Technology

Food for Thought From a Futurist

How robotics, the internet of things and plant breeding will shape future food operations
Brian Frank
Photograph by Olivier Balez

Brian Frank is general partner with San Francisco-based FTW Ventures, an investment and advisory group for early-stage food and ag-tech startups.

Sara Rush Wirth: Do you see a change in where our food will come from?

Brian Frank: 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 such as 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?

At the physical locations, at the kitchen, at the restaurants and the retail establishments, we see technology playing a massive role as well. We see the ability to produce products easier and quicker, with higher output through utilizing technology and planning. 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.

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Photograph: Shutterstock

What impact do you think robotics will have on both foodservice and food production?

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.

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?

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. 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 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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