Good Food, Trickling Down

  Dishes that promote more sustainable food systems:  (clockwise from upper left) Bone marrow & parsley salad, St. John; beet infused asian carp, Miya’s; carrot tartare, Eleven Madison Park; rotation risotto, Blue Hill.

Dishes that promote more sustainable food systems: (clockwise from upper left) Bone marrow & parsley salad, St. John; beet infused asian carp, Miya’s; carrot tartare, Eleven Madison Park; rotation risotto, Blue Hill.

In the recent history of fine dining, there have been a handful of notable dishes that transcend the table and make a statement about how our food system should operate. To name a few: 

  • Nose-to-Tail, Circa 1994: Chef Fergus Henderson, of St. John in London, opens his restaurant and becomes a vocal proponent of nose-to-tail eating. He turns bone marrow into a luxury dish and delights farmers and butchers everywhere by getting the public to celebrate more parts of the animal, reducing food waste and bringing additional income to those who make meat.
  • Invasavorism, c.2010: Chef Bun Lai, of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, starts serving invasive species — like Lionfish, Asian Carp, and Knotweed — on his menu as a way to use aquatic bycatch and to strengthen the local food system. 
  • Plant “Proteins”, c.2012: Chef Daniel Humm, of Eleven Madison Park in New York City, mesmerizes diners with a beef-tartare-inspired dish entirely made from carrots. The dish is served tableside with your server grinding whole carrots through a meat grinder. 
  • Rotational Dining, c.2013: Chef Dan Barber, of Blue Hill in New York, creates his seminal, “Rotation Risotto” dish. A mix of “soil-supporting grains and legumes, cooked and presented in the manner of a classic risotto,” it’s a delicious plate that reinforces rotational agriculture that’s better for the soil.

All of these chefs have used their platforms as restaurateurs and influencers to promote mindful deliciousness. For those lucky enough to have been to these restaurants, the ability to dine on something so pleasurable while supporting sustainability to a degree feels like you’re getting away with something. 

But we (eaters, cooks, farmers, food makers, food media, etc.) can’t let the kind of food you see at those restaurants start and end there. For every cupcake, avocado toast, or cronut that catches on like wildfire, we need more dishes that feature offal, bycatch, plant based foods, and rotation crops to also dominate menus everywhere. 

The above examples are dishes that only a tiny fraction of the world can experience and in their current form, may never scale beyond the small group it was designed for. It’s great that these chefs have a media platform to talk about the ideas underlying these dishes, but the food system by-and-large doesn’t feed people like this. Outside of the major metro areas, there are many who have never heard of these guys. 

So how might we democratize the most high-minded food ideals practiced in Michelin starred kitchens so that everyone can have them? I’m not talking about lobes of foie gras topped with quenelles of caviar, but dishes like Rotation Risotto, which promotes rotational agriculture and biodiversity.  

How do we get someone like General Mills to put Rotation Risotto in every Wal-Mart? How do we get Tyson to make offal a billion dollar consumer product? How do we get Red Lobster to serve bycatch? How do we get McDonald’s to put a veggie burger on the menu in America?

We at the Future Market explored this question with our Crop Crisp prototype product. With Crop Crisps, a mass-market cracker was made in four flavors where each flavor was based on a crop in a four-crop wheat rotation.

Crop Crisps are the CPG version of the Rotation Risotto, in cracker form. While our limited edition run was handmade in Brooklyn, the design of the box suggests that it was a mass produced product similar to what’d you see in a Wal-Mart or Costco. We did this intentionally because we wanted to show what it’d look like when progressive ideas make it into the mainstream, like how a Gucci sweater can eventually trickle down to the Gap.

  Crop Crisps : a Future Market concept product. Each cracker flavor is based on a different crop from the same four-crop rotational planting.

Crop Crisps: a Future Market concept product. Each cracker flavor is based on a different crop from the same four-crop rotational planting.

Great new dishes that have the power to shift the food system will always pop up in places like Blue Hill and Eleven Madison Park. But for the food system to truly shift, we have to move these ideas to the masses.

Everyday eaters can help these dishes make the jump into the mainstream. How? Next time you’re at a butcher shop, ask for an “off” cut of meat. Any butcher worth their salt will eagerly talk you through how to prepare it. Next time you’re eating something with a great story like Rotation Risotto, share the story on your social networks, not just a FOMO-inducing beauty shot. 

It may sound like a series of small actions, but remember that the cupcake, avocado toast, and cronut all caught on after a steadily growing stream of social posts. These trends tend to go viral once an editor at Food & Wine decides to write about why their Instagram feed is covered in avocado toast, but it all starts with the people making noise. 

