20 Months In: Needed or not, clients now expect touchless options for their breakrooms

Nov. 18, 2021

As evidence has piled up through the course of the pandemic, now in its 20th month, our scientific understanding about the virus continues to change. In the first two months of the COVID-19 outbreak, it was mistakenly believed that the coronavirus behind the pandemic could linger and spread on doorknobs and other surfaces.

However, the science community soon discovered that COVID-19 rarely spreads through surfaces. Instead, COVID-19 almost always spreads when infected people discharge aerosols, consisting of large droplets and small particles, when they cough, sneeze, talk or breathe – just like the spreading attributes of influenza. Aerosols can be inhaled by people nearby. Surface transmission, although possible, is not considered to be a significant risk of spread.

That’s too bad – because it’s much easier to clean and guard surfaces than it is to improve or replace ventilation systems. Nevertheless, almost two years into the pandemic, consumers have come to expect surface disinfection protocols, especially at work in breakrooms. Within the first months of the pandemic, operators and their suppliers were in the sanitizing business – finding ways to reduce contact points required by a customer when using vending, coffee and water equipment.

So, we continue to deep clean and reduce touchpoints as part of the COVID protocol. For its part, amid a clear belief that touchpoints were dangerous and needed to be minimized, the convenience services industry responded with smartphone apps and a wide variety of touch-free ways to deliver snacks, a cup of coffee or to check out from a micro market kiosk without touching anything but the finished product.

Word on the street

The convenience services industry, through service protocols and equipment designs, has always strived to keep consumers safe. But are fundamental changes government and media are talking about necessary? Earlier this year, just as vaccines began to roll out a rapid pace, we asked some leading operators if the demand for touch-free technology in OCS and vending locations will have staying power.

Matthew Marsh of First-Class Vending, which operates in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, said, “If a client requests it, we can do it. From our experience, however, the clients that have received it are not using it. It is a neat gimmick, but I do not think it’s going to stick. It’s just not necessary.”

Tom Steuber of San Leandro-based Associated Services added, “Our thinking on this is that we will absolutely have customers who will insist on touch-free equipment, but as time goes by, it will be used less and less. In our own office, we saw people use it initially, but as people get more and more comfortable about touch points, they stop using it.”

It could be the “cool factor” that lends longevity to the idea of a touchless breakroom, according to Arthur Siller of Seattle’s Evergreen Refreshments. “From our experience, we do not think touch-free technology is going to be prevalent,” Siller noted. “We saw a big rush to touch-free technology, including wraps on equipment, and we can present options to clients. The technology is very cool and appealing to many. It is the ‘cool factor’ that might drive the interest, especially with younger people.”

For Judson Kleinman of Corporate Essentials, which services clients in the New York City market, touchless technology is here to stay. “[Touchless] comes up in almost every conversation,” he said. “It is here to stay, but in a year or two it won’t be on people’s minds as much. Today though, it comes up in almost every conversation with clients who are ready to bring back their employees.”

When Automatic Merchandiser spoke to these operators, among other industry leaders, it seemed as though the COVID-19 pandemic would be in operators’ rearview mirrors by the end of the summer. Eclipsed by the delta variant, the anticipated convenience services revival never came this September, when kids would go back to school and at-home employees would return to offices. Once again, sanitation and touchless is at the forefront.

Coffee solutions

Touchless in the context of technology can be defined as a device that operates without needing to touch it. Human-machine interfaces in the touchless niche include proximity-enabled screens, camera-based gestures, voice recognition and eye-tracking tech.

Major suppliers in the OCS space like Newco, Bunn-O-Matic, Keurig Dr Pepper, Nestlé and Lavazza developed novel touchless features to help make employees’ safety the top priority.

One year ago, Nestlé added a feature to its coffeemakers that lets an individual select their choice by holding their hands over the menu options. And several months ago, Nespresso Memento OCS machines received an update that enables users to insert a capsule and then choose their preferred cup size and recipe directly from their phone, without touching the machine.

This year, Keurig Commercial, the away-from-home division of Keurig Dr Pepper, introduced touchless brewing capabilities for its bean-to-cup office coffee equipment. Using the new Keurig Remote Brew app, users can brew a coffee or specialty beverages through a mobile device. Keurig’s first touchless brewing innovation complements its Safe Brewing Toolkit, designed to support safe and hygienic coffee stations in the workplace; the kit includes floor decals for social distancing, brewer signage to support cleaning schedules and coffeemaker deep-cleaning kits.

