Frshly uses robotics and algorithms to deliver fresh, hot food to customers
Six different cuisines with 30 combos all served hot within 90 seconds, and patrons need only pick, swipe and eat. That's what Frshly, a fully automated "vend-café" and the brainchild of NJIT alumnus Satish ChamyVelumani, provides to a growing number of hungry consumers on the move through India's railway system and airports. It's an offer the tech startup, established in 2013, calls "plated happiness."
Here's how Frshly works: Customers desiring fresh, hot food from popular local restaurants choose from a selection of stocked menu items at a Frshly state-of-the-art dispensing machine. The company's proprietary technology, a "recipe" of robotics and algorithms, then enables the quick procurement, takeaway-friendly wrapping and prompt delivery of the order. To ensure that the food is always fresh, Frshly restocks the dispensing machine regularly.
The meals "are packed according to the given specifications for every mealtime at the participating restaurant kitchens and then are transported to the Frshly outlets where they are stacked," explained ChamyVelumani. "This is as good as any convenience store where products are pre-stacked based on predictive demand analysis."
Customers also can place an order, as well as specify a pickup location and time, via the free Frshly app, available from the Apple and Google Play stores. The app secures their meal until they collect it, at which time the dispenser reheats and serves it. The cost for Frshly meals ranges from Rs 59-159 in Indian currency (approximately $1-$2.50).
ChamyVelumani has introduced Frshly in three cities in India: Bengaluru, Chennai and Secunderabad. Each market features different cuisine.
"The idea is to serve the brands from the cities in which we operate," ChamyVelumani noted. "Frshly is an ecosystem for multiple restaurants to get on board and reach out to new customers. Even though Frshly is an aggregation platform, the brands that participate are curated based on the market demand."
In addition to train stations and the Chennai International Airport, the company also has a presence at information technology parks and large information technology companies and commercial technical support locations—a pipeline ChamyVelumani describes as strong.
Food for Thought
The Frshly journey, from "back of the napkin" concept sketches to the first customer making a selection, took ChamyVelumani two-and-a-half years to complete. He faced some challenges along the way, particularly with building the interface between the ordering app, the dispenser and the enterprise resource planning system.
"With Frshly, every single thing had to be developed from scratch," he said. "There were a lot of dependencies. We are talking about an entire ecosystem here, including hardware."
Fortunately, pitching Frshly to the Indian Railways Network and airport authorities proved much easier. Indian Railways had been searching for an innovation in the food and beverage space and Frshly fit the bill. A successful pilot in Chennai Central Railway Station followed and since then Frshly has opened two more stores in India, with a third and possibly more poised to launch this year. Frshly may even find its way soon inside the compartments on long-distance trains.
"First" is certainly a recurring theme of the Frshly story. The business is a first of its kind and the first commercial venture for ChamyVelumani, who is the first in his family to become an entrepreneur. All in all, he said, it "has been a great ride so far."
Before returning to his home country to start Frshly, he worked in the manufacturing industry in the U.S. for 11 years in a variety of engineering roles at 3M Purification Inc. (formerly CUNO Incorporated). And just before joining 3M, he earned his M.S. in manufacturing systems engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT); he also holds an MBA in global enterprise management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
"I was working in India as a mechanical engineer for about two years, mostly doing 2D drafting and 3D modeling. I became bored of that work and I didn't think those jobs were paving the way for me to achieve my future dreams. I wanted to get a broader exposure to manufacturing and through my friends I heard about the manufacturing systems engineering course that was offered at NJIT," offered ChamyVelumani, who arrived at the university in 2000. "Overall, the course work was an eye opener. I particularly enjoyed my design-for-manufacturing classes with [Professor Sanchoy] Das."
Feedback and Future
To further improve service, ChamyVelumani and his Frshly staff—about 60 people including store owners—are fielding recommendations for new cuisines and meal quantities from customers, who on the whole have appreciated the convenience of getting their favorite food brands at the touch of a button.
Looking ahead, Frshly is expanding its operations into Singapore this March and also working to set up stand-alone dispensers for several large food brands. ChamyVelumani's vision for his company includes moves into other Asia Pacific countries, the Middle East and ultimately North America.
ChamyVelumani encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to dream big and work hard. He credits his NJIT education with helping shape him into who he is today.
"My master's program put an entire business sense of things in my head," he reflected. "I always say this: 'It is not the subjects that we study, but it is the application that makes the difference.' NJIT helped me with learning the application."