Canada’s foodservice industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s something every Canadian should worry about because of the social and economic importance the foodservice sector has to our quality of life. According to an article by Kate Dingwall in Forbes, the Canadian foodservice industry represents $90 billion and is Canada’s 4th largest private-sector employer. There are 1.3 million Canadians employed by the industry, representing 7% of the Canadian workforce. The industry needs to find a way to innovate and survive to keep the food supply flowing and to ensure the businesses don’t close permanently.
Drew Munro is a chef and entrepreneur from Vancouver BC. He is the co-founder of the start-up company UpMeals which provides branded, prepared-meal solutions for businesses looking to provide convenient, healthy food options for employees or customers. UpMeals has been working with SMRT1 Technologies to deliver their meals via SMRT1 POD (Personalized-On-Demand) vending machines. We caught up with Drew to get his thoughts on where the restaurant industry is headed in a post Coronavirus pandemic world and how by embracing technology, the industry can come out of this challenging period stronger.
When you started UpMeals (2) years ago, where did you see an unmet need in the food service sector that made you start your company?
When we started UpMeals we had already been running a high end event catering business for nearly 10 years, and we saw a growing need for a food service solution that didn’t fit under the umbrella of traditional catering or meal delivery.
Corporate environments were changing; shift work and flex time were the norm, demand for more variety and shorter lead times were more critical, and the idea of feeding a group of 200 people with a single menu and service time was becoming near impossible.
We began to see the need for a solution that harnessed technology to make healthy food available 24/7 for corporate environments and brands, and used unique, innovative processes to handle the R&D, packaging, labeling and delivery.
We wanted to provide a customized wellness solution for our clients in a way that was fundamentally different and more valuable than the insanely competitive meal delivery and vending machine markets, yet combined the best elements of both of them.
And so, UpMeals was born.
When mid-March 2020 rolled around and you realized along with the rest of the world how serious the pandemic was; what went through your mind regarding the fate of the foodservice industry?
When March hit, we knew it was going to be bad for the industry – but had no idea at that point just how devastating it would be. Our own event catering business, an industry arguably even harder hit than restaurants, went from posting record numbers Dec-Feb to laying off 35 employees and shutting down entirely.
Before long, we realized this was not a situation the industry could simply “ride out”. There needed to be innovation, pivoting, and a lot of it. I consider ourselves fortunate that we did have a secondary stream of revenue in UpMeals, that was able to still operate during the pandemic as an essential service. Many of my colleagues, operators and friends in the industry were not as lucky. Some of their restaurants or catering shops will never re-open, and others will take years to recover. As of the date of this writing, our catering shop is still closed with no planned re-opening date. This is the harsh reality of the current climate for the events and restaurant industry.
We know by now that those businesses who had embraced (or quickly did so when the pandemic hit) technology are in much better shape than those operations who rely solely on large scale, face to face delivery. What would you say to those businesses that are still reluctant to consider new digital tools?
I can say with confidence that there truly has never been a more important time to embrace digital tools focused on safety, customer experience, and convenience than right now. Everything we know about traditional hospitality is changing, whether we like it or not.
Those that seek to not only “survive” but to vigorously explore new ways to add value and safety to the customer experience during this time will be the ones who emerge positioned to grow into the future.
What’s next for UpMeals as you grow your company in this new business environment? How will you be using technology to continue to grow?
We’re thrilled to be using technology to design safe, customized wellness solutions for organizations to help them safely re-enter the workplace, reach their customers in new and exciting ways, and use SmartVending technology to obtain data, analytics, and powerful insights into their customer bases.
Our mission has and always will be 24/7 healthy food accessibility through technology.
How do you see the SMRT1 POD giving you new opportunities to serve your current customers and develop new revenue streams?
The SMRT1 POD gives us the base platform to provide unmatched food experiences for our partner brands. Giving our partners access to a fully autonomous SmartVending solution that can be custom designed for their brand and deployed anywhere gives us an incredible platform for our wellness solutions, and pushes us further to achieving our food accessibility goals.
What excites you the most about the potential for smart vending and foodservice to partner and thrive in the process?
The idea of developing a solution that becomes intertwined into someone’s life in an extremely positive way is what excites me the most about the potential through SmartVending. Whether that’s a university student who now has access to healthy food on campus at 2 am during a study session, a busy family who can access a ready to eat dinner on their commute home, or a corporate environment that can safely feed their employees re-entering the workforce, these experiences are what we’re trying to craft at UpMeals. The SMRT1 PODs give us the voice to do our best work.
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