JR Group: People at the Heart of Food Tech Innovation Success Story

Established in 2001, food solutions provider JR Group has remained true to their objective of delivering nutritionally complete and convenient meals
26 Jan 2024
People at the Heart of Food Tech Innovation Success Story
Established in 2001, food solutions provider JR Group has remained true to their objective of delivering nutritionally complete and convenient meals while staying on top of ever-changing market demands and technological trends. The Group’s knack for adaptation showed from the early days, when they first formulated their proprietary version of cook-chill and cook-freeze technology into the production of Ready-To-Eat (RTE) meals.

Today, JR Group oversees a slew of subsidiary companies, each with a unique specialisation within the FnB industry. Hiring, training, and management of canteen staff islandwide is conducted through JR FnB, while the aforementioned cooking technology supports Chef-In-Box RTE export pipelines under the label JR Overseas. Supplying these food businesses is a central kitchen known as JR Food, which also helps offset workload from hotels and restaurants that employ JR Group’s services.

Deploying strategies that are ahead of their time has helped JR Group serve over 10 million meals to date. To learn more about the secret of their success within a notoriously unforgiving industry, we sat down with General Manager Tng Book Kwang to find out how this home-grown regional conglomerate orchestrated a perfect marriage between food and tech.

Q: How integral is AI to the success of JR Food’s business model?

Tng: “We are always thinking about two things: How to redefine convenience, and How to use technology to bring convenience to consumers. These central principles guide our decisions and have helped us achieve breakthrough after breakthrough. Way back in 2007, naysayers thought the concept of hot food vending machines was strange, and doubted its quality. But we were confident in our methodology and never let up on our efforts to educate our business partners and the public. This eventually led to the opening of VendCafe in 2016, the world’s first unmanned automated cafe.

But that’s not to say that we don’t listen to feedback. In fact, our processes work precisely because we’re always listening to customer input. For example, we send out surveys periodically about our ordering systems and interfaces. This helps us create menus that are not only intuitive, but can be deployed at scale across all our canteens and cafes.”

Q: How difficult is it to train a team to be well versed in both food and technology?

Tng: “Our business is reliant on drivers, but hiring individuals who can both drive and use technology has admittedly been challenging. But we saw this as an opportunity. We trained drivers to navigate machine interfaces, maintain dispensers, top up contents, and interpret food-related data. This made deliveries more efficient, and allowed us to upgrade our drivers to merchandisers with a wide range of skills.

We’re willing to invest in our people because we believe that the ones on the ground matter. After all, they’re the ones who make our business happen. That’s also why we reward top performing workers with incentives, creating a win-win situation where merchandisers go above-and-beyond to contribute to company growth. We also make sure to foster a positive work culture where everyone feels included and valued through social affirmation. Our philosophy is that ‘what gets rewarded, gets repeated.’”

Q: Mealtimes are a big cultural phenomenon in Singapore. How has JR Group been able to replicate the communal mealtime spirit through unmanned cafes?

Tng: “Actually, the use of technology and AI has helped us bring food to places where it would be challenging otherwise due to manpower crunches. See, when you set up shop in a factory, you might only receive two hours of business a day, which is not enough to bring a profit to traditional eateries. However, our fully automated VendCafes allow us to bring food to these workers economically. Since setting up in 2016, VendCafe has brought food to Suntec convention centres, hospitals, airports, and of course, factories and offices.

Our operations continue to be profitable because we rely on data to inform all our decisions. By tapping into a cloud-based system that links up all our machines and consolidates data from a multitude of operation centres, we’re able to improve product management, machine optimisation, replenishment route planning, and other business functions. In fact, we’ve gathered so much feedback that we’re now able to anticipate changes in demand, deploying machines in certain areas before traffic starts to increase. All of this would not be possible without technology.”

Q: How has JR Group balanced upskilling and innovation with financial prudence amid inflationary pressures?

Tng: “Without investing in technology, we would never be able to capture opportunities that have arisen over the years. Take QR codes for example. The public was unfamiliar with them just a few years ago, but everyone has now fully embraced them post-Covid. Without incorporating QR codes and contactless payment methods, we would have missed out on the tidal wave of opportunities post-pandemic.

In fact, training does not have to take up too much time. Our newly implemented team engagement programme, for example, updates staff on the latest tech and upgrades within just two to three hours across a couple of days. Breaking down information into bite-sized sessions also helps with concentration, since our staff take part in physically demanding jobs. Because we’re always keeping staff in the loop, company downtime can be minimised whenever we’re transitioning into new technology.”

People at the heart of technology

One recurring theme throughout this interview with Tng was the constant mention of how technology impacted people. Instead of adopting new strategies haphazardly, Tng and other JR Group leaders make it a point to lead by example. This is most evident in their handling of staff safety during peak Covid, when JR Group leaders took the vaccine first to give on-the-ground workers confidence to continue operating machines on the ground.

While staying on top of tech trends is undeniably important, the careful consideration of how technology impacts both workers and end customers and willingness to walk alongside team members through thick and thin is perhaps even more vital in helping JR Group build a strong team of dedicated and productive employees.

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