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Service With Selfies: Fresh Ideas Breaks into Tech

Service With Selfies: Fresh Ideas Breaks into Tech

What’s in a name?

For Columbia-based food service company Fresh Ideas, quite a lot, actually. “I think our name, in itself, pushes us every day to keep it fresh and keep it different,” says co-founder Matt Clervi.

Founded in 2001, Fresh Ideas works primarily with colleges and universities in the Midwest, with a few corporate and government partners as well, to provide dining and catering services. But, in recent years, the company has made an unexpected foray into the realm of mobile software, developing a new point-of-sale system that Clervi believes may change the way people shop. It’s called 1FITT, and it forms the basis of the company’s mobile application, FreshX.

How does a food service company come to develop a market-disrupting new technology? Like most innovations, it started with a persistent problem just begging for a creative solution.

I Knew I Forgot Something…

The majority of Fresh Ideas’ daily customers are college students. Kris Lensmeyer, Fresh Ideas’ Director of Business Development, explains that one of the most frequent hangups in the dining hall experience is when a student leaves his or her meal card in their dorm room. “As a service provider, we want to be student-oriented, but we also need you to bring your card,” she says.

It’s a bad feeling: you walk up to the counter ready to grab lunch, you reach for your wallet, and then you feel the heavy gaze of everyone in line behind you as you’re forced to explain that you must have left your card at home. It’s inconvenient for everyone involved. So Clervi, co-founder Dennis Owens, and their team set out to remove the need for a physical card.

Lensmeyer explains, “What we wanted to do was create a technology platform that would allow us to use your phone as your meal card.” It was a solution that they already believed would appeal to the college kids using their services, and then they hit on an idea that would make it even more popular: using selfies to verify identity.

Here’s how it works. “When you come into the dining hall, we use technology that is available on all phones manufactured in the last six years that allows our cashiers to know that you’re coming in,” Lensmeyer says. “And here’s where the selfie comes in: a picture [a selfie taken by the student] will show up on the cashier’s screen with your name. It’s a hands-free process to use your meal card at the dining hall.” The cashier clicks your picture, and your meal card, pre-loaded balance, or credit card is charged. Faculty and staff, commuter students, and frequent visitors can use it as well.


The selfie serves a dual purpose, Lensmeyer says. The first, of course, is security: the picture ensures that students can’t just lend their phone to a friend, and no thief can use a stolen phone for a free meal. And second, with the selfies popping up on cashiers’ screens, “We get to know the students quicker,” Lensmeyer says, “and that’s what we’re all about. We’re about engagement and getting students to know what’s going on at the dining hall.”

Unsurprisingly, the pay-by-selfie concept has been “wildly successful” among students on the six campuses Fresh Ideas is using as their test market, Lensmeyer says. Students have a great time taking pictures and adding them to the FreshX app. “And this is just our first stage,” she adds. They’re also developing an online ordering system from the app: Students can submit an order as they leave class, pick it up at the campus café without even taking out their wallets, and head straight to their next class or activity. It fits seamlessly into the college experience and saves students and cashiers alike from the time and hassle associated with traditional meal cards.

Expanding the Vision

The benefits of pay-by-selfie technology were immediately apparent to other food service companies. Clervi says that their food service competitors worldwide wanted in, but the well-established point-of-sale companies they approached with the idea didn’t bite. So Fresh Ideas created a new company, 1FITT, and developed a platform to compete with those legacy systems.

As development progressed, it became apparent to the Fresh Ideas staff that their technology could have much wider applications than just food service. The basic concept — an app that offers a hands-free payment option with facial recognition built in — has the potential to compete with industry giants, like Apple. The Apple Pay feature may remove the need for physical payment, but you still have to get your phone out and scan it at the register. Clervi wants to make things even more convenient.

Imagine a trip to the hardware store, he says. “As soon as you walk into that location, we’ll know what your traffic patterns are — where you like to shop based on your history as well as what you’re doing in real time. And then we can send you deals based on where you are in the store. So if you’re looking at something and thinking, ‘That’s 100 dollars, I can’t afford that,’ and then suddenly you get a coupon for $20 off, that makes a big difference.”

Clervi gets asked pretty regularly whether he thinks customers will worry about their privacy. Because this technology is completely voluntary, anyone who’s wary can simply continue to pay with their card. But the FIIT-POS system, he stresses, is less invasive than simply surfing the internet, where virtually every site you visit can collect data on you and share it with advertisers. Fresh Ideas keeps your data private, and your credit card information isn’t even stored on your phone.

Back to Clervi’s hardware store scenario: “Now let’s say you travel all the way to the POS system [the checkout], and you’re already in line. The cashier will already know what position you are in line, and that you’re a frequent shopper there.” At this point, many stores ask if you have a rewards card. “In the 1FITT solution, when you come through we already know who you are. We already know your rewards numbers.”


You verbally select the rewards you want to apply and which credit or debit card to use. The receipt is stored in the app, and you can walk out of the store without even reaching for your wallet. “We think it’s going to be a game-changer,” says Clervi, “but it takes time. We have competitors in our marketplace that have already purchased this solution and they’re taking it throughout their entire company.”

So, the food service company from Columbia has become a tech trendsetter. Sarah Carnes, director of marketing at Fresh Ideas, developed a comprehensive marketing campaign for the FreshX app; those efforts earned Fresh Ideas and their technology partner, the Toronto-based mobile commerce firm Lucova, the 2016 American In-House Design Award, in the category of identity design, from Graphic Design USA. 1FITT sold FIIT-POS to Lucova and is still active in development of the product. Lucova and Fresh Ideas have spent the past year testing and improving the system.

The Innovative Culture of Fresh Ideas

As the buzz around FIIT-POS continues to grow, Fresh Ideas remains committed to its first priority: improving the dining experience on college campuses. In 16 years of business, Fresh Ideas has never lost a higher education client.

The same spirit of progress that led to the pay-by-selfie system pushes Clervi and his team to look for new opportunities to improve dining for students. “We’re partners with our clients and we really do look for ways to engage students with food, and not just serve food,” Lensmeyer says. “We look at how we can engage them in the process and make it fun.”

Clervi agrees that their clients are what propel them forward. He mentions Dianne Lynch, president of Stephens College. “She came to me one day and she said, ‘You need to take over the bookstore,’” he says. “And I said, ‘Okay, but I don’t know anything about bookstores.’”

“Oh, you’ll figure it out,” Lynch replied. Clervi says that taking over the bookstore is what helped them recognize the potential retail applications of FIIT-POS.

Fresh Ideas is cognizant that the public’s attitude towards food service has shifted in recent years. “It’s no longer hidden in the background,” Clervi says. “Chefs are celebrated. People are worried about what they eat, and how it comes from seed to plate. We’ve got the microscope on us now, and it’s forced us to think differently.”


One aspect of the dining experience that Fresh Ideas is focusing on is the humble salad bar. (“The traditional salad bar is a thing of the past,” Clervi says.) They’re playing with the idea of vegetable plants suspended above the salad bar so that chefs can cut them down and incorporate them directly into the salad. “[Customers] want it fresh, they want it now, and they want to see where it came from,” Clervi says.

And, after making the freshest salad possible, customers can pay by selfie.

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