It’s not just for tech nerds, futurists and hipsters anymore. People who can’t wait for the future come to South by Southwest to get a preview of what will soon be on the horizon, but the glimmers apply to all aspects of society, including food. Here are some of the previews that might have applied in particular to restaurateurs.
1. Meal kit sustainability in question
While many attendees were buzzing about meal kit companies such as Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, others are less than sold on the model. The kits provide convenience for busy adults who still want to cook fresh foods, and have been credited with teaching some people how to cook. A few of the smaller meal kit companies that cater to specific health needs such as a vegan or gluten-free crowd may survive, but not a lot of the mass market ones, suggested Phil Lempert, founder of Supermarket Guru.
He gave three reasons for his assertion. First, the food waste factor; 30% to 40% of food in facilities is wasted, due to the companies’ efforts to anticipate the volume of orders, he says. Second, way too much packaging is used to ship orders, and consumers are starting to notice that form of waste. Third, the price—meal kits aren’t cheap.
On the whole, restaurants haven’t figured out how to do meal kits, but grocery stores are starting to, said Lempert. Grocery chains Hy-Vee and Mariano’s, for example, have started to put together grab-and-go meal kits that offer the same thing—proportioned, fresh ingredients and a recipe to follow—that are simply packed in a paper bag for a cheaper price.
2. Robots as the future of the labor shortage?
Folks from across the food space highlighted the problems they’re up against: sustainability, supply, connecting consumers with certain products, etc. But anyone speaking about restaurants shared the same top problem. “The biggest issue right now is recruit and retain,” said Anna Tauzin Rice, VP of Marketing and Innovation for the Texas Restaurant Association.
There was talk of some software programs that could potentially link up a pool of qualified laborers with a group of restaurants to fill as-needed shifts, but the real answer seemed to be robots that could automate simple, repetitive tasks such as dishwashing and burger flipping. While this is what the industry wants, though, it was not necessarily what was on display at SXSW. Robot arms were around, but the one that caught attention: Pepper. The C3PO-looking bot with a tablet for a stomach steps into the role of server, letting diners ask questions and order via the tablet, delivering meals, and letting guests pay, without human interaction.
The debate: Does it eliminate too much hospitality, if guests are confident with the service—from accurate answers to questions to not letting their credit card out of sight? The consensus was that, while not affordable for mass market yet, robotics could be where we are headed in the not-too-distant future.
3. Retelling the food-tech story
The need for convenience was a major theme at SXSW, but so was the call to refocus the conversation on providing better food. Today’s consumers want ease, but they also want transparency—and that means a better understanding of what food tech really is.
“People think technology in food is GMO, but it’s actually using computers and technology to make food taste better and be more nutritious,” said futurist Brian Frank, partner of FTW Ventures. For example, a panel with two growers, one a dairy farmer and one a vertical produce farmer, shared how they are using computers and tech to naturally make a higher protein, lactose-free milk with less sugar and use significantly less water, less space and no pesticides to grow greens in vacant warehouses, especially in underserved communities. The struggle, they both said, is getting this information out there to change the food-tech conversation. Frank’s suggestion: Get farmers on platforms like Snapchat and Slack, and offer virtual reality farm tours.