We as eaters have the power to decide what the next food trends are. Isn’t it time we start promoting more trends that can impact the food system? 

Solving Real Food Problems

  Image Source: By Stansfield PL (Wikimedia Commons) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (   http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0   )], via Wikimedia Commons // Quote:   https://www.wired.com/2013/01/ff-qa-larry-page/

Image Source: By Stansfield PL (Wikimedia Commons) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons // Quote: https://www.wired.com/2013/01/ff-qa-larry-page/

The food sector is a hot. Investors of all stripes are piling capital onto the startups they think will be the next big thing. A small cadre of startups is drawing a large proportion of the funding: Blue Apron’s raised nearly $200M at a $2BN valuation. Impossible Foods raised $183M at an $800M valuation. Juicero raised $86.5M at a $270M valuation. The list goes on.

Some of these high profile startups are solving real problems in our food system. Others are going after opportunities, which don’t always correlate with solving a real food system problem. The problem in food is that there’s a shortage of companies that are looking to solve worthy problems and too many chasing after mere opportunities.

I recognize that parsing a problem versus an opportunity is a question of semantics and where we draw the line between a real problem and less-real problem is highly subjective. So for sake of argument here’s a very abridged list of things that I consider to be real problems in our food system…

Hunger: Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. That’s about one in nine people on earth. [http://bit.ly/2jqXgKL]

Food Waste: Every year, consumers in industrialized countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (222 million vs. 230 million tons) [http://bit.ly/2jqNdFs]

Biodiversity: 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants & 5 animal species. [http://bit.ly/1qeEDMb]

Climate Change: The 10 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2000, with the exception of 1998. The year 2015 ranks as the warmest on record. [http://go.nasa.gov/2jqSUTS]

The above Problems (and many more) represent the “99 percent virgin territory” that Larry Page talks about in tech, except for food. Now contrast the magnitude of the above Problems with some of these problems:

Juicing: There’s a lack of good ways to make cold pressed juices at home from scratch - Solved

Meal Delivery: It’s difficult to get a meal delivered to me in Manhattan in about 20 minutes - Solved.

Hydration: I need my water to make a statement about who I am - Solved

It’s perfectly reasonable and commendable that the latter three companies will go on to be wildly successful and create great jobs for many people. They’re going after good market opportunities. And building a business is tough no matter what, so I’m not going to diminish what they’re doing as being easy or totally superfluous.

But if you’re going to the trouble of building an entire food organization of really smart people working long hours and burning investor capital, shouldn’t there be a moral obligation to make sure you’re pushing the system forward for the sake of planet and people? Food companies leave especially deep footprints and have the power to affect both our health and the planet deeply. That puts food companies on an especially influential plane where they can meaningfully change the well-being of our world while turning a profit. This is the Holy Trinity of what the future of food entrepreneurship is about: improving people, planet, and profit.

The developed world has climbed so high up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that we sometimes forget about the parts of the world where they’re still clinging to the bottom layers of the Heirarchy. What’s more problematic is that so much of the investment capital going into food and food-tech is feeding companies that serve unique 1st world problems. There’s got to be a better way to earn a solid return while serving more noble causes for the planet and society.

 Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: where do the most celebrated food startups sit?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: where do the most celebrated food startups sit?

How might we incentivize more investors and entrepreneurs to go after the more basic, devastating problems like hunger, food waste, climate change, and biodiversity? How do we create a system where climate change startups proliferate at a rate where we’ll gather at food conferences and collectively groan, “oh man, yet another climate change startup?”

I hope we can get to the point where we see as many climate change (or hunger, or food waste, etc.) startups popping up as we see food delivery startups. That’s the day we’ll know the food industry is chasing after as many problems as they are opportunities.

Food Product vs Food Marketing

I stumbled upon an old Steve Jobs interview where he lays out what happens when tech companies — specifically those with monopoly power — adopt a product-first mentality versus a marketing-first mentality. By adopting this kind of approach, he laments, companies eventually lose sight of staying connected to consumer needs.

The interview really hit home for me, because it eloquently encapsulates so much of what I see happening in the food industry today. In fact, Jobs even cites PepsiCo as a prototypical marketing-first company.

The interview excerpt is embedded below, followed by my thoughts on the parallels to what’s happening in the food industry.

"The product sensibility—the product genius—that brought them to the monopolistic position gets rotted out by people running these companies who have no conception of a good product versus a bad product..."

