Making tech work: At ROI-NJ’s Food Summit, experts say people are key to advancing technology

As we look to the future of drones and self-driving trucks, those speaking on the subject of technology in the food and beverage industry at ROI-NJ’s inaugural Food & Beverage Innovation Summit last week agreed — people will continue to be at the core of the business.

However, Richard Dunbar, vice president of systems and solutions at Proconex Inc., a leader in production process automation headquartered in Royersford, Pennsylvania, said that, as technology advances, so must our workforce.

“Keeping workforce current with technology is a real challenge,” he said. “But we find that there are many sources of information available today that people can take advantage of, such as self-study courses online, and then there are places like the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, which is taking a hard look at what we do not only to advance technology, but also train our workers.”

Dunbar recommends companies start small and scale the use of digital technologies.

“And there is a people component to that,” he said. “In a production facility, there are always people who really know the inner workings of the plant, and involving them in the actual design and planning of additional technological strategies is key.”

Jenna Ciesielski, regional director for New York City metro at Vonage, the global communications company based in Holmdel, agreed with Dunbar that, while companies should start small, they must start somewhere.

“Lay your business and its systems out — how are you being proactive with the digital transformation?” she said. “You have to get tech savvy, because your customers are.”

Ciesielski conceded that technology — and the data that comes with it — can be overwhelming at first.

“But, you can get information on every single aspect of your business,” she said. “What you need to do is drill down into your pain points — where do you want to make improvements? You can leverage different technologies and automated systems to do that. You also can get as granular as you want, or it can be a 10,000-foot overview.

“Either way, it can be so powerful in helping drive growth for your business.”

Zak Romanoff, president of Omni Food Sales, a family-owned and -run food sales and marketing company in New York City, said the supermarket is reaching the point where other technologies are knocking at the door.

“Amazon now has a store in Manhattan where you can use your phone to shop without having to speak to anyone,” he said. “Bezos is going to shake the tree and see what falls out. Some people will be influenced or gobbled up by that — but it won’t be everyone. It’s the time for retailers who thought that maybe what they were doing before was successful to add in a few new wrinkles.”

Romanoff added that, while new technologies, such as automated cash registers, may signify layoffs, there is actually room for everyone as the food and beverage business advances into the future.

“I’d like to see those people retrained and built up to be in the store, at the top and bottom of every aisle, because, on a Thursday night, when I get a text message from my wife to pick up organic rice puffs, not only do I not know where it is, but then I have to wait on a customer service line to figure it out,” he said. “These are things that we can do to improve the overall shopping experience by reinvesting, reallocating and changing the way we manage stores to better educate people.”