Moving forward with technology & heart

April 6, 2015
Telemetry technology lowered operating expenses 25 percent for Houston, TX-based Rome Refreshments, and allowed the operation to grow while continuing to provide the personal service of a different era.

In a world of doing more with less, exemplary attention to customers stands out. That dedication to service was the aim of Dominic Macerola when he started Houston, TX-based Rome Refreshment Services in 1979. Growing from a single man operating out of his garage to a second generation, 15 employee business, Rome Refreshments boasts of being one of the top three largest vending operations in the Houston area. The company continues to grow, in part, due to the conviction that technology is a game changer, especially for the widespread service area that Rome Refreshments serves. With approximately 500 machines in its footprint, Rome Refreshments regularly operates five routes that encompass an area that stretches from near Galveston in the South Bay, all the way up to the Woodlands north of Houston. Macerola has found that adding technology to more efficiently service this area has been a great way to move the company forward without losing the ideals he began it with.

Italian roots

Macerola was born in Rome, Italy, near the Apennine Mountains. Growing up, he spent his days at his uncle’s coffee shop where he learned about great coffee and how to provide great service. After living in Canada, Macerola saw potential in the Houston area and decided to move there to start a family in 1979. He opened Rome Refreshments out of his garage as a way to use his service background and earn a living. It is a family company that has been in business more than 35 years largely because it was always about more than just business.

“Dominic really wanted to create an environment of old world values when he started Rome,” said Gianpaolo Macerola, vice president of Rome Refreshments and Macerola’s son. With many vending competitors in the 1980s, the distinction in service wasn’t as apparent, but with the changes to the industry and retail in the last 10 to 15 years, Rome’s commitment to service has kept customers and brought previous customers back.

“Our prices are higher, but we’re still getting business,” explained Gianpaolo, who goes by G.P. The dedication to service might involve making another trip to a location when an order is missed, responding to emails immediately, giving personal Christmas gifts or operating under the motto ‘the customer is always right’. “We treat customers like they are part of our family,” explained G.P.

The company has not strayed from its roots; in fact, Macerola and most of his children oversee the day-to-day operations to ensure that the ideals and objectives that Macerola set when he opened Rome Refreshments are regularly exceeded. Gianpaolo Macerola is head of sales & marketing, Piccola Macerola is head of purchasing and Saverio Macerola is head of operations.

“We work in a commoditized, highly competitive environment where good products and responsive customer service set us apart from other providers,” said G.P. “Our customers rely on us to make sure our machines are stocked, in good working order and deliver the experiences that consumers expect. This is our livelihood. Our customers won’t settle for anything less, and neither can we.”

Technology helps find the time

Personal service takes time. Last year Rome Refreshments made a change that would increase the time its staff could dedicate to customer attention — technology. In June of 2014, the company started looking at telemetry systems to maximize personnel and resources across the territory the company services.

“We have customers that can be seventy miles apart, so it is imperative that we carefully schedule service calls to ensure that we cover as much ground as efficiently as possible,” said G.P. “Since we can’t physically be in all places at once, we recognized that we needed to bring a route management solution in-house that would give us continuous visibility into the machines we operate, and make sure our drivers and back office staff are working as efficiently as possible. It was a necessary component for maintaining operational control of the business.”

G.P. set out to identify a suitable telemetry solution, and evaluated a number of available offerings.

“One of our primary motivations was finding a tool that did not require a great deal of time to set up or learn,” he said.

Rome Refreshments launched Parlevel Systems – a cloud-based telemetry and vending management system in June of 2014. G.P. appreciated the cloud-based infrastructure because it requires no onsite servers or software downloads, eliminating a major barrier for Rome Refreshments. It also allowed him to show potential clients how he would ensure their machine was never empty - real-time status reports from anywhere.  

The results of adding telemetry have been outstanding. By leveraging the data provided by the technology, Rome Refreshments has been able to consolidate several of its routes, reduce its transportation costs, inventory, insurance rates and other overhead. Personnel can be reassigned as required, eliminating the expense of sending drivers to locations where inventory or service was not needed. Instead, Rome Refreshments can now focus its attention on locations that need service.