A Lack of Innovation Investment

If big food companies want to survive in the future, they need to completely rethink how they innovate and how much they invest in innovation. Launching funds and incubators is certainly an important part of an innovation strategy, but companies also need to figure out how they can create great products for 21st century consumers. No longer can they succeed by solely milking their legacy products for diminishing shreds of market share with lavish marketing campaigns.

Are the monopoly powers in big food in marketing mode? Absolutely. At PepsiCo, from 2013 to 2015, the company spent 3.1 to 3.6 times more on advertising and other marketing activities than they did on R&D.

 Source:  CB Insights

Source: CB Insights

 

At P&G it’s about 4-5 times more spent on advertising than on product development.

 Source:  CB Insights

Source: CB Insights

 

Compared to other industries, the CPG industry as a whole spends 1.58 percent of revenue on R&D compared to 13.38 percent in tech and 11.15 percent in healthcare. Food is just not investing in its own future via product innovation.

 Source:  CB Insights

Source: CB Insights

 

People Want Better Food, Not Better Marketing

Since the Green Revolution, food production (especially of the packaged variety) has been pretty opaque. Enamored with fast, convenient food, consumers didn’t seem to care enough to ask where things came from.

For decades, big brands really didn’t have to think too hard about the product, vis a vis how wholesome it was, the quality of the ingredients and the integrity and sustainability of the process. R&D was mainly focused on food science to prolong shelf life to unprecedented lengths or dosing a snack’s salt/fat/sugar content to trigger the maximum bliss point in your mouth.

Marketing led the conversation in big food, not product. As Jobs stated, “for PepsiCo, that might have been ok,” especially because of their duopoly over the market. While marketing is a crucial part of the business that won’t ever go away, the future of food means a return to food products taking center stage.

Product Takes the Lead

We’ve entered the age of product-first, marketing-second food. It’s a paradigm shift driven by consumers who now demand better food, and can see right through the bullshit of any disingenuous campaign. Smaller challenger brands, like Back to the Roots, Justin’s and Sweetgreen, are leading with well-crafted, wholesome, sustainable products first and letting that be their marketing focus. Gone are the days of cheap catch phrases or mascots to sell product, it’s the product quality doing the selling now. Digitally powered word of mouth weeds out the subpar, so you really can’t hide behind anything inferior for too long. This shift back to product-first food production is a good thing.

There are some great people doing amazing things at big food companies today, and I’m optimistic that they will help their companies lead the charge for a better food future. Yet, I’m shocked at the number of people I’ve encountered in leadership positions at food companies who treat food like a mere widget on the shelf. Yes, food is a widget, but it’s one that’s inextricably linked to the well being of our planet and society. Maybe selling food as a mere marketing exercise is a good strategy for moving units, but is that really how we want to look at our food system?

In tech companies, the product people are the designers and programmers who have the consumer’s best interest in mind and who craft the products for marketers to sell. These are the people that Steve Jobs championed and raised the bar for the whole industry in Apple’s heyday.

In food companies, we must ensure that food designers, chefs, farmers and dietitians are empowered in the right decision making circles to create food that’s better for people, planet and profit. Intrinsically great food products might mean less work for the marketing department, but certainly more value for the consumer.

The True Cost of Food

“In a startling development, almost unheard of outside a recession, food prices have fallen for nine straight months in the U.S. It’s the longest streak of food deflation since 1960.” reports Bloomberg.

Food prices have never been lower, but food prices are not the same as food costs.

These low prices — not just today, but for the past few decades — obfuscate the true cost of food in terms of the environmental and health impacts they make on our society over time. Negative externalities like fossil fuel consumption, air and water pollution, soil degradation, and poor labor practices are all food costs that aren’t reflected in the price tag.

Without a way to bring the impact of these abstractly large negative externalities down to the human scale, it’s a struggle to viscerally connect the actions of an everyday grocery shopper to these big systems issues.

Take a box of corn cereal for instance: The corn was likely grown in a monoculture sprayed with pesticides that can seep into groundwater, with petroleum based fertilizers that bolster our appetite for fossil fuel. The price of that corn is even cheaper when you consider the heavy government subsidies to promote corn production.

The prices are low because this way of farming yields a lot. But at what broader cost to the ecosystem and society does this maniacal focus on yield create? What’s the aggregate cost of global warming caused by fossil fuel based transport and production methods? What’s the aggregate cost of water purification needed to remediate the effects of pesticide ridden runoff? What’s the aggregate cost on healthcare from making junk food insanely cheaper than real food?