“Coffee is a valued workplace amenity, and businesses are facing new challenges as they bring their employees back to the office and reopen breakrooms,” said KDP senior vice president of away-from-home Phil Drapeau.

During the NAMA Show in August, Spain’s Azkoyen Group, a maker of vending machines and payment systems, demonstrated a coffee machine controlled solely by eye gaze. The eye-tracking technology, developed by Irisbond, was paired with Azkoyen’s Vitro M5 superautomatic coffee machine. The user’s gaze is analyzed by the Irisbond infrared-based eye-tracking technology, which calculates the exact point at which the user is looking so they can control the machine without touching it.

“We are very satisfied with the warm reception that this innovation has enjoyed in Spain, as it demonstrates the importance of improving the user experience, and we want to take it to the United States,” said Juanje Alberdi, chief executive of Azkoyen’s coffee, vending and payments divisions. Alberdi said that Azkoyen has patented this “distance selection” feature as used in a coffee machine.

For more than a year, Bunn has enjoyed success with its VirtualTOUCH approach. The company’s bean-to-cup machines can work with a QR code that allows users to order beverages through a webpage. This way, employees’ touchless experiences can be enhanced while ensuring their safety. Fully automated through a smartphone, VirtualTOUCH provides access to a full beverage menu and step-by-step instructions, while reducing shared contact points. Additionally, Bunn’s system can integrate with 365 Retail Markets’ payment app to add coffee service to any micro market.

Bravilor Bonamat, a Dutch manufacturer with a U.S. office in Aurora, IL, now offers its SEGO bean-to-cup machine with Contactless Coffee Control, or the CCC app. It works with an NFC reader that is compatible with iOS and Android devices.

The CCC app is available as a kit. Installation takes just a few minutes, according to Arjan de Groot, vice president of Bravilor North America. Once installed, the option to select and dispense a beverage via the CCC app is visible to the customer on SEGO’s display. After the one-time app download, the client selects their favorite beverage, and confirms their selection by holding the phone near the front of the SEGO. “The CCC app is swift and simple to use,” De Groot said.

“The app was developed as a conscious decision not to charge the operator repeatedly for modems and fixed subscription and data costs,” De Groot added. “We’ve heard from our customers that the low entry-to-market cost helps them add the touchless feature to the SEGO, giving their clients peace of mind and an improved guest experience, without a big additional investment.”

SEGO is Bravilor Bonamat’s flagship whole-bean coffee machine for the new normal. It was created for small- to medium-size offices accommodating between 20 and 100 employees.

Water solutions

One of the things missing during the homeworking period was the routine one-on-one networking around the water cooler. Aquabeve, Bevi, Elkay, FloWater, Quench, Vertex and Waterlogic, among a dozen other manufacturers, offer high-tech solutions beyond a foot pedal. Motion and optical the sensors ensure sanitary appearances.

New Beverage Ventures, dba Aquabeve was founded in 2017 in Laverne, CA. It offers the Inspirations touchless water cooler line in two models (hot/cold IB215RT and cook/cold IB115RT). The Inspirations lineup is available in plumbed and bottled water versions. They use an optical senser for dispensing cold water and, for safety, a double-optical sensor for hot water.

“The optical sensors work with glass, plastic, Styrofoam and paper cups, as well as all swell-type containers offering a truly COVID-free experience. There is no need to ever touch the unit itself,” explained Aquabeve marketing vice-president Don Fletcher.

“As the COVID crisis was growing,” Fletcher added, “we recognized the need for a solution to provide water at work and home. We experimented with pedals, buttons and other options, but realized none of these options was the perfect solution. Pedals were problematic because they were out of eye-shot and subject to kicking and unintended damage by cleaning crews. The buttons, while limiting the need to touch the unit, didn’t alleviate it and was not the optimal solution. We realized optical sensors were the solution.”

Developed to give office dwellers peace of mind, Quench USA’s latest Q-Series offers a sensor-activated, touchless and “bottleless” dispensing solution. Quench’s touchless systems have built-in sensor-activated panels. Users simply hover their hand or fingers over sensor-activated buttons to release a steady stream of water. They connect directly to a building’s existing water supply.

The Q-Series is available in three dispensing capacities, including the Quench Q4 (serves about 25 people a day); Quench Q8 (50 people per day); and Quench Q12 (100 people per day).

“All Quench Q-Series options produce quenchWATER+, which uses a proprietary 5-filter setup to add electrolytes and improve taste by removing sediments and contaminants,” explained the company’s vice president of product management, Ted Hertz. “The result is crisp, clean, great-tasting electrolyte water for health-conscious businesses.” ■