Wednesday, September 20, 2017 | Today's Vending Industry News
Smart Fridge And Shelf-Stable Meals Show Great Potential In Australia

Posted On: 11/23/2016

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TAGS: ShelfX, Australian vending operator, Robbie Allison, vending fridge, Moredough, micromarkets, Qualityvend, fresh food vending, Tony Halfhide, Natvend Ran Margalit

SYDNEY, Australia -- Australian vending operator Robbie Allison has devised a new solution to the age-old problem of providing affordable, appealing late-night meals to consumers away from home. He's deploying Boulder, CO-based ShelfX's "vending fridge" merchandised with a new line of shelf-stable, restaurant-quality meals to feed patrons around the clock -- with zero waste. And he's in a position to help other Australian operators follow suit.

Not only is Allison Australia's first ShelfX operator, but he's also the country's first reseller of the "smart shelf" approach to automated retailing, which can accommodate products of all shapes and sizes. And through his partnership with Australia's Moredough Kitchens, which produces the meals, Allison is enabling other operators to replicate his success.

He envisions ShelfX's solution becoming commonplace alongside conventional snack and beverage vending machines and, in many cases, replacing manual foodservice in locations of all types throughout the country.

"Late-night food vending in hospitals and industrial sites has never worked in Australia, due to lower sales and high costs of traditional refrigerated and frozen vending equipment and the logistics involved," Allison said. "There has always been a massive gap in the Australian vending market for supplying quality, appealing late-night food options to reduce food waste and save money."

vending, Shelfx, Moredough Kitchens
WINNING COMBINATION: Robbie Allison says he's meeting a long underserved need by selling Moredough Kitchens gourmet entrees with two-year ambient shelf life through novel ShelfX automated retailing system.

That's what excited him when he discovered Moredough Kitchens' meals, which are made by professional chefs for food lovers and are shelf stable for two years, through use of a process that took years to develop. The operator had seen nothing like it on the market, and in his new role as a ShelfX sales agent, he saw an opportunity to pair the product with the novel merchandisers.

Allison noted that ShelfX machines provide an attractive alternative to micromarkets for operators who have the infrastructure to provide fresh or frozen food in locations with the traffic to support it.

The Backstory

Qualityvend, Allison's operating company, has facilities in Sydney and Melbourne and is the sales and marketing arm for Inventory Vending Solutions Pty Ltd., which recently secured the distribution rights for ShelfX in Australia. IVS is led by vending industry veteran Tony Halfhide, who focuses his efforts on the development and setup of ShelfX systems.

Tony Halfhide, Australian vending, ShelfX
SHELFX DOWN UNDER: Tony Halfhide (l.) and Robbie Allison take Australian vending market by storm by employing ShelfX system as novel way to deliver round-the-clock meals at locations like hospitals and hotels.

Halfhide has a long history in the industry, having owned NatVend, Australia's largest independent full-line vending service provider, for two decades. Allison worked with him at NatVend, then went on to found Qualityvend after Halfhide sold Natvend to Australia's Coca-Cola Amatil in 2012.

Soon afterward, Halfhide formed IVS, which rents, sells and services vending equipment used to control access to inventory of personal protective items, including safety glasses, gloves and earplugs. They're used by some of Australia's largest mining and industrial companies. As he pursued other vending-related opportunities, Halfhide added ShelfX distribution to his portfolio.

ShelfX, Ran Margalit
Ran Margalit

Developed by Boulder, CO-based tech entrepreneur Ran Margalit in 2011, ShelfX's automated merchandising system is built around a "smart shelf" equipped with sensitive scales that "know" the exact quantity and identity of products stocked on them. The retailing system also "knows" what customers remove or return to the shelf, and adjusts accordingly before processing a payment. Through wireless communication, the system updates the patron's account and bills automatically.

Consumers present payment, which unlocks the door of the refrigerated merchandiser, and take the desired items from the shelves. When the door closes, the patron is billed for the items they took. Payment methods include credit and debit cards and NFC mobile payments like Apple Pay, as well as employee badges and payroll deductions. Patrons also can download a ShelfX app to create an account, and then simply aim their phones at the vending fridge to scan a QR code. Alternatively, they can use an NFC-enabled smartcard, called XCard, which functions in the same way as the app.

Operators can offer and customize promotions -- buy one/get one free offers, combo meals and happy hour discounts, for example -- to encourage the sale of perishable items before they exceed freshness codes.

Cloud-based remote management allows the operator to view detailed live-inventory reports showing product, prices and quantities by shelf. Waste reports and pick lists can also be generated, detailing exactly what items and quantities are needed for restocking.

The vending fridge sends email alerts to the operator in the event of unauthorized access, temperature changes or system failure. If the cooler temperature rises above the desired threshold, a health switch locks the door, until reset by the operator.

Penetrating The Market

ShelfX's Margalit told VT that 800 of the machines are now deployed around the world, with a steady stream of orders coming in. Among ShelfX's operators is Sodexo, which has smart shelves in New Orleans and is planning to expand their deployment nationwide. Answer Vending (Farmingdale, NY) has installed the smart-shelf technology at Citibank headquarters and at Apple stores in New York City. And Israel's largest dairy company is deploying the system to sell its milk, cheese and yogurt in offices, train stations and hospitals throughout the country, Margalit reported.

"What we're seeing is that people see the food and the drinks, swipe and walk away with it. They don't see the technology; they see the product, which is what we had hoped to accomplish," the ShelfX founder said.