How might we better represent the impact of buying a particular food product on the food system?

What if we could represent this on the label so everyday consumers could easily understand the cost of their food beyond what the cash they shell out at the checkout? Might it look like this?…

The True Cost of a box of Corn Cereal. How might we account for the environmental impacts of monoculture food products?

Or like this...

The True Health Cost of a Soda. How might we account for the full health impact of a daily soda habit?

We humans are hard-wired to overemphasize short term effects over long term ones. When we smoke, we don’t think about the lung cancer, we think about the relaxation. When we sit on the couch, we think about the tv show, not the weight gain.

Food is no different. We touch food so frequently that it’s sometimes hard to stop and think about these hard issues in each purchase. Our brains would shut down if we had to think about the full impact of the supply chain on a box of cereal each week at the supermarket.

While people are becoming more mindful about the bigger effects of the food they buy, there’s a lot of room to improve on how we boil down the true systems impact of a food to the individual product.

In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act mandated Nutrition Facts labelling, changing the game forever for how we think about buying food. Food and health felt more connected as a result of the nutrition facts label. Looking toward the future, as public health and the environment are increasingly being linked to our food choices, isn’t it time we start to rethink how to represent food’s real impact on our world on the label and the price tag?


Notes: Receipt & Nutrition label stats based on the following.

ACME INDUSTRIES CORN CEREAL

Acme Industries Corn Cereal — $5.29
Monoculture Nitrogen Loss Fee (per 1 ton soil)* — $0.63
Corn Subsidy Refund (25% COGS)** — $0.13
Pesticide Hazard Surcharge (Per US Citizen / 1,000)*** — $0.66
GMO Corn License Fee # 1ZX78211A (Flat Fee) — $2.25
TOTAL — $8.96

*Monoculture Nitrogen Loss: USDA-NRCS studies estimated a loss of 1 kilogram (2.32 pounds) of nitrogen and .45 kilograms (1 pound) of phosphorus for each ton of soil eroded, costing farmers US$.63 and US$.64, respectively, in 2012. (Page 24 — https://foodtank.com/news/2015/11/exclusive-food-tank-event-the-real-cost-of-food/)

**About $13.9 billion of net farm income this year will be federal payments, or about 25 percent of total profit estimated at $54.8 billion, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Farmers Get Biggest Subsidy Check in Decade as Prices Drop — Bloomberg (http://bloom.bg/2hxtshj))

***Endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in pesticides are estimated to cost the European Union €157 billion (US$209 billion) in actual health costs and lost earnings per year, due to their linkages to cancer, birth defects, infertility, and learning disabilities. (Page 11 — https://foodtank.com/news/2015/11/exclusive-food-tank-event-the-real-cost-of-food/)

COLA NUTRITION LABEL

Serving Size: 1 Can

Amount per Serving*
Calories — 140
Total Fat — 0g — 0%
Sodium — 45mg — 2%
Total Carb — 39g — 13%
Sugars — 39g
Protein — 0g

Annual Weight Gain Amount** — 0.25 lb
Diabetes Type II Risk Increase*** — 26%
Heart Attack Risk Factor Increase**** — 20%
Gout Risk Factor Increase***** — 75%

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

** “A 20-year study on 120,000 men and women found that people who increased their sugary drink consumption by one 12-ounce serving per day gained more weight over time — on average, an extra pound every 4 years — than people who did not change their intake.” [Sugary Drinks and Obesity Fact Sheet | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health](https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sugary-drinks-fact-sheet/)

*** “People who consume sugary drinks regularly — 1 to 2 cans a day or more — have a 26% greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who rarely have such drinks.” [Sugary Drinks and Obesity Fact Sheet | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health](https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sugary-drinks-fact-sheet/)

**** “A study that followed 40,000 men for two decades found that those who averaged one can of a sugary beverage per day had a 20% higher risk of having a heart attack or dying from a heart attack than men who rarely consumed sugary drinks. A related study in women found a similar sugary beverage–heart disease link.” [Sugary Drinks and Obesity Fact Sheet | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health](https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sugary-drinks-fact-sheet/)

***** “A 22-year study of 80,000 women found that those who consumed a can a day of sugary drink had a 75% higher risk of gout than women who rarely had such drinks. Researchers found a similarly-elevated risk in men.” [Sugary Drinks and Obesity Fact Sheet | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health](https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sugary-drinks-fact-sheet/)

Cooking Jazz, Not Classical

 

Lowering the barriers of cooking, so more people can connect deeply with the food system.

