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Using Kiosks to Grow
Restaurants are breaking through bricks and mortar to intercept consumers at airports, school, and work.
Quick serves are attracting customers with kiosks like this one from Illy.

Foodservice operators are discovering that a mobile society calls for mobile concepts to keep pace with consumers.

“The objective is to put your product where people are—to create an interception point rather than a destination,” says Janet Mayer, co-owner of Merchandising Frontiers, a Winterset, Iowa–based supplier of portable foodservice solutions.

The concept isn’t new, but is attracting new players, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president with Chicago-based foodservice consultant Technomic, Inc. “Kiosks are gaining incredible momentum because they provide an incredibly low-cost point of entry to non-traditional locations.”

They also provide fertile testing ground before operators commit to bricks and mortar.

To launch the Pan-Asian QSR Wao Bao, Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) first opened a kiosk in the Windy City’s Water Tower Place, then expanded into more traditional venues elsewhere in the city once it fine-tuned the concept.

LEYE also launched The Corner Bakery in non-traditional formats, including some that lacked walls, restrooms ,and storage but provided plenty of access to Chicago-area shoppers and commuters.

The trend isn’t limited to start-ups. Established chains such as Starbucks, Little Caesars, and Cinnabon have opened kiosks to further extend their reach, as have freezer-bound brands such as Healthy Choice and Butterball,

“Companies—even big ones—want to grow but don’t want to over-invest and expose themselves to risk,” says Tristano.

While Cinnabon has staked out airports and Healthy Choice malls, Butterball is going corporate, having developed 10-feet-long kiosks for office lobbies that packs in: a metal frame, hardwood veneers, tambour front panels, a butcher-block front panel, a hardwood canopy with storage, a hard-surface counter, a back-lighted menu, and sandwich preparation equipment.

Not to be outdone, German supplier bboxx has manufactured a 900-foot-diameter, two-story kiosk for clients such as sandwich chain Subway, which set up shop near a busy Berlin train station to sell sandwiches and advise consumers of other Subway units in the area.

The kiosks are designed to grab attention, and that they do, says bboxx Sales Director Stephane Printz. “They’re enclosed by a roof that can be used as a terrace or as a platform for signage and other promotional displays,” he says.

Each unit is constructed of concrete to impart a sense of permanence, though most clients use them for limited periods before pulling up stakes to promote their wares elsewhere, a phenomenon known as pop-up retail. “When we first opened, we assumed the majority of our clients would be looking for permanent locations, but that hasn’t been the case,” Printz says.

The Subway kiosk is equipped to serve 80 percent of the chain’s menu items but can be dismantled and moved with relative ease, he says.

By comparison, Sodexo opted for the relative simplicity of a wheeled cart to launch Cafe a la Carte, its freewheeling concept that mixes and matches dining modules tailored to the needs of airports, colleges, and offices.

“Students like hoagies, office workers turkey with asiago cheese,” says Sodexo Senior Vice President Husein Kitabwalla.

College students, Kitabwalla says, present a particularly complex proposition.

“Their meal periods blend. Breakfast becomes lunch, lunch dinner, and dinner a snack in the middle of the night.”

Sodexo stocks it all, all the time, wheeling its carts from location to location, depending on foot traffic and the time of day.

“There are so many touchpoints throughout the day,” says Kitabwalla. “If you don’t have the right product in the right place at the right time, you’ll lose the sale.”

The more elaborate the menu, the more elaborate the set-up, which must pass muster with local sanitation departments, says Mayer.

“Just about anything goes in some regions. I’m aware of operators who prepare sushi or fry raw meat with just a hand sink, whereas in other locations you’d need a five-compartment sink, a mop sink, a hand sink, sneeze shields, and a vented hood with fire suppression.”

Cafe a la Carte deploys six-foot high, four-foot carts to colleges.

“Each cart contains a refrigerated container, as well as a five gallon, portable water system for hot beverages,” Kitabwalla says.”It’s basically do it yourself. There’s a microwave on hand for students to heat their meals. And we now offer portable storage so our vendors don’t run out of product.”

All that’s needed, he says, is “a 110 outlet.”

It doesn’t hurt that Sodexo is targeting consumers in their formative years, a period when they are apt to develop brand preferences.

“Providing a branded experience on campus and creating an image is critical,” Kitabwalla says. “Assuming we succeed, they’ll be pleasantly surprised to see our carts in office lobbies once they graduate and go to work.”