“In terms of hours, technology has streamlined our operation, allowing us to focus on other things,” said G.P. “I have more time now to see my customers face-to-face to address any concerns they may have, and I do that on a monthly basis. Dominic does it every two weeks.”

With the addition of the telemetry solution, Rome is experiencing a 25 percent reduction in operating expenses. “Also, by increasing our efficiency in vending, we’ve been able to grow in other segments of the industry, which are frankly, more profitable,” added G.P.

Micro markets provide more sales

Another profitable and growing segment for the company is micro markets. Rome Refreshments added its first one in February of 2014. Now with eight in operation and four more planned, G.P. considers them a good move. “It is a piece of the puzzle that is office refreshment services, but I wouldn’t say it’s the end of vending,” said G.P. He likes that micro markets bring in more revenue per week, but at the same time the margins are tighter. “Usually vendors want to double the cost price of an item, like in vending, but that’s the old way. If you bought the item for $3.50, you can’t double it. No consumer will pay $7.”

Rome Refreshments has success with micro markets at closed, white collar locations with more than 200 employees. In mostly blue collar locations with high turnover rates, G.P. still pushes for vending machines regardless of the number of employees.

Water is strong OCS contender

Water has been another area of growth for Rome Refreshments, especially since Macerola saw its potential early on. In the early 1990s, Macerola was convinced that reverse osmosis (RO) filtration was the future when other companies were offering just 5-gallon water delivery. When G.P. joined the company, Macerola got him trained in water filtration and G.P. is now certified and licensed to install the RO units by the State of Texas, which has added a line of repeat sales to Rome Refreshments’ bottom line. “A great thing about water is it’s a reoccurring rental. You can bank on it every single month,” said G.P.

Water is a growing part of Rome Refreshments’ OCS lineup, but an even greater portion is coffee. The company offers frac pack and single-cup coffee with bean-to-cup systems  and prepackaged in the form of pods. They do not offer the cartridge-style single-cup options.

“We do encounter resistance with customers inquiring about single-cup,” admits G.P. He finds this is mostly because customers have a specific brand in the back of their minds. However, the company has been successfully breaking that stigma for years.

“Another thing Dominic brought from his country of origin, Italy, was his love of coffee. He will not drink a bad cup of coffee. And the best cup of single-cup coffee I’ve tried is bean-to-cup,” said G.P. This is part of the reason Rome Refreshments offers these types of brewers. It also keeps a regular maintenance schedule for its bean-to-cup systems. “If they are a regular account, once every two weeks we clean that machine — it’s not just a wipe down,” explained G.P. He has the driver take out the brew mechanism, the whipping bowls, all of it. On high volume accounts, the equipment is cleaned weekly. Otherwise, G.P. finds the equipment prematurely ages, decreasing life expectancy, and often clogs, requiring a service call.

“Bean-to-cup machines are more work, but your margins are so much better than [cartridge] single-cup,” said G.P.

If the customer wants more variety available at a location, Rome Refreshments opts for pods. “Pods taste better,” claims G.P. “In a pod, it’s coffee in a paper filter, that’s it…it is what coffee is supposed to taste like.” Rome Refreshments also selects high quality coffee, in either the grade of bean going in or the packaging. The company believes in pods so much, it will drop off a pod machine for the location to try as a single-cup alternative and the pod machine nearly always wins.

Breaking the mold of other coffee providers has been successful for Rome Refreshments. Coffee service and water sales make up over 40 percent of the company’s annual revenue, equal to vending sales. Rome Refreshments is working with ParLevel Systems to build an OCS module so it can be operated on the same solution as vending, which will make it even more profitable and easy to use. “One screen — one program for all,” said. G.P.

Houston, TX, presents a unique challenge for a vending operator. Some of Rome Refreshments’ drivers travel 90 minutes before they reach a location. Therefore, making more service trips than necessary became a drain on resources. Because Rome Refreshments saw the potential of telemetry, they are now reaping the rewards. It has allowed the company to save money, grow other segments and create time for the personal attention at the heart of Dominic Macerola’s dream — Rome Refreshments.

Profile: Rome Refreshment Services
Year Founded: 1979
Headquarters: Houston, Texas
Owner: Dominic Macerola
Number of employees: 15
Number of routes: 5
Software provider: ParLevel
Micro market provider: 3 Square Market
Annual sales: Not revealed