and the door closes, the customer’s card is charged. The customer can also browse the touchscreen menu before opening the door.
Tests shows promise
The company tested a smart fridge for six months at a hospital and at a women’s softball event at an Oklahoma stadium.
“It was interesting to see the lines that we were able to generate,” Lee said of the softball event, adding that there were two smart fridges at different areas of the stadium. “Typically, a salad vending machine would never be seen there.”
Coolgreens employees prepared the food on site and stocked the machines at the stadium. Sysco provided the food for the event from a refrigerated truck. A Coolgreens attendant was on hand to answer questions, if needed.
The company was looking at more than one smart fridge concept and had not decided on one particular option at the time of this report. The different systems under consideration use different technologies, such as RFID tags, AI video technology and weight-tracking, Lee said.
“There are pros and cons to each,” he said. “For us it’s more driven on the footprint and the capacity of each machine.”
The brand is also considering the maintenance and replenishment methods that the different systems require.
Part two of this two-part series will explore Coolgreens’ smart fridge execution.