For our latest food tech meetup, we decided to do things a little bit differently. We were lucky enough to work with Chef Eric Rivera (formerly of Alinea in Chicago) and host the event at his new incubator space, addo.
We knew Chef and his team had high standards, but we were still blown away when we walked in the door. Addo is a creative culinary mind’s dream: the space is a coffeeshop during the day and plays host to pop-up dinners, cooking classes, and community get-togethers (Mario Kart tournaments, salsa classes, etc.) during the evening and weekends. “Basically, it allows me to do whatever I want,” he said.
That means that he lets chefs — usually ones who are up-and-coming or have been recently let go — to host pop-up dinners there, and fills the pastry case with locals who want somewhere to display their baking chops. The space opened its doors 2 months ago and already has a staff of 20.
Part of the reason that Rivera could even create a place like addo is because of new technology. When he returned to Seattle to cook after working in the legendary Alinea, where he was Director of Culinary, Rivera hit a lot of roadblocks. People told him he couldn’t start a restaurant without a certain amount of money, or investors. But Rivera decided to forge ahead and create a space inspired by his own struggles — powered, at least partially, by technology. Culinary booking services like Tock allowed him to do things like host 2-seat dinners out of his home kitchen before he got the addo space, and food delivery from his current operation pads his business.
Over a Puerto Rican meal of roast pork with chimichurri, fried plantains, and flan (Rivera’s mom’s recipe), the chef joined The Spoon’s Michael Wolf and Modernist Cuisine’s Scott Heimendinger in a conversation about how technology big and small is changing the restaurant — from robotics to sous vide to Instagram.
Instagram may seem relatively banal when it comes to restaurant tech — after all, most of us use it to post food pictures all the time — but for bootstrapped entrepreneurs like Rivera, it’s been game changing. “I don’t have the money to hire a marketing or PR firm,” said Rivera. Instead, he uses Instagram as a marketing platform, as well as a way to target certain demographics.
It’s also a tool for him to tap into another trend we cover a lot in the food tech space: personalization. When diners reserve a spot online, Rivera has them fill out a questionnaire to get their dining preferences, but he also does a little sleuthing on their social profiles to see what restaurants they like to eat in, food preferences, etc. It’s a little Minority Report-y maybe, but when you’re paying a hefty price, you want each dish on the menu to be something you really want to eat.
Of course, we also had to cover a contentious subject for the future of restaurants: robots. “Robots are better than people for almost everything,” said Heimendiner. Especially for when you need to do something that’s highly repeatable or requires lots of accuracy.
Which is obviously useful in places with high volume and basic tasks, like flipping burgers. In Rivera’s kitchen, at least, robots won’t be replacing people — they’ll just help them do their jobs better. That might be an exoskeleton to help workers unload heavy boxes of produce, or Roombas vacuuming up at the end of the day.
For restaurants, food delivery is a blessing — and a curse. It can increase overall sales, capturing people too lazy to get off the couch, but on the flip side it also reduces foot traffic. Heimendinger made an interesting comparison: “The trend in ordering delivery from restaurants follows a little bit the trend of going to the movies,” he said. People are streaming movies at home instead of going to theaters, and are ordering food delivery instead of dining out. “This will change some of the function of a restaurant’s physical form,” predicted Heimendinger. He thinks it won’t be just a space to eat food: it will also, more than already, be a place to relax, meet up, have a meeting, etc. Which changes the business model. “It turns it into a community space,” he explained, “Not just a dinner table.”
Addo is certainly more than just a dinner table. Based on the interest we saw last night in addo’s far-ranging dining experience and community vibe, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more incubators popping up in the future.
Want to hear more of Chef Rivera’s perspective on how technology can help lighten the load of restaurant workers and open up new revenue streams? He’ll be speaking at the Smart Kitchen Summit in Seattle on October 8-9th — get your tickets now!