The sixth annual Smart Kitchen Summit concluded last week. And while the pandemic pushed the show online, it was still as exciting and informative as ever.
There was far too much great stuff to fit into one recap post, so instead, the The Spoon team is each offering up their own highlights and trends spotted during the show.
We’ll be posting SKS video highlights over the coming week, and Spoon Plus members will have access to the full session video archive (become a member today!).
In the meantime, here are some of the takeaways from SKS 2020:
MICHAEL WOLF – SPOON FOUNDER
While it wasn’t surprising to hear at SKS 2020 that every part of the food world was significantly impacted by COVID-19, it did surprise me just how much the pandemic catalyzed innovation and action in those building our food future. Whether it’s the acceleration of investment in food platforms or the reinvention of the grocery or the rapid digital transformation of the restaurant business, the ingenuity and hustle built into all parts of the food system was on display everywhere at our annual food tech conference.
Future Food Innovation Is Strong
In 2020, we’ve seen an explosion in new cell-based meat companies, new attention given to the power of fermentation as a highly-scalable future food platform, and the rapid maturation of tools like CRISPR to power future food innovation. All of this was on show at SKS 2020 as leaders from these spaces talked about the challenges of scaling their businesses as the bring them out of the labs and into the marketplace.
The Future is Exciting, But There are Different Views on How to Get There
It became clear on day two at SKS that two of the most visible CEOs in the food tech space has sharply different views on the viability of cell-based meat at an alternative to traditionally produced animal meat. Pat Brown of Impossible made it clear that he felt cultured meat would never be scalable enough, while Josh Tetrick of Eat Just felt it would be a big part of food’s future, but only after 15 years and lots of work. Differing viewpoints on how to build the future are expected in the formative early days of a market, but it’s hard not to take notice of such a big difference on what many see as the future of meat.
Consumer Kitchen Innovation Requires Putting The Consumer First
Whether it was kitchen tech reviewers like Joe Ray or Lisa McManus, authors like Eve Turow-Paul or longtime industry experts like Jane Freiman, it was clear that while consumer food behavior is changing more quickly than ever, changes in home kitchens is more evolution than overnight revolution. New approaches to cooking, shopping and food storage through technology will take if they put the consumer first and are thoughtfully designed to reduce pain-points in our busy lives.
CHRIS ALBRECHT – SPOON EDITOR IN CHIEF
Daisy chaining different robots
The days of food robots existing in silos is numbered. Right now cooking robots, serving robots, delivery robots and cleaning robots all do their own thing with no interaction, but it won’t be long before they all start working together. We talked about this during my panel with Picnic, Bear Robotics and Dishcraft, and the concept was illustrated by Piestro’s partnership with Kiwibot. There are still sticky issues like standards to be worked out, but they will be, especially if there’s money to be made. And soon enough a robotic cook will hand off a meal to a server bot that brings a meal to your table and shuttles empty plates back to the robot dishwasher.
We need a new word for “vending machines”
With companies like Fresh Bowl, Yo-Kai and Chowbotics basically building restaurants in a box, it might be time to ditch the moniker “vending machine.” Founders from both Fresh Bowl and Byte Technologies remarked that they avoid using the term in presentations because it is an immediate turnoff for potential customers. Vending machines are no longer just room temperature racks of pre-packaged snacks, and a new name is needed to reflect that.
Induction is Becoming More Mainstream (in the U.S.)
Did you read that Atlantic piece on why you should “Kill Your Gas Stove?” While cooking with gas may offer precision, evidently it can also offer up a bunch of toxic fumes. Thankfully, electricity-based induction heating is here to save the day. While Europeans have been using induction for a long time, it hasn’t really caught on in the U.S. in a meaningful way. But that seems to be about to change. GE showed off its high-tech induction cooktop at SKS, and it looked pretty amazing. But you’re also seeing induction pop up in smaller form factors like SKS Startup Showcase participant, BonBowl. We could be at a tipping point for induction (and I’m all for it).
JENN MARSTON – SPOON EDITOR
“Wellness” foods will become more accessible.
When Journey Foods’ Riana Lynn said there is an opportunity for food and healthcare to work more in unison, fellow panelist Peter Bodenheimer (Food-X) replied that one way to do that is to make the so-called “wellness” market more accessible. Right now, these foods and technology platforms are “high cost and high concept,” meaning they’re conceptually and financially out of reach for many consumers. Panelists didn’t name specific companies, but two that immediately spring to mind are the delicious-but-expensive frozen meal service Daily Harvest and Viome’s microbiome-based dietary platform. Both could help fight chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes, but we need more investment in such endeavors to help bring their costs down. Even more important, we’ll need more data on what is and isn’t working when it comes to health-centric food tech solutions.
Visualizing cleanliness data is “table stakes” in COVID-era restaurants.
More customers want transparency into the food they order from restaurants, and nowadays, a lot of that transparency is around safety and cleanliness. On a restaurant tech panel, Pathspot founder Christine Schindler said her company has seen a huge uptick in demand for visual cues around cleanliness. Restaurants not only want the Pathspot device, which scans employees’ hands to ensure they’re properly washed, they also want to be able to show customers proof of this. Restaurants are now displaying buttons and stickers that essentially visualize the data a device like Pathspot is collecting (e.g., “2,000 verified hand washes today!”). And as more restaurants opt for the ghost kitchen model, where customers never even see the physical location, it will become even more important for businesses to document their health data, physically and digitally. Visual cues for this data will be an important part of restaurant tech going forward.
I might be able to bake with plant-based eggs in a few years.
Being a lifelong baker, I took a couple minutes at the end of my talk with Eat Just’s Josh Tetrick to ask when his company will make a plant-based egg that can be used in baking. The egg is “far and away the most versatile food ingredient,” with 22 different functionalities, he said. A plant-based egg you can bake with would mean one with binding and aeration functionalities, among others. Tetrick said the company is “about two years away” from providing the aeration functionality. To provide all 22 functionalities, he said they are “somewhere north of five years.” So find me at some point between 2022 and 2025 serving up the annual Marston Family holiday cake made from plant-based eggs.
A big thank you to everyone who participated in this year’s SKS! Hopefully next year we’ll all be able to get together in person again, but whatever form it’s in, the Smart Kitchen Summit will remain the best place to discover the future of food.