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UCalgary launches first-of-its-kind autonomous food retailer

Students at the University of Calgary studying late—way late into the night—will no longer have to hope that their local convenience store on campus is open and staffed.

The university, along with food services provider Aramark, launched a first-of-its-kind autonomous 24/7 food and beverage retailer on Nov. 8 as part of a quartet of food service offering openings at the Haskayne School of Business’ new Mathison Hall.

Quick Eats allows for shoppers using Aramark’s Hey Chef payment app to enter, select items like wraps, sandwiches, salads, snacks, or hot and cold beverages, and then leave with the cost of the items being billed directly to the person’s account.

“At Aramark Canada and Aramark International, we are quite focused on how technology can enable and enhance consumer experience overall. So within food service, when we look at Quick Eats… we really took a close look at what it needs to be, and we recognize it’s not a one size fits all,” said Louise Hudson, Vice President of Strategic partnerships with Aramark Canada.

The store is a first for Canada as it is neither a short-term pop-up store, a pilot program between a technology company and a retail brand, or a venture capital-backed startup. It is similar in concept to the Amazon Go autonomous retail stores, which were opened in the US in 2018.

A first for Calgary students

The autonomous store format was brought to the University of Calgary as a result of the school’s interest in providing a full range of food service options for students, and the interest in using new technologies in Mathison Hall.

“Because this is the first of its kind in Canada, it really showcases an entrepreneurial opportunity, and we’re the entrepreneurial university,” said Catherine Heggerud, Associate Dean for undergraduate programs with the Haskayne School of Business.

“We’re the first ones in Canada to roll out this new technology and to embed it in the brand new building… it just constantly reinforces our perspective that technology is a part of the future.”

Multiple cameras and sensors within the space track which items are selected by shoppers. Quick Eats is also using artificial intelligence behind the scenes to indicate what items should be stocked, and at what levels.

“There always is a human behind technology, there has to be. We do have staff that ensure that the store is fully stocked using the technology behind the system in our back office, and we’re able to see what product mix sells the best,” said Hudson.

“When things are running low, we get alerts so that we can refill, etcetera. So the store is always ready for our customers. For students, I think having that access to that when the time is right for them is super important.”

The right format for the University of Calgary

She said that going forward, including Quick Eats at other post-secondary institutions would come about as a result of looking for the right model to serve students best.

“It’s not a go-forward vision of everything being AI computerized vision technology solutions. It really is about having the right solution in the right neighbourhood of the campus, and that we’re delivering on what people need,” Hudson said.

She said that those solutions could look like a more traditional retail presence Quick Eats, or like Pizza Forno, which is an autonomous pizza kiosk that makes pizzas using robots.

Heggerud said that despite the new store not having a direct opportunity for employment, the other three food and beverage offerings that also opened on Nov. 8—which included local business Phil & Sebastian and D.O.P—would continue to offer opportunities for students employment.