The humble hamburger. It's as American as apple pie, although its history can be traced back to the waning days of the 12th century when Genghis Khan and his army relied on it as the perfect mobile food when fighting and pillaging. Khan and his hordes supposedly kept their burgers tucked under their saddles to keep the meat handy and tenderized.
Modern-day quick service restaurants (QSRs) need a slightly more sophisticated method of transporting their supplies. They have to worry about such things as minute temperature fluctuations and shortened shelf life when transporting patties from distributors to the local burger shops. Keeping tabs on such information is cruicial for a chain the size of Burger King, with more than 11,500 outlets in 50 U.S. states and 69 countries and U.S. territories worldwide.
Mobile resource management (MRM) tools and tactics can not only help keep things moving from suppliers to local broilers, but also in maintaining food quality and complying with regulatory restrictions.
Keeping Its Cool
One of the biggest challenges for Burger King is making sure its food products maintain the proper temperatures throughout the transportation process, says Steven Grover, VP for food safety and quality for the restaurant chain.
If temperatures drop by a mere degree or two as products are shipped, the shelf life of a burger can be affected. The cooking time is also thrown off as the burger makes it way through a restaurant's automated broilers. If the temperature rises, the quality and taste of the burger can be compromised. Such 'thermal abuse' could result in a bad burger in a business where a chain's reputation is only as good as its last meal served.
In addition, restaurants and major food distributors such as Burger King have to meet new U.S. government regulations and monitoring requirements. "Government restrictions have gotten tougher regarding quality, safety and consistency," Grover says, noting that the FDA requires monitoring, but not electronic monitoring.
One solution would be to add more people and checkpoints along the supply chain. That would take a serious bite out of profits and would not ultimately be a truly effective system.
Instead, about two years ago, Burger King turned to remote sensing and MRM tools to track food and supply shipments as they make their way from distributors to restaurants to a customer's hands. The company continues to expand the system throughout its entire QSR network in the U.S.
"We felt this was a weak spot in our system and wanted to shore it up," says Grover. "[MRM] offers a way to control things at the distribution centers and helps everyone run their businesses better."
The company's 27 distribution centers located throughout the U.S. are ground zero in the monitoring network. Each distribution center services 300-400 individual restaurants, and caters to thousands of customers per day.
These centers receive products directly from suppliers in sealed and environmentally controlled trailers. Once these shipments arrive and are offloaded, their temperatures and quality are carefully monitored and maintained as they are stored for a short time or transferred to other trailer trucks that supply products to nearby restaurants.
The trailers that transport products to each Burger King restaurant are typically split into three different compartments: One for frozen food, one for refrigerated or cool foods, and the third for dry goods such as paper cups and straws. Consolidating shipments of various types of products saves money, but also creates problems for the frozen meat, says Grover.
With each run, a trailer delivers food and products to a dozen restaurants or more, opening the doors between compartments to make deliveries. A sensing system installed in these trucks keeps tabs on temperature variations, and in some cases issues a warning if things suddenly go south.
Fast Food Fast Track
The MRM system, developed by Procuro, Inc., dynamically monitors temperatures within each of the refrigerated and frozen trailer compartments and issues wireless alerts when temperatures drop or spike. Both the driver and the distribution center can be alerted by SMS to a mobile device or to a centralized server.
Burger King executives can then correlate those temperature alerts with product safety measures to discover whether a shipment has been compromised. The information is also combined with GPS tracking and other communications tools from Kore Telematics, Inc., a Procuro partner and provider of wireless services for MRM applications.
"The Kore system provides us with the communications that allow us to track the whereabouts of a driver and temperatures inside [his] trailer," says Vincent Gordon, Procuro CEO.
The monitoring and communications system can be used to alert restaurants via GPRS when a delivery is imminent, so managers can better prepare to receive it and can generate reports for forecasting and planning.
"The system puts a 'geofence' around the trailer and knows where it is at all times," says Gordon. The data is matched with Burger King scheduling and delivery information to track product delivery times, stops and delays. "When the geofences match up, we know that delivery is being made and know it is a legitimate delivery and the time it got there," he adds.
Although alerts and messages related to shipments can be sent to distribution centers and Burger King restaurants, the MRM systems installed in the outbound trucks -- those transferring products from the distribution centers to the restaurants -- do not always operate in real-time.
Rather, the information is continuously collected en route and transferred in batch mode every five minutes or so back to the distribution centers, where it can be displayed on an informational dashboard via the Internet.
"A real-time wireless network is a relatively complicated and costly thing to have," says Alex Brisbourne, president and COO of Kore Telematics. "It makes sense to transfer certain items with batch mode to save money, related to the expense of always transmitting something over the network."
The flow of information about shipments and even the truck itself "helps distribution centers better manage their transportation assets and do it in a more efficient way," says Burger King's Grover. By performing route optimization to avoid traffic and closed roads, the system can also help defray fuel costs.
The Final Frontier
It's a different story on the inbound supplier side, though. Since most of the trucks delivering products to the distribution centers from suppliers are independently owned and operated, there is no real incentive to have the owners foot the bill for a system that primarily benefits Burger King. There have also been a few cases of suppliers fiddling with the temperature controls of onboard refrigerators and freezers to improve gas mileage as fuel costs continue to soar.
As federal regulations on commercial transportation of all types increase, and the benefits of using the system to avoid delays and optimize routes become more apparent, these operators will soon need new ways of tracking shipments, which could open the door to additional MRM solutions.