Last week we extolled the virtues of cooking and how it's the link between everyday action and massive food systems change. In a nutshell, cooking brings us closer to the food system like no other thing can and it makes us all informed, vested partners in a better food future. 

But the way we teach mainstream America to cook is broken. It's a recipe driven system, which prioritizes rote memorization over intelligent kitchen improvisation. It forces us to fit rigidly into a script, instead of staying flexible to the idiosyncrasies of our daily lives and pantries.

If we are to improve the food system through cooking, we need to lower the barriers to cooking and change the way we teach people how to make food.

A few years ago I wrote a piece on my supperclub's blog about this very topic, which I'm re-posting below. It still encapsulates the way I look at cooking and I hope it can sway some of you away from the tyranny of the recipe and onto the freedom of gaining food instincts. I think it's a way of looking at food that can get more people cooking regularly.

With all the ways to push a button and make food appear at our doorsteps, we need more ways to lower the barriers to cooking for everyday people. Here it is, Cooking Jazz, Not Classical...

Over the years we’ve cooked a lot of recipes. Some have called for a battalion of ingredients and some have even begged for certain items to measured within a tenth of a gram. Taken literally, a recipe inherently calls for some semblance of perfection in the kitchen–you have all the ingredients, all the equipment, all the spices, etc.–and depending on whose recipe you’re reading, deviating from the script can be hazardous.

This sort of cooking is fine and well for the situation that calls for it, but more often than not in our lives, we cook in a much looser format. Life isn’t perfect, we aren’t perfect, so why live under the engineered construct of cooking by the recipe, where the ante is usually some level of perfection that most kitchens don’t have?

And while I learned to cook to some extent by following recipes, what stuck with me has not always been the exact composition of a recipe, but the underlying structure that most good recipes follow. The simplest example is pasta. Why do we need 100s of Pasta Primavera recipes? Why do we need 100s of separate units of information to tell us how to make different versions of the same dish structure?

The formula for Pasta Primavera is: 1) Pasta, 2) Vegetable, 3) Meat, if you wish. Why don’t we just tell people the basic structure of Pasta Primavera, tell them the characteristics of each element in the structure (e.g., Pasta: any long pasta works great, don’t use stuffed pastas; Vegetables: sturdy green veggies work best, don’t use potatoes…) and implore them to find the combinations that they like?

I believe that if you pay attention to how a dish is structured, rather than cooking each variation of it one by one in a recipe, you can have a much more fulfilling experience in the kitchen. You will gain intelligence about cooking, not just knowledge, and you will be more adept in the kitchen as a result.

A recipe is written like classical music–you follow the score, and note-by-note on the page, you create music. What I’m proposing is that we all start thinking of cooking more like Jazz–learn the basic scales and the right chords, then go off and jam out.

The Jazz approach brings cooking back down to Earth, embracing our culinary imperfections and whims, not making us feel bad that we don’t fit the rules dictated by a recipe. If we can teach people to become better improvisers in the kitchen, we can lower the barriers to cooking at home, and hopefully create new a new habit for the average American. I believe that we are smarter than the caricatures of chefs (professional and otherwise) that we see on the Food Network, and that we can teach people how to be intelligent in the kitchen, not simply follow orders.
bossam.png
Which brings me to an example that's near and dear to us at Studiofeast. Here is a structure for Bo Ssam, that carnivorous Korean classic that has sat at the center of many a dinner party for us. In the image, the key elements of a Bo Ssam are unpacked, but we try to give guidelines rather than instructions on how to create your own. It’s an imperfect, initial attempt, but I want to see if it makes sense to people and if it can be the first step toward getting people to approach cooking a different way. This is the start, and it will evolve.

Go on, download the Bo Ssam Framework here and try it on your own. Let us know on Twitter how you did.

Cooking the Food System We Want

The Future of Food depends on our society’s ability and will to cook. Doing so rewards us in the short term with nourishment, and in the long term leads to us becoming a more informed and engaged food public. 

If we as a society want to advocate for a certain type of food system, we can’t get there by ceding the knowledge gained through cooking to the packaged food companies and chefs who we’ve outsourced our diets to. To engage with the food system at large, we need to cook.   

There are few things in life that we consume that we can also create with relative ease. We consume music, but how many of us are songwriters? We consume apps, but how many of us can code? The learning curve for assembling a home cooked meal is comparatively low, yet the rewards of knowledge over time are incredibly high. 

