Some Sacramento-area workers used to choosing bags of chips, candy bars or sugary snack cakes from their office vending machines will soon be seeing an upgrade.
San Rafael-based Byte Foods, started about 18 months ago and bankrolled with about $6 million in seed money to date, plans to introduce its “smart refrigerators” to Sacramento-area businesses in late April.
The company’s signature product is an intelligent, glass-front-door refrigerator/vending machine designed to give workers at various workplaces fresh, healthy food choices, as opposed to standard vending machine fare.
Instead of the usual array of salty or sugary snacks, workers utilizing a Byte Foods fridge encounter offerings such as a fresh Japanese soba noodle salad with miso-ginger dressing and a craft-brewed kombucha tea.
Byte Foods’ employs complex algorithms to predict what goes in each fridge each day based on real-time data of each location’s eating and drinking demand.
Lee Mokri, Byte Foods’ 38-year-old co-founder, says the company’s smart fridge technology “allows employers to offer fresh meals to their employees, (meals) that employees pay for directly from the fridge. And it’s easy to use … There’s no ordering in advance, no theft, no honor system and it’s just like your typical retail experience because you purchase directly from the kiosk.”
Mokri said the smart fridge unit, which can be plugged into a standard wall outlet, is being used by hundreds of companies with deep California roots, including Tesla, Chevron, Gilead, Amazon, Cisco, SAP, CBS and Comcast.
He said refrigerators have been installed nationwide, with licensed operators monitoring and stocking most of the units being deployed outside of the Bay Area and Sacramento. He said Byte Foods has licensed its technology to Sodexo, Aramark and other large food service providers.
“We’re delivering 50 new fridges per month, and we’re excited to be launching in Sacramento,” Mokri said. “We have a number of businesses already on board, but there’s a lead time to begin service in new offices. So for any companies interested in offering fresh meals, snacks and drinks to their employees, the service will be available to Sacramento businesses in about six weeks.”
Mokri said the names of local businesses launching Byte’s service will be announced in the coming weeks. He added that the smart fridges also can be used by hotels, medical centers and schools.
Once installed, unit users can see food and beverage offerings through the glass front door or via the on-screen menu. The door immediately unlocks when a user swipes a credit or debit card through an exterior-mounted slot linked to a video screen showing the unit’s contents and prices for each item.
Once the device’s door is unlocked, a user can pick up items and read the nutritional information. No charge is made until the fridge door is closed again. The unit’s radio frequency identification technology immediately senses any change in fridge inventory, making note of the items for which a customer is to be charged and updating the unit’s overall inventory data. Users get an itemized receipt emailed to them upon completing their purchases.
Most items – from coffees to substantial entrees – range in price from $1.50 to $10.
Food providers for previously installed smart refrigerators include some well-known specialized and healthy food brands – Burma Love, Project Juice, Urban Remedy, Sukhi’s, Odwalla, Three Bridges, Blue Bottle and Rustic Bakery.
Mokri and his wife, Megan, co-founded Byte Foods in late 2015. They are not newcomers to the food sector, having run 180Eats, which delivered ready-to-eat meals throughout Marin County.
In 2015, they piloted a smart vending machine product made by the Bay Area firm of Pantry Retail Inc., and envisioned the possibilities of developing technology to tailor the product for workplace environments. In May last year, the Mokris acquired Pantry Retail in an all-stock deal, subsequently putting all operations under the Byte Foods umbrella.
The smart vending machine concept is not new, but experts expect it to grow significantly over the next several years.
According to a December 2016 report by Berg Insight, the international market research firm, there are nearly 17 million vending machines worldwide, with the manufacturers increasingly looking to add internet connectivity. Berg forecasts that the number of connected vending machines globally will grow from 1.5 million units (about 800,000 of those in North America) in 2015 to 3.6 million by 2020.
The Berg analysis contends that “demand for cashless payments has so far been a main driver for connectivity in vending machines. Vending telemetry is, however, anticipated to have a more transformational effect on the industry as these solutions enable vending operators to substantially improve their operational efficiency.”
Lee Mokri said the Byte Foods’ smart refrigerator technology offers a number of key advantages to users and buyers.
For example, it can be run off a company’s Wi-Fi, or via cellular technology. Byte employs complex algorithms to predict what goes in each fridge each day based on real-time data of each location’s eating/drinking demand.
Byte says it works with hundreds of local food suppliers to deliver a unique mix of food to each fridge based on the tastes of that specific location.
Mokri said companies using the smart machines may offer discounts for specific items. Free beverages for graveyard shift workers also can be factored in. Byte Foods’ technology also manages the company’s business relationships with more than 1,000 vendors.
For more information, see bytefoods.co.