Futurist Sees Big Changes Ahead for Foodservice

Brian Frank, general partner with FTW Ventures, shares his expert insights.
Photograph by Clint Blowers

There are a lot of changes coming to the foodservice landscape, in no small part due to advancing technologies and changing consumer preferences. Ten years from now, there will be new ways to grow produce, source protein, prepare meals and even talk to customers. So what does that look like? Brian Frank, futurist and general partner with FTW Ventures, tells us where the future is headed.

brian frank
Brian Frank

Do you see a change in where our food will come from?
I think how our food is grown or produced is going to change radically. And we look at everything from accelerating or improving traditional farming to modernizing farming or food creation. We look at things like: How are we going to create crops with less resources, less land? How are we going to provide transparent supply chains so people know where their products come from and can track them all the way back to the farm? And how can we ensure that that supply chain is safe and high-quality overall? 

Obviously different technologies are going to be applied. One area [where] we see a lot of opportunity is blending life sciences and traditional agriculture to make better products, or more products, for our foodservice operators. The other way is we see a lot of track-and-trace work being done, so [implementing] things like Internet of Things that can track the product when it is being grown into the field, all the way through the supply chain, and ultimately when it ends up on either the steam table or in the prep area of a foodservice operation. And this is to avoid things such as pathogen outbreaks, as well as track where there might've been adulteration back in the system, so that we can get bad food off our plates quicker without so much risk to the consumers.

Any other major tech-based innovations you expect to have a big effect?
Software to plan and predict ordering so that foodservice operators can accurately predict their demand and their ordering plans, so we don't have overages and underages. Because, as we know, food waste is one of the biggest things we’ve got to combat in the food system and in foodservice as well. Every product that doesn't reach the plate is a dollar that that foodservice operator loses. And so how do we make sure that they waste less and have exact amounts of the ingredients that they need to have on hand? We see a lot of opportunity there.

At the physical locations, we see technology playing a massive role as well. And again, using almost all of those same technologies, from life sciences, to hardware, to software and SAP, we see the ability to produce products easier, quicker, with higher output through utilizing technology. One that we're obviously going to go into is automation, in terms of its role in helping us produce consistent high-quality product with a shrinking or challenged labor force.

What impact do you think robotics will have on both foodservice and food production?
I think that there is a question of where it makes sense in terms of different types of retail and restaurant operations. … But I think the human touch will still be there. When we talk about robotics, we're mainly looking at those high-throughput, consistent-products-at-a-reasonable-price-point kinds of foods. What I predict in the next three to five years is we will see more large-scale commissary kitchens that are automated. 

That's the biggest question in my mind right now: Does automation have the biggest impact when it is automating existing food production, or are we going to see completely new food concepts built around automation, and those will displace the existing foodservice providers that are doing it in a more traditional way?

What does that look like? 
I think when people hear "food factory," they think large-scale, mass-produced foods using chemicals and things like that. As an industry, we’ve got to come up with a different term for that environment where people are going to be cooking a lot of products en masse, putting it in boxes that will then get delivered, or par-cooking it for foodservice and retail so that you don't have to have large on-site kitchen operations for takeaway or delivery customers. That’s why I think we see a lot of movement in the virtual kitchen space. [They are solving] one part of the problem: Operators need spaces that are dedicated to cooking and that have no consumer-facing front end other than a delivery app or service. But I see those things becoming more automated over time.

That's the biggest question in my mind right now: Does automation have the biggest impact when it is automating existing food production, or are we going to see completely new food concepts built around automation, and those will displace the existing foodservice providers that are doing it in a more traditional way? 

How will that then make the workforce of the future look different?
It goes back to the, "Are you retrofitting, or are you new?" Let's make an assumption that automation will have the biggest impact at all the new concepts, and the existing concepts will still need labor. They're not going to automate as much. Someone from one of the big quick-service chains said to me, "We've already automated all of our processes where two people can run a whole store.” …That is the minimal. You need someone front-of-house selling to customers, and you need someone operating whatever equipment is behind the scenes. 

I think we are already at that stage where we've gotten to the minimum complement to run foodservice in quick service. The other guys that are not optimized are going to either figure out how to optimize their process by minimizing the use of lower-skilled labor, or they're going to move to automation and move labor into a higher-value job.