In my early teens, one of the first things I learned how to cook was pasta. At the time, I didn’t have an opinion on any food issues and so I just cooked whatever my parents had bought at the grocery store: run of the mill dried pasta, jars of pre-made sauce. 

Once I got the hang of cooking pasta, I started to form opinions on how it should taste and the ingredients I was cooking no longer satisfied me. I started asking for better pasta. I learned about San Marzano tomatoes. I learned the value of good olive oil. Pretty soon, I was teaching myself to make pasta from scratch, which led me to demand better flour and better eggs. I made the sauce myself from well-grown tomatoes. This went on and on for not just pasta, but just about everything I learned how to cook. 

Cooking makes people understand the cause and effect of using this ingredient over that one. It helps them form a point of view and even if you start cooking with suspect ingredients, over time people’s tastes typically improve and you graduate to better stuff. If nothing else, you can become more mindful about what you’re using and its impact on you and the world. 

Consumers have led a massive shift in the kinds of foods that powerful companies produce. Organic, local, non-GMO are slowly becoming less and less niche and more mainstream. None of this would’ve happened without an engaged, opinionated consumer base, and cooking is the best way to fuel that engagement. 

Ask someone who doesn’t paint if they have an opinion on what paints to use. They probably don’t. The same goes for food. How can you really understand the difference between organic and non-organic tomatoes if you’ve never cooked with them? 

Sure, we could avoid cooking and just read about the benefits of one ingredient over another, but why leave yourself at the hands of the media on something that’s as personal as your own diet? It’s our duty as responsible food citizens to interact first hand with our food as our primary method of learning about the system. 

The food system is huge and its easy to feel like we are at its mercy. Issues like food waste, agricultural practices, and climate change can feel out of the sphere of our influence. But we all impact these issues daily with the food we eat. And while we can’t change the system alone overnight, we can create the food system we want to see in world within a realm that all of us have control over: our kitchens. 

Big Food: A Platform for Small Food?

“There were more than 165 exits of private CPG companies in 2015, a sharp increase over 2011, when there were less than 50 CPG exits.” - CB Insights

Big Food is on a tear, acquiring smaller, craft brands at a quickening pace. It’s a seemingly sensible strategy aimed to counteract the $18bn of market share that the top 25 US food and beverage companies have lost since 2009

If the acquisition trend continues to be an important growth driver of growth for big food, does big food eventually become a mere infrastructure platform for small brands?  Can big food justify the risk of cultivating new brands that connect with the modern consumer when they can simply buy the best small and mid sized companies? 

Big Buys Small

From a smaller brand point of view, one of the biggest reasons to get acquired (aside from the cash) is to tap into the enormous production, distribution, and marketing infrastructure that a big company can offer. Margins improve through more efficient production and sourcing, products can easily slip into existing distribution routes, and the brand gets access to a pool of creative agency and media resources from the mother ship. 

On the other hand, the big brand pays a premium, but gets a vetted brand that’s earned trust from a progressive consumer base, and mostly avoids the messy, expensive process of trying to start a new brand from scratch. 

The big plays to its strengths (infrastructure) while the small does the same (consumer trust, product innovation).  

Big Food: The AWS of Food Products

But what if in the future, big food companies simply existed to act as infrastructure for smaller brands? In tech, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the de facto server standard for smaller companies to quickly get going and scale up. You’d be crazy to try and manage all your own server infrastructure as a startup, because it's just so easy to build your business on AWS. 

In the food startup world, we have incubator kitchens and co-packers—this is how small food brands typically get going. But the landscape of these resources are fragmented and don’t typically scale that easily. It’s a byzantine process for sure. 

How might a big brand set up a gateway for smaller brands to tap into the infrastructure that it has to offer without the big brand investing or acquiring the smaller brand? Is there an easier way for smaller brands to tap into the production resources of a bigger company? 

If larger companies’ resources could become much more user friendly and accessible in the same way resources like Hot Bread Kitchen or the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, the barriers to entry for smaller food brands would continue to lower. Lower barriers to entry, more ideas make it to market, more consumer choice, better products for everyone. 

We are certainly seeing a shift in the power dynamics of food today. Small food is becoming the next big food. Big food might not be at the point of existential crisis, but there are certainly signs that suggest they’re nearing that point.

If I were a big company with idle capacity and a slow product innovation pipeline, opening up my factory doors to smaller brands with an original product and consumer base might seem like a solid growth plan for the future. 

