Ice cream with (RFID) chips to go

St. Paul ice cream shop turns to RFID to give customers real-time scoop on flavors

Businesses are using RFID tags to track everything from large shipping containers and livestock to tiny electronic components. It's unlikely, though, that any other business is using radio frequency identification technology for the same purpose as Izzy's Ice Cream Cafe in St. Paul, Minn.

The shop, which epitomizes the classic mom-and-pop business, has concocted almost 100 flavors of ice cream and serves 32 flavors at any one time. Until this week, customers had little way of knowing whether their favorite flavors -- Peppermint Bon Bon, Cherries Jubilee and Dulce de Leche, to name a few -- were available until they arrived at the counter.

Not anymore. On Monday, Izzy's started using RFID technology to give customers real-time updates on all the available flavors in its dipping cabinet, the glass covered case where the tubs of ice cream are displayed.

RFID readers stuck in the dipping cabinets scan tags attached to the signs that go above each ice cream tub to give customers updated information on available ice cream flavors. Each time one tub of ice cream is replaced with a new flavor, an employee swaps out the RFID tag in front of the tub with the one corresponding to the new flavor.

RFID readers in the dipping cabinet scan the tags 22 times every second and send the information to a system that then projects a series of dots representing different flavors onto a wall in the store.

Customers glance at the colored dots projected on the wall, or on the plasma TV behind the counter, to find out what flavors the store is serving -- no more anxious moments of uncertainty.

And no more even having to come to the store to get the scoop on what Izzy's has available. The information grabbed by the RFID readers is pumped to Izzy's Web site, where a new Web page lists all the flavors the shop is serving.

Those willing to risk missing out on their favorite flavor can even tarry a bit on the Web page and play a memory game with the dots. Or they can hover over the dots to learn more about Izzy classics -- that its Dark Chocolate Zin is made from Italian balsamic vinegar and Ravenswood red zinfandel, or that perennial favorite Salted Caramel is almost always available, for example. Customers who sign up can get e-mail updates (and soon text messages) when their favorite flavor is being served. Izzy's also sends updates to its Facebook page and Twitter account.

If all this seems like a bit much for an ice cream shop, it isn't for Jeff Sommers, an English major and fine arts grad turned tech nerd who, along with his wife, Lara Hammel, runs the store.

"If you live in the world of selling ice cream, the problem you run into on Day One of opening is how to tell your customers what flavors you have in the cabinet," Sommers said.

With limited space in front of the cabinet, most ice cream shops resort to listing available flavors on display boards behind the counter. It's a system that is manually intensive and prone to errors, especially when a shop sells as many flavors as Izzy's does, Sommers said. And it results in too many crestfallen customers at the order counter after they learn that their favorite flavor is sold out.

Izzy's ice cream Web page
With RFID tags on its ice cream tubs, Izzy's enables customers to track the flavors available at its ice cream shop in St. Paul, Minn., by checking the shop's Web page.

Sommers, who professes to having a fascination with technologies involving sensors and sensing networks, decided to try RFID to solve the problem.

"I just love consuming innovative ideas," Sommers said. Getting technology companies interested in his scheme was tricky, he admitted. Finding an RFID systems integrator interested in such a small project and a software company willing to implement the Web interface was challenging, he said.

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