Offering fresh, local, healthful food to employees, gym members and residents via high-tech vending machines that provide big data on user behavior and streamline restocking has propelled a San Rafael startup to have hundreds of kiosks and dozens of employees in the past year.
As the number of locations for its “smart” refrigerators expands, 1.5-year-old Byte Foods (bytefoods.co) plans to expand its headquarters and device-assembly center six-fold early next year and hire additional workers. Byte is aiming at the majority of companies that don’t offer employees fresh food in the office, according to co-founder and CEO Megan Mokri, 33.
“You either have to be the size to warrant the buildout of an onsite cafe or cafeteria, or you need to have pretty deep pockets for a catered-food program for employees,” she said. “Otherwise, you’re basically stuck with the usual packaged snacks from Costco [Wholesale] or, worst-case scenario, the old-time vending machine in your office.”
To be sure, workers have been getting more food options on the job in recent years. Depending on the employer and distributor, more healthful snacks and beverages are finding their way into those traditional vending machines. The rising popularity of food trucks is putting more into circulation through business districts. And the gig economy has brought forward Uber- and Lyft-like delivery services that have shortened the distance between workplace and eatery.
At first glance, Byte Foods’ glass-door cabinets look like refrigerated units you might find in a deli or store. However, the proprietary tech inside operates like the self-service supermarkets Amazon plans to open. A user swipes a payment card through the reader, and the door is unlocked. The system detects the radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag on any item removed then puts through a transaction for the total price.
Internet connectivity with the kiosks allows for Byte to adjust pricing dynamically, plan operations and mine user data.
“We know at any given time across our hundreds of fridges in market the current inventory of every fridge, how long every item has been on the shelf, transaction data and emails for 70 percent of users,” Mokri said. “All of that allows us to not only streamline on the back end, in terms of servicing and replenishing the fridges and delivering the best-quality food to our users, but also it gives us unprecedented access to marketing to these users, who are often in these offices 40 to 60 hours a week. These often become a main food source for employees at the companies that we serve.”
Products carried include beverages such as Marin Kombucha, Revive Kombucha of Petaluma and cartons of Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee mixes, such as a New Orleans-style blend with organic milk from Petaluma-based Clover Stornetta Farms. Food suppliers have included Marin’s Rustic Bakery, Oakland-based The Town Kitchen, which trains youth from low-income families in food service skills, and The Noble Spoon prepared foods by Santa Rosa’s Council on Aging.
Food that’s removed from Byte fridges but hasn’t passed expiration is donated to ExtraFood.org. The San Rafael-based organization has received about 9,000 meals so far from Byte for distribution to needy people.
Currently, several hundred Byte Foods fridges are placed from Petaluma south to San Jose and along the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. They’re mostly at workplaces but also in hospitals, gyms and apartment complexes. Typically, the service subscription is $500 a month, and organizations can opt to subsidize some or all the cost of the food.
3095 Kerner Blvd., Ste. S
San Rafael, CA 94901
Founders: Megan and Lee Mokri
Founded: June 2015
Funding: $5.5 million