For smaller brands, it’d be a boon to be able to access production in a more fluid, scalable manner. While this isn’t a silver bullet to producing a better food future, it does let more people access the market more easily with progressive food brands. Consumers are demanding better, more health/planet conscious products and if we can allow all food entrepreneurs to rise, there will be more brands to choose from that create food for people, planet, and profit. 

The Next Four Years of Food Policy

trumpmcdonalds.png

Policy sets the framework for the Future of Food. And after an unprecedented week in American politics, it behooves us to re-examine how this new era will impact our food system. 

It was an unfortunate reality that food issues received little to no discussion over the 18+ month election. But with so much radical change happening in Washington, we in the food community must remain vigilant to the issues that will help us build a more equitable and sustainable food system. 

We must stay awake and arm ourselves with information, carry on a vibrant discourse, and ensure our elected officials support food policy that is not just good for business, but good for our health and environment. 

Here’s a round-up of some of the biggest policy issues and how they may be impacted in our new presidential administration. Read, question, and act. 

General Policy

Agriculture

  • 7 Ways Trump and Congress Will Shake Up Agriculture Policy
    Trump, during his first two years in the White House, will face the task of making good on commitments he made to the voters who put him in office, especially residents of rural America. 
    [7 Ways Trump and Congress Will Shake Up Agriculture Policy - News | Agweb.com]

Restaurants

Regulation

School Lunch

  • How Hungry Kids Will Fare Under Trump
    President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress will likely walk back most of the progress made on school food and nutrition programs in recent years.
    [How Hungry Kids Will Fare Under Trump | Civil Eats]

The Trump Administration

  • Donald Trump Is Picking His Cabinet
    Here’s a Short List
    [Donald Trump Is Picking His Cabinet: Here’s a Short List - The New York Times]
     
  • Trump’s Head Food Guy Delivers for Little Caesars on the Side
    It’s like Michael Torrey was sent from central casting.
    [Trump’s Head Food Guy Delivers for Little Caesars on the Side | Mother Jones]
     
  • Let Them Eat Cake
    As he prepares to take power, Donald Trump’s point man for food issues is a veteran Big Soda lobbyist
    [Election 2016: Donald Trump’s transition point man for food issues is veteran Big Soda lobbyist Michael K. Torrey — Quartz]

 

The Future of Food is Everything

There’s a trend in the Future of Food discourse, where a single thing, like Soylent, is touted as THE Future of Food. Case in point: 

I get it, a strong, simple declarative headline grabs attention and clicks. No one wants to click on a headline like this...

“The Future Of Food Is A Diverse, Plant-based Diet, Produced By A Local, Organic, Crop-rotating, Agricultural System Paying Workers A Fair Wage Under Safe Working Conditions, And Possibly Delivered By A Mobile-app Centric Distribution Platform, But Sometimes Purchased At Your Local Farmers Market" 

...even though we as a society should be clicking on things like that. Nuance doesn’t play well in media, food media included. 

But the thing that bothers me more is the idea that one, or just a few things, can represent something as broad as the Future of Food. I can’t tell you how many times in conversation at an industry event, on a panel, or Q&A session I’ve been asked something like “is [blank] the future of food?” 

Soylent seemed to fill in that blank a disproportionately large amount of times. I usually answer that dystopian inquiry about Soylent like this: 

Soylent was made for a certain persona: the kind of person who’s so focused on something, that they don’t have the mental capacity to think about what to eat. Soylent fills that discrete need and as long as we have highly productive people in our society, something like Soylent probably has a market. But the idea that our whole society will stop eating real food is ridiculous and alarmist. The future has room for all kinds of food products, and just because someone is chugging Soylent, doesn’t mean you should worry about the end of restaurants or farms or food. Next question. 

I know I’m taking these headlines very literally, but we need to get out of this mindset that just one or a few things can save ourselves and our food system. During the Green Revolution, someone probably said, “The Future of Food is Corn,” and thus our monoculture ag system and corn addiction was born. 

We need to change the Future of Food conversation to embrace a more diverse basket of ideas and solutions working together. 

Cultures meat grabs a lot of these headlines too, and you can answer the, "Is cultured meat the future of food?" question similarly to the Soylent question. While cultured meat might not play well in a high end steakhouse,  it might be a great replacement for foods that use lots of dirty factory farmed meat. And in other cases, plant based "meats" might be the best option, or simply eating roasted carrots might be best. 

We shouldn't be putting all of our faith on any one thing if we want a food system that's more resilient to danger and able to feed everyone in the most  environmentally sustainable way as possible. 

So what is the future of food? It should be a little bit of everything. But it's also having the ability to look at the bigger picture and realize that reductive conclusions are certainly not part of a better food future.

