Last week, we at OpenTable were excited to host some of the country’s top restaurateurs as part of the second annual National Restaurant Association Tech Tour. After stops at Google, Pandora and Twitter, the group ended their day at OpenTable, where we shared our team’s most exciting innovations in research, products and marketing. Finally, we enjoyed a special presentation from FoodTech advisor and investor Brian Frank, who spoke about the future of the food industry.
Brian worked in consumer technology for 18 years, and when the tech bubble burst he went on to work as a wine specialist for Francis Ford Coppola. Now, he’s focused on the intersection of food and technology, working with investors and accelerators and raising the first fund devoted solely to food science and technology.
As Brian pointed out, everyone eats: food makes up 20% of the global GDP, but less than 3% of VC investments are focused on food. That’s all changing rapidly — investments in food have grown over 200% year over year, and there’s no sign of slowing down. Here are the top five trends he sees bridging that gap and bringing more innovation to the industry than ever before.
1. Sustainable Protein
As Brian sees it, the demand for meat and proteins continues to grow, but we know — thanks to leaders like Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver — that a mostly plant-based diet is healthier for us. That’s why more companies are exploring ways to allow people to enjoy sustainable proteins over the long haul.
One such company is Clara Foods, which uses natural yeasts to create an animal-free egg white. Not only is it healthier, more sustainable (avian flu, anyone?) and perfectly humane, it’s economical: if the company can produce at scale, the cost will be half of what it takes to produce a natural egg white.
More companies to watch: Gelzen, Hampton Creek, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, New Wave Foods, Memphis Meats, Modern Meadow.
2. Restaurant Tech & CQC
Brian describes CQC as “cost, quality, convenience,” and he says the three factors roll into the next-generation dining experience. A lot of people are dining out — more than they’re cooking at home, according to the U.S. Commerce Department — so how to we make it easier and more efficient?
Enter Eatsa, the “new automat” restaurant specializing in healthy, fresh, made-to-order quinoa bowls at a $7 price point. With a kiosk ordering and pick-up system, no lines or cashiers can hold up the process. While Eatsa has been criticized for taking the personal touch out of the experience, Brian argues that highly skilled staff members will still be in demand to oversee automated systems.
In the back of house, Brian identifies innovations in food capital and human capital. Companies are developing better ways of sourcing and creating high-margin products and building solutions to monitor and manage food waste. Plus, we’re seeing new tools for hiring and communication in restaurants, such as Homebase. In the front of house, products focus on ordering ahead and providing healthier options at a low price point (think Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi’s Loco’l).
More companies to watch: Sourcery, PlateIQ, NGB Markets, The Industry, Culinary Agents, Momentum Machines, ChowNow, Order Ahead, Proper Food.
3. Smart Kitchen
“Our approach to food hasn’t changed much over the last 100 years. It’s ripe for reinvention.” — Bill Gates
That’s the quote Brian kicked off this segment of the presentation with, and he couldn’t agree more. Many people view cooking as complicated and time-consuming, but new tools can make food more consistent and delicious.
Take, for example, the Drop connected scale, a new cooking platform that connects to your iPhone or iPad to walk you through the process. The technology makes every outcome completely predictable; Brian believes it could become a training tool for bartenders or a way to ensure consistency in commercial kitchens.
Speaking of beverage, there’s plenty of innovation there, too. Kuvee is developing the first-ever smart wine preservation system, and Teforia helps you make the perfect cup of tea every time. Why should coffee drinkers have all the gadgets?
More companies to watch: Nomiku, Anova, ChefSteps, Vessyl, Innit, 3DSystems.
Today, we are gathering an immense amount of information about our health and what we eat. We have data from Instacart and other food delivery services; from sensors, such as Apple Watch; and finally, we have access to information about our own microbiomes. Why shouldn’t we have individually tailored menus and diets that work best for our bodies?
Ubiome can map a person’s microbiome against other people of the same age and demographic, providing valuable information about their health. But, Brian notes, it doesn’t tell you what to eat. As a natural next step, he envisions a system that can aggregate data across all of the sources listed above, connect the dots, and deliver a personalized recommendation.
We’re seeing a move for more information about what’s in our food and how it’s handled. Tools and technology will allow the sharing of that information and, according to Brian, “increase our odds of having a good meal.”
On the production side, he points to Clear Labs, a company that provides DNA analyses of food products so you know exactly what’s in them. With added visibility into your supply chain, you can reduce your risk when serving guests.
On the consumption side, there’s 6 Sensor Labs, which makes a handheld allergen detector that allows you to test food for gluten before you eat it. Co-founder and CTO Scott Sundvor gave the group a demo to show how simple it is to use: just place a small amount of the food in a capsule, and you’ll see results (a happy face or sad face) in about two minutes. Crisis avoided.
Many thanks to Brian for sharing his insights with us, and to the National Restaurant Association for stopping by.