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INDUSTRY INTERVIEW: Why Monika feels at home in this bold new era of the connected kitchen

Tim Gamble, executive chairman

For a company whose proposition is entirely technology-driven, Monika has actually been around for a significant length of time — certainly far longer than the term ‘connected kitchen’ has been part of the catering industry’s everyday vernacular. In fact it was 28 years ago that the business came into standing, just after the introduction of the Food Safety Act.

Monitoring temperatures remains a prominent part of food safety — second only to contamination as the biggest risk to food — and that has largely been the catalyst for the Leicestershire-based company’s work from its formation to today.

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It initially developed a solution that involved connecting a console via electricity mains to effectively network fridges, freezers and coldrooms to collect temperature records that had previously been captured by hand, if at all.

“At that time there were no computer systems in the kitchens, there was no LAN in the buildings and that was how we had to collect our data,” recalls executive chairman Tim Gamble. “It was quite revolutionary and we won awards for the system because it overcame the basic problem of putting wiring infrastructure in to get data back to a console. There were other systems around but you had to basically wire them all up from every fridge and you couldn’t move the fridge anywhere without changing the network, so it was all very inflexible.”

The business grew quickly and it wasn’t long before Monika introduced hand-probing as part of the system, deploying a handheld data logger to facilitate temperature recording and give users peace of mind that food is being kept safe through the entire production process, from storage to service.

That led onto Monika inventing the first wireless probe and handheld system to work with it, setting the foundations for it to eventually launch its first fully-fledged comprehensive food safety system, in 2013.

Fast forward to today and the business — through its MonikaPrime compliance and reporting systems for large enterprises and MonikaGo app for smaller operators — epitomises what customers expect from technology these days.

Says Mr Gamble: “The industry has moved to mobile devices which are highly flexible, data can be with you wherever you go so that you can react quickly to things, and it is all being facilitated by cloud computing and real-time connectivity. We have been doing it for years, but I think the big sea change has been going from IT departments with servers on-site or at head office to direct connections to cloud computing and the internet. That is making a big difference to everything.”

For all the utopian talk of the ‘connected kitchen’, a place where operators can pluck any aspect of real-time information about an appliance they want, and where equipment ‘talks’ to each other, there are still operators that are daunted by the prospect of their kitchens becoming vast data centres — that’s if they can even get a connection at all given that some kitchens are situated in notoriously inaccessible locations.

Fortunately, one of Monika’s biggest strengths over the years has been getting data out of buildings. It has generally been its principle to avoid relying on WiFi, says Mr Gamble.

“In most retro-fit environments it is not always available. Obviously in small kitchens, such as in fast food restaurants and things like that, the WiFi can be made to be quite pervasive and therefore things work well, but when you get into kitchens with different areas you can have problems with black spots because the stainless steel acts as a barrier to wireless.

When you get into kitchens with different areas you can have problems with black spots because the stainless steel acts as a barrier to wireless

“You also get things like liquids that absorb the wavelengths of WiFi, which can cause intermittent signals. From our point of view, we can’t live like that because food safety is something that needs an instant reaction. If a risk arises, you have got to do something to protect your food and you have to do it before it is too late, so you must have full connectivity.”

Monika still uses WiFi and Bluetooth, as well as cellular if a mobile signal is available, but its primary technology is ZigBee, which is built for harsh environments and forms its own network within the kitchen so that data can be routed from one piece of equipment to the next or around the kitchen.

“It is very much horses for courses. I think that putting in these kinds of systems is sometimes over-simplified when the reality is that unless you are in a very simple environment you need to have a solution which is very flexible.”

MonikaPrime is the company’s comprehensive food safety and compliance management system that harnesses the benefits of mobile technology. It eliminates the need for the paper-based systems and extensive policy manuals that have governed kitchen processes for many operators.

“Our aim is not to be about form-filling, it is more to be about proactive food safety,” explains Mr Gamble. “Records are necessary for traceability issues, so if for example you do have a food-borne illness issue then you can go back to the source of it and find out what it is. If you have got paper records and you are a big organisation then you could have a warehouse full of records somewhere and it is not necessarily easy to go back and find data, nor is it easy to use the data once it is on a form.

“There is also the question that forms are a very arduous discipline and sometimes don’t get completed when they should for the best reasons in the world, and therefore they can sometimes be challenged in terms of their integrity. We are all about data, we are all about creating records as we go, but the more important thing is to be able to react if there is an event, which technology can help you do. It can also help you to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

“Part of the issue is whether equipment is delivering safe temperatures all the time and that can be cooking equipment, refrigeration equipment — all the equipment from one end of the kitchen to the other that handles the food. If we can see that a problem is going to occur and nip it in the bud before it happens then that is a big benefit. You get a learning experience from dealing with issues, deciding what you are going to do to prevent them happening again and implementing that, and that is what our system primarily helps people to do.”

Monika’s system is used by individual operators right the way up to large multinationals. Its biggest customer has got about 900 sites and utilises the technology very much from a refrigeration maintenance point of view.

There is also the question that forms are a very arduous discipline and sometimes don’t get completed when they should

They have access to every site at their fingertips, which means they can monitor everything from the state of a compressor to how specific functions of the system are performing, not just the temperature profile. The key benefit is they can see what’s happening before needing to despatch an engineer.

When the argument for such a simple and accountable system is so compelling, why are there still so many kitchens out there relying on traditional paper-based methods?

“Well, I think there are a number of reasons for that. It does require some investment for a start and there are difficulties in that regard. Often in the industry, once the upfront investment has been made in a kitchen, adding to it later is not always easy.

“And I think that probably our industry is really very young and therefore it is about getting the information around and helping people to understand where things have moved onto, and the benefits that it can deliver apart from just temperatures or records or whatever else. These things are top-down, so it is about culture in an organisation. But with the technology available it can move very fast.”

MonikaPrime

Aimed at delivering efficiency and best practice for larger enterprises, MonikaPrime connects teams and equipment for safety, quality and hygiene. It helps to:  

  • Efficiently manage teams, equipment and resources over multiple sites and locations
  • Complete paper-free compliance for the food, clinical, and perishable products sectors
  • Remove manual checks, deliver efficiencies and reduce wastage
  • Integrate corporate policies and procedures
  • Powerful reporting with visibility of performance across entire enterprise

MonikaGo

Aimed at smaller businesses, the instant food safety app helps companies to succeed and grow. Key features include: 

  • Mobile and flexible food safety system that can grow as you do
  • Includes all Safer Food Better Business checklists and procedures
  • Protect your Food Safety Rating by removing risk
  • Easy to use and update allergen feature
  • Save time and eliminate unhygienic and messy paperwork

Tags : Compliancefood safetykitchensMonikatechnology
Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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