Going to (Union Square Hospitality Group CEO) Danny Meyer as the bellwether for this industry, he said, "Humans are really good at doing a lot of different things, and one of them is providing customer support and the engagement for the brand." And you can't divorce humans from that. In five years, it's not a robot greeting me and taking me to a table and saying, "Hi. Would you like a sparkling water or still water?" There's still some human there that's on the front end. 

What about the back of house? 
It's a question of who in the back is actually cooking the food and prepping the food. Is that a robot? Even one of my investments is in a dish-washing robot. Who's cleaning the dishes? I think labor in those markets will tend to go away. The analogy I give is the car industry of the 1900s. When cars were first being produced, they were all handmade. The carriages were stitched, and we had all this labor. That labor that makes the cars has gone away, but the labor has gone into quality checking, managing the equipment, making sure the factories are optimized and run efficiently. And now it's robots doing all the dangerous and hard tasks throughout that process.

I don't see a full 100% robotic-run environment for any brand. I still see a couple humans there. And the question is, “What's their job and what's their role?” It's certainly on the quality and the customer experience. And then you have robots doing all of the rote work.

In five years, it's not a robot greeting me and taking me to a table and saying, "Hi. Would you like a sparkling water or still water?" There's still some human there that's on the front end.

What about where we get our food? Do you think things such as 3D printing or any other technologies could gain popularity?
I do think there are a lot of technologies that are going to upend where our food comes from. The first one is our ability to take what the natural world is doing and convert it into a product that we know and love. 

Obviously, plant-based foods that simulate meat are a thing. Burger King and all the major chains have now acquiesced in some way and said, "We're going to do it." Taking vegetables and plants and converting them into something that we know and love, like a meat analogue or a meat substitute, is a massive, massive transformation from an eating perspective, but also from a “We have this very unsustainable protein obsession and we've got to satisfy it, and it may not be based on animal products going forward” standpoint. I think that's one thing that we're seeing a big transition to, and it’s already a multibillion-dollar market. 

The next market I see changing is the raw ingredient market. It’s actually becoming very, very interesting from a foodservice and retail perspective.

CPG people were always experimenting with, "How can we create a better ingredient or a better stack to create our food from?" And that's why I go back to Dan Barber (chef-owner of Blue Hill Farms) thinking about plant breeding and breeding plants or products specifically for traits that will benefit a foodservice operator. He bred squash that they're using at Sweetgreen. And he now has a company that's breeding plants that are better for certain functions, depending on what the foodservice operators need.

So imagine a chef, instead of just going to the farmers market, saying, " I need some onions. … I actually want to design a product using biosciences that will fit a specific need I have for texture, taste, quality." 

And I think we actually have to do that. My example of that: If you eat a tomato today, a generic store-bought tomato for a really cheap price, there's not a whole lot of nutritional value left in that tomato. It had been bred for shipping and transport rather than for nutritional quality. I know a lot of chefs that want to go back to the place where we have high nutritional quality in these fruits and vegetables. One of the ways you're going to do that is by thinking about production a little differently. Whether you're doing vertical farming near your facility so you get the freshest product at the highest nutritional quality, or you're actually breeding them so that they retain or get back the nutritional content. So that is also very, very exciting from a supply chain perspective.

Do you think that can become affordable?
I think it has to. I think it's going to be become a requirement. … Otherwise, literally, the industry that's feeding people is going to be killing them consistently, and I don't think we want that. I see a beneficial future where everybody gets involved and says, "I want to stop dosing myself with sugar, salt and fats," and they figure out how to make things tasty and delicious without requiring them. 

And plant breeding is not the only way to do it. I'm not going to reduce the sugar content of a sugar beet or a sweet potato, but I can supplant the sugar in those with other substances that act like sugar. If I'm [a soda company] and I'm trying to make a better beverage, but I want to use less sugar, how do I reformulate or refactor that using all that nature and science can give me? 

I'm not talking about aspartame or chemically derived products that are new and novel. I'm talking about finding things in nature that we can replicate more easily using science. And a good example of that is protein-based sweeteners that don't trigger the glycemic response. And those just aren't very plentiful in the world. They exist in very, very specific fruits, berries and nuts. And how do we extract those and then replicate those things that work in these very novel or interesting ways? 