Shelfx, vending, smart-shelf technology
HELP YOURSELF: Robbie Allison demonstrates how patron presents payment to unlock ShelfX door and smart-shelf technology registers the items he or she takes and displays them on the screen (l.). When the door closes, the patron is billed accordingly.

Margalit shared a new development for ShelfX: True Manufacturing (O'Fallon, MO), the largest commercial refrigerator manufacturer in the U.S., is now producing glass-door merchandisers equipped with Shelf X technology. He points out that the smart-shelf technology can be installed in any size and type of ambient or refrigerated cabinet, or become an automated standalone store in the right environment. Pricing for the technology varies, depending on the configuration, starting at around $3,000 for a standard retrofit kit.

In Australia, Halfhide said he is in discussions with local refrigerator manufacturers who want to install the ShelfX technology in the cabinets they produce.

Moving Up Down Under

Qualityvend, which serves 185 vending locations, has deployed 80 ShelfX machines to date in hospitals, hotels, businesses and retail stores across Australia. These include units installed at its own client sites and the systems it has sold to other operators, some of which are initially placed on a trial basis.

As VT goes to press, Halfhide said he was expecting to receive orders for another 250 machines. Allison also told VT that Qualityvend had just secured a "landmark" vending contract that includes two ShelfX machines at ICC Sydney, a state-of-the-art convention and exhibition center set to open in December.

"ShelfX costs less than traditional refrigerated vending machines, but another real benefit to selling food through them is that the caterers can reduce their staff hours at night because they no longer need an attendant at the counter," Allison explained. "Also, you can put them into heaps of points -- across a hospital for example -- to reduce the need for staff walking to find food during their breaks. And it reduces waste, as the caterer doesn't have to prepare food without knowing who will show up."

Allison said Qualityvend has deployed ShelfX as a round-the-clock food solution in several hospital systems, and has established partnerships with Australia's largest commercial contract foodservice providers to deploy the smart-shelf systems in sites they serve. In some cases, ShelfX replaces the existing foodservice, and in others it is an additional amenity alongside snack and beverage vending machines as an after-hours source for meals.

Australia's hospitals have established "healthy" vending guidelines requiring use of the color-coded nutrient information ("traffic light") label system, under which food items are ranked by perceived nutritional value from green to amber to red. The nation's hospitals require that 50% of vendible menu items be "green," 30% "amber" and 20% "red." "Green light" foods are considered healthiest, and Moredough developed a range of its meals to meet that criteria.

Allison reported that Qualityvend also is in talks with Australia's biggest mining companies, which are especially hard pressed to provide food for their employees because of their geographically remote sites. "Mining sites are a huge problem when it comes to food," said Allison. "Some are an eight-hour flight from any town. Workers come in on little planes, and have very limited food and variety available to them."

Several hotels also have embraced ShelfX as a way to make food available to their guests seeking late-night meals. "We can provide a delicious meal, with San Pellegrino mineral water and nonalcoholic wine, and guests can trust that they need not worry that it's out of date," said Allison.

Qualityvend also found a fit for ShelfX as an alternative food solution for a hardware store chain. The retailer's onsite café had strong sales on the weekends, but needed a more cost-effective solution for slower weekday traffic. Initially, Qualityvend simply provided the shelf-stable meals, along with microwave ovens, but it has begun placing ShelfX to reduce labor and control inventory by automating delivery.

Additionally, a major fitness chain is considering providing Moredough's shelf-stable meals through ShelfX fridges, so its time-pressed members can grab quality, healthy meals to take home after working out.

"Shelf stable changes the game for the operator," the industry veteran emphasized "If they're not big enough to have a refrigerated truck, many operators might chuck food into a box and race to the site. If it spoils even a little -- bang, you have a problem. When it's shelf stable, you don't worry about date. You can clear it in three, four, five weeks. It's an amazing option and it's delicious; it's really quite a cool thing."

Locally Sourced

Led by husband-and-wife team Mandy and Andrew Gray, Melbourne-based Moredough Kitchens' meals are formulated not only to rival restaurant quality, but also to make maximum use of locally sourced ingredients. They're packaged using a special process that provides a two-year shelf life.

This long ambient-temperature shelf life is made possible by a closed "autoclaving" process, which is similar to pressure cooking that maintains optimal temperature and pressure to control product spoilage without additives, while retaining food quality and consistency.

The main dish and side come in separate pouches; they're packed in sturdy boxes, styled in subtle earth tones, along with a knife, fork and napkin. "Pour both pouches into the box and microwave for 2-1⁄2 minutes," Allison explained. "Then the magic happens."

Moredough's growing menu of vendible meals includes beef burgundy, Indian-inspired beef massaman curry and butter chicken, and Thai red chicken curry, along with a variety of soups. Brand-new to the lineup are eight more selections, including Swedish meatballs with a side of potato casserole; gnocchi Bolognese; chicken tagine with a side of tri-colored quinoa; and lamb kofta with a side of lentils. And more are in the works.

The company also can formulate meals to be kosher, halal, vegan or low in salt, among others, conforming to special nutritional specifications.

Adding eco-friendly appeal, the microwavable meals come in a biodegradable box with a seed inside each one, so a tree will eventually grow in the soil where the packages are discarded.

"The meals taste like a $15 to $20 restaurant meal but typically vend for $8 to $10," Allison said.

Allison said he and Moredough Kitchens plan to take their partnership a step further and work with a U.S. manufacturer to bring the meals to the North American vending market. In the meantime, the company can export its present line of meals to operators anywhere in the world, and has begun doing so.

Email Robbie Allison at allison@qualityvend.com.au.