More Ambitious Visions of the Future

 Cooper & Kirk

Cooper & Kirk

In 1973, Martin Cooper was the head of Motorola's communications systems division. At Motorola, he was one of the earliest innovators to question the notion that communication meant being tied to a desk with a corded phone. Cooper was also an avid Star Trek fan who reveled in the futuristic visions of that sci-fi classic. 

For him, solving problems at Motorola by day and dreaming about science fiction by night were simply different expressions of the same activity. In fact, he attributes the sight of Captain Kirk speaking on his wireless communicator as a key inspiration to his greatest invention: the cell phone. 

The cell phone happened in part because Cooper was thinking ambitiously about the future, but was able to turn it into action for today. The 50-year vision he saw in Star Trek led to his 5-year vision of creating the elements that would lead us to the first mobile phone. 

Was it inevitable that society would eventually figure out how to create the cell phone? Or did Star Trek’s popularity inspire engineers to the point that we created the cell phone much earlier than we would have without the show? However it happened with Cooper and Star Trek, there’s a valuable lesson we can learn about why we should seek out and embrace incredibly ambitious visions of the future to improve what we’re creating today.

Breakthrough innovations are like bonfires, but so often the realities of today’s business environment extinguish the smaller fires you need to start that lead to the big flame. The problem is, most businesses are set up to overvalue short term gains and undervalue potential long term value. This creates an environment where incrementally innovative projects—the small fires—get attention above all else. 

Cooper-&-Kirk2.png

But what Cooper did was see the bonfire first (Star Trek), then reverse engineer the smaller fires needed to get to the big one. The order in which you think about long and short-term timeframes matters to the outcome. You get a very different innovation outcome if you think long term first (What’s my 50 year vision?…) and short term second (…what needs to happen in the next 5 years for my 50 year vision to come true?) rather than the other way around. 

On Star Trek, a future reality was shown where one of the most core assumptions of the day regarding telecommunications was eliminated: the cords. If Cooper continued to hold on to the cord as a key assumption, he would’ve never had to figure out how to amplify a wireless signal, miniaturize the circuitry, or develop a more portable battery. The 50 year vision he saw of cordless communication, paved the way for his family 5 year plan to work on the smaller innovations—antennae, miniature circuits, portable batteries—that would get him there. 

I’ll always advocate for food innovators to draw inspiration from things like science fiction to help build a better future of food. Like Cooper’s vision of a cordless communication future, what infrastructure in the food system might make the most impact if we rethought or replaced them? Eradicating CAFOs? Getting rid of traditional supermarkets? Rethinking farming subsidies? 

What infrastructure would want to see reinvented? 

Open Sourcing Food Entrepreneurship

In nature, the more species there are in a system, the more diverse and strong that system becomes. The system evolves with diversity, as preferred gene variants improve species and the system as a whole. Conversely, problems happen when the system becomes too concentrated and a monoculture forms. The system becomes one-dimensional and is susceptible to disease and other threats

What If The Food Industry Ended Monoculture Farming?

Since 1974, the average number of items in a grocery store has increased from 9,000 to almost 44,000 today1. However, 75 percent of the world’s food is currently generated from only 12 plants & 5 animal species2. So while the product range has grown wider, the range of crops grown to produce those products has become more narrow over the last 40+ years. This is a food system dominated by monoculture.

Food Innovation for Today and Tomorrow

As food innovators, we must remember that there are many flavors of innovation and they each serve a strategic purpose based on the needs of the customer and business. Incremental innovations support and extend existing product lines with new features or by serving adjacent customer needs. On the other end of the spectrum, breakthrough innovations create entirely new product categories and customers, boldly moving the industry forward. 

The Value of Weak Signals

Knowing how to find and amplify Weak Signals prepare your organization to move with the changing tides—or even shape them—instead of just trying to stay afloat in the midst of them. In fact, Weak Signals are even more important for larger organizations to pay attention to, as they will need more time to steer the ship in the face of upcoming opportunity or danger. Weak Signals are glimpses into the future and when properly examined, can help your company avoid “Blockbuster Moments” and actually thrive in a rapidly changing environment.

Food Needs Design

The future of food needs design. We’re not just talking about aesthetics, we’re talking about staying sensitive to people’s needs as food producers, distributors, cooks and consumers. The future will inevitably bring a bounty of innovations in food technology, and in our world with so much transitioning from atoms to bits, it will become increasingly critical to keep people at the core of design decisions around food.