Do we know yet if there’s a natural way to do that? 
This is the exciting thing. "Natural" is such a loaded term. In some of the cases of these protein-based sweeteners, it comes from a fruit (such as the miracle berry). You bite this fruit, and it coats your tongue, and everything that you taste that is supposed to be sour-tasting isn’t. It basically just tricks your receptors. And this has existed in the world forever. The berry is grown in Africa, and certain African cultures have been using it as a sweetener enhancement for their foods. 

We're just taking this thing that is in small concentrations and grown [in very limited quantities] and expanding production of that. And our belief in the scientific community is there's so many more compounds to discover that exist like that.

How does this reach a wide audience, though?
I had a major nutrition company come to me and say, "I never want one of our scientists to say that I have to climb the high mountains of Himalayas to get some ingredients. That means that we don't have enough of it, and it's not going to be able to be produced reasonably so that we can get it to everybody on the planet." And so, we look for things that have that opportunity of potential. 

We are big proponents of fermentation at our company. …Fermentation is a process using these amazing bacteria creatures, and all you have to do is train them to create something new and novel, and they can eat one substance and spit out another. One of my companies … had [trained the bacteria to] spit out collagen and gelatin. There's another company that's doing it with egg whites. There's another company that's doing it with casein. And the net end product you get, whether it be casein, or egg white proteins, or collagen, it is molecularly identical to the product we get from other ways.

We have to understand the value of these sciences, and we have to leverage them to get the product that we need. And if the collagen that the company produces has been consumed or used for hundreds of thousands of years already, and the thing that we're giving you is molecularly 100% the same exact thing, there is, in my mind, little to no risk of using that exact same product. And it is naturally derived from a natural process we understand.

Now, when you start adding chemicals and you start creating things that didn't exist in the world, that's a different story. And when you get to the definition of GMO, when you're actually splicing in other organisms into an existing organism to get something new, that's a different story. But we now have the sophistication of science. 

Are there any technologies impacting this?
CRISPR is a very interesting science. When you talk about technologies that can have a massive impact on the world, CRISPR is going to have a massive impact not only on the world of food, but the world in general. CRISPR is what's called a DNA scissor. Basically, you're looking for parts of a DNA that you can snip out to retard or enhance certain features of a product. And we actually have the first CRISPR-derived product now on the food market. It's an apple, and it browns less. Basically, if you're a foodservice provider and you can hold your apples cut longer for your operation, that's a huge benefit, right?

We're starting to see all these amazing scientific and technological breakthroughs that have an impact on the world. And I think there's a dogmatic approach to the food world right now that is not productive to moving the food world forward and having a good discussion around what should and should not be allowed.

What do you think needs to change?
When you look at our corn and soy industry, there's a lot of genetic modification that's already happened. So unless you're literally cutting out corn and soy from your diet, you're still going to eat something that's been genetically modified, and it's just a fact.

I'm not trying to say it's good or bad. I'm just saying that's the facts. … I also think we should allow innovation to happen to explore. And I think if we don't, then 30 years from now, when we do have major food shortages and we're capped out of land resources, everybody's going to be looking around for a massive solution immediately. And I'd rather start developing that now and give ourselves the opportunity to develop a solution than to really put ourselves in a bind 20 or 30 years from now when we have 10 billion people on the planet. We have that problem solved.

We also need to up-level traditional agricultural practices and make them more efficient, make them cost less. Organic is a tax on the farmers and a tax on the consumer. It costs a lot for a farmer to move organic, but people want it. And so you have to negotiate that world too, and I think that has to get better just as much as we have to allow science to develop new opportunities for us to make more food, and better food.

We're starting to see all these amazing scientific and technological breakthroughs that have an impact on the world.

I imagine this would have an impact on waste, but what about nutrition? I would assume if we're making food that's better, people down the line will eat better.
That's my hope. That's why I think we have to spend more time looking at the composition of food. I'll go back to plant-based foods, because I think that's a hot trend right now. What we get from a cow or from a pig or from a chicken is kind of fixed by what nature allowed that process to take. And obviously we've already done a lot to pigs, chickens and cows to kind of design them the way that we want them to come out. But at the end of the day, you're left with a fat content, a protein content, a macro nutrient content that is pretty much fixed within a certain range for those products.

