Tech firm makes a tasty feast out of convenient cooking trend

14 May 2009

A Carrickmacross-based company that says it’s a software firm first is taking the catering world by storm and has made it possible for operators such as Eurostar to serve up gourmet meals.

Monaghan-based OvenFeast has developed an oven technology that is network supported and guarantees hygienic, traceable produce ‘from the field to the fork’ for the customers of hotels, pubs, transport operators and convenience stores.

The company, which employs 40 people, has just struck an alliance with Green Isle’s Goodfella’s Pizza division, which is placing the system in kiosks in Spar stores. OvenFeast’s technology is also being trialled by Tesco. As well as this, the firm is in talks with a major pan-US convenience store chain, which has over 5,000 stores and is interested in deploying the system.

OvenFeast provides what can be described as a ‘managed service’, where specially manufactured ovens are connected to the internet and a supply chain system so that every time a hotelier, for example, uses up a supply of pre-packed meals a new food order is automatically generated.

Each time a meal is about to be put into the network-based oven, a tag is scanned and the oven does the work with no human interaction required, except when putting the meal into the oven and delivering it to the paying customer.

“We are a software company first and foremost,” explains OvenFeast’s marketing manager Mary Walker.

“It grew out of a web application we developed and then we developed the firmware for the oven. We then sought out manufacturers and struck a partnership with a Bristol-based firm that takes the chassis of an Amana comb oven and converts it to our specification.

“We are using web technology to ensure food safety all the way from the field to the fork,” she explains.

“Over four years we set up a project team of software and design engineers and went about building in technologies such as cooking control, safety and telemetry to pinpoint the exact location of each system.”

The intelligence of the system was proven recently when during the pork scare OvenFeast was contacted by Green Isle to recall all Goodfella’s pizzas containing pork.

“Because the ovens contain intelligent technology and every food product has an intelligent tag, we instantly sent an order across the system and our ovens across Ireland just wouldn’t cook the product and indicated the product was on recall.

“Our system told us that there were at least three occasions where someone tried to cook the recalled pizzas and the oven said no.”

Walker says the system has attracted the attention of the Food Safety Authority because of its focus on traceable and hygienic food delivery. The system has been installed in hotels such as CityWest Golf Hotel and the Maldron Hotel in west Dublin.

“Every packaged product such as a pizza or toasted sandwich has a specific cooking time to ensure optimum quality.

“If the process is interrupted or the food is taken out and not delivered to the table within a minute, the system will automatically sense the temperature and time needed to ensure the product is at the right quality level. If too much time has passed, the oven won’t allow the food be reheated.”

She explains the genesis of the idea for the service came from an understanding of food safety regulations and how it was important to guarantee quality and safety.

“The best cooking profile of each meal would be safeguarded as would be the ovens. Because it is a networked system, we know back at base if an oven needs maintenance or has been tampered with.

“From a retailer or hotelier’s perspective, the only human interface required is the person who scans the product and places it in the oven. It deskills the cooking function and everything is updated via the web.”

The technology has also sparked the interest of Iowa-based Amana, which manufactures the oven chassis.

“Our next step with this technology is the US market. We already have a strong established presence in Ireland and the UK and the Eurostar project was a major win for us,” explains Walker.

For Eurostar, OvenFeast spent 18 months developing a system that would work on its TGV trains in terms of power and telemetry and worked out a specific food menu – including an enigmatically titled Fiery Meatball Panini.

OvenFeast, which is funded by the Business Expansion Scheme, deals with its own chain of food suppliers and to crack the lucrative US market will be looking to establish relationships with US food suppliers.

On the home front, Tesco is evaluating the system in its staff canteens and is paying particular attention to energy savings and total control of food product, which OvenFeast is promising.

Walker concludes: “This is a concept we have put into action and that is gaining acceptance in a world where food safety, environmental control and convenience are taking centre stage.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Mary Walker, marketing manager, OvenFeast, which is pioneering revolutionary oven-based technology that is being deployed on Eurostar trains between Paris and London and trialled at Tesco