The Future of Food Preparation

Tech to ease operations and errors is on the way.
Photograph by Clint Blowers

The rise of innovation in restaurant technology has dramatically changed the way the future is being defined in all corners of the industry, including the way food will be handled and prepared. It’s not all about robotics replacing humans (although that is evolving into more of a reality every day). More broadly speaking, it’s about how food can be prepared in such a way that it’s as fresh and as clean as possible. From sustainable indoor farming to food safety training solutions that remove the element of human error, food prep over the next few years may see even more technologies deployed on a large scale.

Food safety gets smarter

Remember Google Glass, Google’s ill-fated attempt to sell computer-enabled eyeglasses to mass consumer audiences? That project may have failed as a consumer product, but it is still very much alive and well as the Glass Enterprise Edition, a product sold to businesses across a number of industries—including foodservice.

Tom Chestnut, senior vice president of the global food division for NSF International, Ann Arbor, Mich., oversees a team that conducts hundreds of thousands of food safety audits across the foodservice industry on an annual basis. In 2014, he initiated conversations with Mountain View, Calif.-based Google about the potential of using the Glass product as a remote training tool for the industry. At first, Chestnut envisioned that instead of sending food safety auditors around the globe, NSF International would be able to send out pairs of Google Glass to foodservice managers and walk them through the auditing procedures remotely.

Fast forward to today, and the scope of the potential applications of this technology has since expanded. It’s currently being piloted as a food safety training tool with a major franchised restaurant chain, and it could eventually make its way into kitchens across the country. “In food safety, it’s all about, ‘What if we had the ability to correct human error?’” Chestnut says. “If you look at the recalls that occur today—foodborne illnesses, somebody didn't wash their hands correctly, somebody didn't put gloves on before they were preparing food, someone put the wrong ingredient in and there was an allergen and it caused a recall—I mean, where we're ultimately going with the technology over the course of the next 12 months is to have that ability to detect human error in real time. If an employee is wearing the device, going step by step through food preparation, and the glasses detect a deviation, it will correct them in real time.”

The University of Arkansas Department of Food Science recently conducted a study with Google Glass and NSF International’s training software and found that, on average, participants who used the eyeglasses were able to learn and execute proper food handling techniques in half the amount of time as those who were trained with traditional videos. Plus, there’s no variance in the training, as opposed to having a manager walk each new employee through proper food handling techniques.

Google just released an updated version of the Glass Enterprise Edition, and Chestnut says that his team will now be able to start piloting the technology with more restaurants and prepare for a wider release in the near future. Typically, a restaurant chain uses two pairs of Google Glass per location, and there are two pricing models for the device. The hardware itself ranges in cost from $1,200 to $1,400 and can be bought upfront, plus there’s a monthly subscription fee to use the software. Or operators can sign up for a two-year contract in which the fees are broken down and charged monthly over that time frame.

Robotics as a service

It’s hard to hit a trade-show floor these days without seeing some kind of robotic invention promising to reduce labor costs and streamline operations. But the field, for the most part, has always felt experimental and expensive.

Seattle-based robotics company Picnic is aiming to change that by piloting a technology that automates assembled food preparation tailored to fit an individual operator’s business. In the future, this will mean automating any type of food made via an assembly line. The company is first focused on getting pizza prep right. The technology is up and running with a few pilot partners, including Zaucer Pizza in Seattle and the Seattle Mariners’ T-Mobile Park baseball stadium, says Picnic CEO Clayton Wood.

A key component of this robotics solution is its ability to be outfitted for a wide range of ingredients and pie customization requests. “Right now, every pizza is custom—size, shape and toppings,” Wood says. “It's not mass production. It’s really mass customization.” Wood declined to share how much the technology costs, but specified that the company does not charge any upfront fees for installation. Instead, a prospective client signs a contract that stipulates a monthly subscription fee. In this model, owners and operators get continuous access to software and hardware upgrades over time, and Picnic avoids asking for a steep capital investment right off the bat. “Our business model is what we call ‘robotics as a service,’ ” Wood says. He expects that the contracts will range from three to five years in length.

With the pilot programs, Picnic delivers not just lower labor costs but also a much higher rate of consistency in the food that is prepared, which Wood says is the unexpected main benefit to operators so far.

Picnic is made to fit with a variety of operators, but Wood says “the strongest economic case” for the company’s technology is the “ghost kitchen,” or the virtual kitchen, where delivery production demands are extremely high. “Operators are in enough pain that they’re really eager for new solutions, and I think the automation industry has been slow to provide solutions,” Wood says. “Very few companies are actually daring to handle food because it’s hard, and we expect that to continue to be hard. But I think the market really wants more solutions that help them with their problems.”

In-house growing becomes a reality

It’s no secret that diners are increasingly interested in tracing the supply chain of the food that ends up on their plate, whether it’s a slab of wagyu beef or a crisp pile of little gem lettuce. But what if that supply chain was so short that guests could have a front-row seat to the entire life cycle of their food? That’s the idea behind indoor vertical farms, which use technology to foolproof the growing process for a wide variety of leafy greens and herbs that a chef might not otherwise have access to in their freshest form. While vertical indoor farms have been around for a few years, they are starting to gain ground not just with chefs at fine-dining restaurants but also multiunit chains and corporate foodservice accounts.

Jean-Paul Kyrillos, co-founder and chief revenue officer of one such technology, Farmshelf, says that the bookshelf-sized indoor farms have been a hit with kitchen staff and customers alike. It’s a visual representation to customers that the foodservice operation is sourcing the freshest ingredients possible, and it opens up the possibility for chefs to grow herbs and small greens that they can’t source elsewhere. A single Farmshelf unit costs $8,250 plus a monthly subscription fee of $125 to cover the cost of seeds and the remote monitoring service that the company provides to support the plants as they grow.

Chef Jose Andres has indoor farm units installed in his new food hall in New York City, Mercado Little Spain. Andres uses them in part to harvest viola, a delicate flowering herb that doesn’t travel well and normally cannot be grown year-round. Fellow well-known chef Marcus Samuelsson installed units at Red Rooster, his restaurant in Harlem, and grows and harvests tangerine gem, or Mexican marigold, which shows up in both cocktails and crudo. Better-for-you pizza chain Oath Pizza uses a unit to grow all of the basil used in one of the chain’s New York City locations.

It's not just the ability to have greens grown in-house that’s resonating with different types of foodservice operations, it’s also the access to lesser-known ingredients. Through vertical farms and groups such as Crop Trust, the international organization that protects and cultivates the Global Seed Vault, restaurants have access to unique produce as these groups look to promote crop diversity by sourcing unfamiliar seed varieties. Fast-casual chain Tender Greens is one such customer; in its vertical farm, the company grows amaranth, a leafy green that isn’t widely known as an edible plant. “We’re trying to get people to recognize that there are other foods out there,” Kyrillos says. “It’s kind of like trying to find [the next kale]. What else have we forgotten about?”

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