If you want to get something different, then you actually have to think different. You have to ask differently. That's why the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are really interesting—it's not just one product. It's a platform that you can continually iterate, whereas it's very, very hard to iterate on a cow. Team Impossible built a burger that tastes good, tastes as close to beef as they can get it right now today, and they'll keep improving it, and they're making a sustainability argument that making what they make is cheaper [in terms of] the amount of land and resources that are being used.

Now, everybody will come back and go, "But your burger isn't healthier than a burger." And I think what Pat (Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods) generally says is, "Well, if you're going to eat a burger for its health reasons, you're doing health wrong." He has had tens, if not hundreds, of iterations of the burger before they released what they eventually released, and they're continually experimenting to get to the next version that is healthier, that reduces sodium, that reduces fat. And he does all the right things with that.

So what do products like this look like in the future?
I think the products that we're going to be providing in the future will be a platform for us to deliver optimal nutrition. Now, this gets me into another big area of the future for me, which is not only should it be a platform that can provide the nutrition that people need, but it should also be customized for each individual consumer. 

I think in the institutional kitchen, they have to think a lot about, "I've got all these diabetics. I've got all these people that have these specific diseases that we have to treat." So it can be a great medicine or help in helping relieve some specific issues. And obviously, we have to get out of a pattern of heart disease and diabetes in general, and so finding a contributor to getting people over that is huge. 

So when I'm walking into a Burger King or McDonald's in the future, I really hope that they're thinking about, "Hey, Brian, not only do you need to have an Impossible Burger because you want to save the planet, and think it is better for you because it includes plants, but we also want to give you these added nutritional elements on top of it, like a piece of kale, because that's better for your body, specifically." 

How much of that is on the consumer?
One of my friends just started using a continuous glucose monitor, and they're watching what they eat and tracking their blood sugar against that. Previously, this has been only available to diabetics. But there could be someday where everybody has an Apple Watch that does the glucose monitoring on their wrist. So how do the foodservice guys, and the retail guys and institutional kitchens take advantage of that knowledge? 

How far out is that, that people have so much more knowledge about their own nutritional needs?
I think it's very, very close. And I think that people are also subscribing to what I call these food communities or food tribes. People are already self-selecting, saying, "I'm paleo, I'm keto, I'm gluten-free," and things like that. And now all that just has to be captured.

There is a company that does it specifically for some of the retailers. It builds a front end so someone can build a customized retail experience online, and once the retailer knows that, of course they're going to want to try and sell you more product and speak to that specific food tribe. And when they have special products or special incentives in that category, they'll know who to go to, which, for most retailers and foodservice operators, has been a black box. 

McDonald's recently bought a menu personalization company to do just that. I think we're starting to see a first-generation technology take hold both in restaurant and retail. And, like I said, I think it's already been there in some way in the institutional kitchens, because they have to think more discretely about who they're servicing. That's going to start to become a platform for people to do a lot of innovation on top of.

What do all of these changes look like together, in practice, to alter the business?
I think that life sciences and biotechnology as a whole category, and (former Google CEO) Eric Schmidt said this, it's like the internet. It's going to be as big or bigger than the internet. [That’s because] once you understand how you can create products and improve products using biosciences, it's going to unlock a huge opportunity for people to design things that meet specific consumer's, or individual's or company's needs. We’re just at the very, very early stages of that. There are a bunch of people experimenting with that in the foodservice world.


This whole eating for what we individually need, the personalized nutrition, [will have an impact]. But more broadly, how do we understand and collect information about consumers such that the brands and the operators can have that information themselves so they can make better decisions about who they reach out to? So I think customer engagement, direct consumer, as well as more discreteness. Loyalty in marketing will also go along with that. I think the days of putting coupons in flyers and sending them out to people is over.

So what does the foodservice operation of the future look like?
I don't think that there's one concept to rule them all. … I promote a lot of omnichannel food. It's funny. The retail industry in traditional retail has been doing this for years: Someone either wants to go into your store and pick up a product and handle [it], or they want to go online and never actually see it and just have it show up. Or they want to buy it at a local store because they need it sooner and they need it to show up today.

I think that the food guys are starting to realize this. Like: "Look. I just need to meet the consumers where they're at. I can't have them always coming in. And so I need to figure out how to layer all these different types of services in an overall offering."

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