Technology is no longer a new concept in the F&B scene and is common in many of our cafes and restaurants, and even hawker stalls. We have seen an upswing in the online delivery sector amidst the pandemic and many restaurateurs are re-looking into streamlining and automating their operations (such as QR ordering and self-serve kiosks) given the ever-growing manpower crunch. On the other hand, technology providers continue to innovate and develop their existing products and services – seeing a handful come up with their own payment terminals and diving into Fintech (financial technology).

But beyond joining the crowd of payments and financing, what we foresee is the need to focus on digitizing and automating the backend; specifically, procurement and supply chain management, especially so in the wake of Covid-19.

The need to overcome the traditional pen-and-paper process

The conventional way of service staff taking orders has evolved into the familiar digital and paperless process, whereby customers simply browse and place their orders through their mobile devices. Although this digitization seen in cafes and restaurants looks to be fairly mature given the extensive array of digital solutions available, the same cannot be said for technology adoption in relation to the backend procurement activities by food establishments and suppliers.

In Singapore, many food establishments rely on a manual and paper-based system for tasks such as inventory stock-taking and procurement from food suppliers. This may have brought about past success, but it is not necessarily the way for the digital age and the long run. The reason I say this is because the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more apparent that the old ways of doing things do not work – the whole food value chain was disrupted; restaurants were scampering to procure ingredients, and suppliers were facing issues with logistics and the quantity and quality of fresh supply.

Without digitization of inventory management, the demand and supply fluctuate for restaurants in light of Covid-19. This means that restaurateurs are not able to calculate their existing inventory and pre-plan what is required. Similarly, suppliers faced difficulties in meeting the demands of F&B establishments, which led to volatile volumes of inventory and dismal effects on their business. All of these can be attributed to the lack of information transfer and aggregation of demand, which would otherwise assist both F&B owners and suppliers to make informed decisions based on the statistics.

Interestingly, these observed inefficiencies also presented a huge opportunity for restaurant owners and supply chain managers to relook into their existing strategies and consider ways to run their businesses more efficiently, especially in terms of automating manual processes.

Automation does not equate to job loss

When we talk about “digitization” and “automation”, many think that this is synonymous with making jobs redundant and are hence more resistant. However, the truth is that with technology adopted, it makes operations more productive and efficient, freeing up the time of the already limited manpower and allowing them to engage in more value-adding activities. This in turn grows the company and enables employees to perform their roles meaningfully.

With the digitization of traditional manual processes such as inventory stock-taking and the creation of purchase orders to suppliers, a substantial amount of time can be saved along with increased accuracy. Moreover, hiring staff for front-of-house and back-of-house duties has been a challenge and automation can alleviate some of the issues faced regarding attrition.

For example, if a staff fronting inventory management leaves and someone new replaces them, inefficiencies in information and data handover will happen as a result as existing manual processes that are not automated. Any inventory or procurement officer has to deal with hundreds of ingredients across multiple suppliers, which makes the job in itself complex. Given the intricacy of this role, automation can bring about productivity gains that are not seen at the current juncture of manual labor.

Furthermore, the flourishing B2C environment presents a stark contrast to the B2B, which points us to a significant opportunity available to address a gap in the food supply industry. Having the capability to digitize a sizable procurement transaction volume from restaurants to suppliers via a centralized marketplace such as KoomiMarket, a free-to-use B2B marketplace by Novitee and Glife, would mean that we can aggregate demand and hence help supply chains make informed decisions, and not one that is based on gut feel.

Finally, through demand aggregation and the implementation of digitization, both F&B owners and suppliers can observe real trends and effectively streamline their holding stock. They would be able to measure their existing inventory and make strategic decisions that will prove to be cost-efficient and profitable even with external variables such as the likes of Covid-19 at play.

Charting ahead: Digitizing the food value chain

Though the F&B industry is characterized by common pain points such as manpower shortage, rising food costs, and increased rentals, we see technology as the tool to mitigate many of these challenges. Already, there has been a steady adoption of digitizing kitchen processes; for instance, paperless kitchens using Kitchen Display Systems, robot cooks, etc.

What is the next big opportunity beyond financing and payments? In our view, the golden opportunity lies in the procurement space. Why so? Given that data, information, and transactional data are all separate components, it makes it hard to put them together to identify trends. With the existence of a single platform – where we house and cross-examine all isolated information on the cloud, the possibility will be endless.

That is why what the industry is holding its breath for is a B2B marketplace. Where hawkers, cafes and restaurants can transact freely with a variety of food suppliers in a transparent and productive manner. Because the data and information that we obtain from supply and demand will be something invaluable as it informs the whole full vertical and transforms the relationship between suppliers and F&B establishments.

What is most exciting about this is that we are now seeing more movements in the food procurement marketplace space. I think food technology companies and investors alike recognize that there is a big gap to be filled. In fact, the early encouraging results of our very own KoomiMarket shows that Singapore suppliers and restaurants appreciate the concept of a B2B marketplace platform, and we are optimistic that this same format can be replicated across borders.

Benjamin Yang is an internationally sought-after F&B Profit Strategist and the Founder and Group CEO of Novitee. He is also currently the CMO for Glife Technologies. Heralded as an expert in omnichannel marketing and technology, some of the high-profile F&B and Retail brands that Benjamin has worked with include:

Sakae Holdings, K Food Holdings, Jumbo Group, Kimly Group, Tim Ho Wan, Don Don Donki, Joe & Dough, Shilin, Hypermarket (Indonesia), Collins, Lady M, Violet Oon, etc.

Using his proven Profit Intelligence Technology System, Benjamin has a track record of exponentially assisting companies to accelerate their growth and increase sales. Under his leadership, he has grown Novitee from a 3-man startup to a leading F&B Food Services Technology Platform servicing customers across Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Sri Lanka & Myanmar.

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Glife’s Caleb Wu & Novitee’s Benjamin Yang on the impact of data, AI & innovative financing on the future of food [Q&A]