Data and Tech are Transforming the Food Industry

Insights |  6.11.2019

Practically every industry is looking into how they can leverage data to form stronger consumer relationships and strengthen their business… and it’s no surprise. These days, data can provide tremendous insights and value for a business to improve or create products and services.

At Aramark, we’re continuously assessing how we can harness and use vast amounts of operational and sales data. Tracking everything from food ordering and waste management to location traffic helps us improve processes and ultimately deliver better consumer experiences.

We spoke with Baker Smith, vice president of Consumer Technology, and Pavan Arora, vice president of Cognitive Data, at Aramark to dig into ways data is helping improve how we operate and more fully satisfy our customers—whether they are working or visiting at healthcare facilities, universities, large businesses, or ballparks.

The Colossal Opportunities Data Provides

From day-to-day operations to trends surfaced over time, the nature of our business lends itself to all sorts of data. So much so that it would be a huge missed opportunity to not understand the information and act upon it. While it can be incredibly time-consuming for staff to analyze and put into action, Arora says new technology can process enormous volumes of data and make the investment worthwhile.

“In today’s business, data is making everyone smarter,” he says. “New technology, like artificial intelligence and machine learning, allows us to learn quickly, operate more efficiently, and serve our customers faster, easier, and better.” 
This turning point is not unique to Aramark. “Companies of all sizes are trying to figure out how to capture the data they have access to and take advantage of it,” notes Arora. “For us, it’s about understanding the past, along with real-time information for insights to forecast sales and optimize food production.”

One of the most tangible, immediate benefits to cracking into big data is building new menus to meet evolving consumer interests. “We can better understand what consumers might want and the kinds of foods to add to our menus to be more personalized for a particular location,” explains Arora.

Checking out at on a tablet payment system
Using our data-analyzing platforms helps us build menus that deliver on consumer satisfaction as well as respond to client needs sooner.

Efficiency is key in any business, but particularly in the food service industry. “New technology equipped with data will help our employees do their jobs better than just a few years ago,” says Smith. “It’s a new world with many possibilities, and an education for everyone involved. With the new insights from our data, our employees can help us reinvent consumer experiences overall.”

Data makes us smarter

While data insights are tremendously helpful to better manage the business – operationally and financially – it truly shines with artificial intelligence (AI). Aramark’s AI-powered platforms can take data from numerous sources, perform rapid analysis, and help provide solutions for everyday challenges—automating processes, predicting sales, anticipating inventory needs and improving interactions with customers.

“When you can consolidate your data in one place that’s easily analyzed, it becomes your intelligence platform—a foundation for making smart decisions and building new applications that can support frontline operations and elevate customer experiences,” says Arora.

Thanks to our partnership with technology company Mashgin, we’ve deployed AI-powered self-checkout kiosks in Major League baseball parks. The stations use computer vision to scan multiple items without barcodes at once, unlocking checkout efficiencies — so fans spend less time in line and more time watching the game. The AI integration has its benefits on the business end, too; participating ballparks have seen 40% faster transaction time and up to a 25% increase in sales. 

Using AI not only creates efficiencies in our retail operations, but vastly shortens the lead time of developing and offering new digital apps. “We’ve proven we can build solutions more quickly, from months to minutes, solving certain problems using AI,” explains Arora. “That’s the benefit of a single source for all data and a single intelligence platform.”

As one example, Aramark partnered with Apple Business Chat to develop a text-messaging based beverage delivery program for stadiums in just three months with the help of artificial intelligence. “Over time, automation pieces all this data together faster and brings conveniences our customers enjoy,” notes Arora. “We are working to enhance our ordering, processing, and check-out or payment processes in many different settings.”

Data nerds will say the beauty of artificial intelligence, or AI, is its ability to continually learn and improve itself—continually strengthening its ability to deliver insights for different scenarios. How?

“Every application we build based on AI is feeding data back into itself,” says Arora. “The AI platform gets smarter not only about our operations, but also what our clients’ and consumers’ needs are.” Arora compares this closed-loop experience to the human brain: “It’s a neural net of sorts that becomes more intelligent over time, thereby making our forecasts better, our operations more efficient, and our clients and consumers happier.”

With multiple ways to access and use data, we see multiple opportunities arise. As Smith puts it: “Data is our key asset. Whether we install a new self-order kiosk at a location, add automated self-checkout, or develop a mobile app, all of these are different channels to engage consumers—all are opportunities to gather information and delight the consumer based on what the information tells us. Data is the heart of it.”

Turning Data into Insights

Data alone is just numbers and information; its power lies within the insights garnered from it. “It’s one thing to tell one of our operations managers how their account and its sales are going in real-time. It’s another thing to give that manager actionable insight to make decisions and provide better service,” says Smith.

"It’s one thing to tell one of our operations managers how their account and its sales are going in real-time. It’s another thing to give that manager actionable insight to make decisions and provide better service"
- Baker Smith, vice president, Consumer Technology

Reducing food waste is a high priority for Aramark, and AI can help us meet those goals. “Instead of a manager guessing how many burgers or sandwiches he or she will need today, we can leverage our data from the past, as well as weather and events data, to estimate demand, thereby cutting down on food waste.” Smith says. “Leveraging artificial intelligence, we can start to forecast sales more accurately and help eliminate food waste.”

Real-time insights also help our operators adjust in the moment and respond to changes in demand. As with the example of a location getting busy unexpectedly, “AI can let us know to send a cashier over to that location from one that’s not as busy for the next hour,” says Arora.

Aramark team members handing out food
Real-time data and the ability to analyze it can help our employees better serve our consumers in moments of high foot traffic, cutting check out times and improving the consumer experience.

Getting Insights Straight from the Source

Aramark’s approach is focused on learning from associates in the field, to enable better operations and deliver better experiences for consumers. “We’re learning from our people in business dining, healthcare, sports and entertainment, and higher education, creating new products that their customers want and expect,” says Smith.

To truly understand how technology can help local operators, Aramark’s tech staff devoted time to walk in their shoes. Working alongside our frontline associates for a few hours or a few days is invaluable. We’re able to learn first-hand what we should be developing from a technology perspective, and then create new tools that can be introduced across our enterprise to raise our operational performance.

Teaming with our clients, new technology and new data insights are helping us improve our operator, client and customer experience.