Robyn’s Corner #4
Italian with Duolingo:
Still on track for daily practice, but my two kids and a friend are way ahead of me. Am going to experiment with a few YouTube Italian conversation sessions. Just experiment. Am going to Italy this month and still feel confident about mumbling Italian but not really taking on a conversation.
Completed a full month of daily drawing. I loved this challenge. It was always a highpoint of my day, even though sometimes I felt out of ideas for subjects and also rushed on some days when I barely had time for drawing anything. I did learn a lot: new materials such as liquid watercolors, watercolor brush pens, white ink pens, and felt pens. For March, I want to continue with a daily drawing but because of SXSW and travel, I imagine many will be quick pencil sketches done on the run. Aim to get at least 75 percent of my goal this month. That would be 3 not 4 weeks of drawings, I guess.
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. Being from Los Angeles, this book piqued my interest. Downtown LA appears out of the hazy Southern California sky as a jumble of high-rise concrete buildings. Nested on Hope Street, is the LA County Library, built in 1926 and burnt down by an arsonist in 1986. The building survived but millions of documents were incinerated. Orlean tells the story of the event while shining a light on libraries in general at a time when we download our books. By the time she has wandered through the library and its conflagration, you might find out who the arson was..maybe.
Having met Dan Ariely this past fall at Poptech, I wanted to learn more about his ideas around consumer behavior. This past week, I read Predictably Irrational, and enjoyed his easy to read prose along with his relatable ideas about why we do things that appear irrational. Great insights about why we eat unhealthy food, and pay too much for things we don’t need. This was an unexpected complementary read to the book I read last month about Adam Smith. Ariely puts Smith in a contemporary context, creating some new ways of looking at supply and demand.
Food Routes……My book is out! You can buy it here: …….Would worship you if you bought one and then wrote a stunningly positive review on Amazon. Am grateful to my publicist at the MIT Press; he is doing a great job getting the book out there. Last week, The Wall Street Journal published my article about chicken tracking (J) and then NPR put me on Morning Edition. Then PBS filmed a short segment on pizza as a homage to Pi Day, March 14th. Am writing several pieces for media outlets and hope they run them. It’s all fun, if not intimidating. Enjoyed signing books at SXSW.
This is the month that Austin attracts creatives and technologists from all over the world. Even without an official badge, you can learn about ideas from unexpected places. Will head into the festival this week, starting with our Food+City Challenge, then my panel on The Future of Eating. Psychology professor, Art Markman, Futurist, Max Elder, and Smart City Evangelist Henry Gordon-Smith were rock stars on the stage.
Caught the Oscars (my allegiance to my home town runs deep). I found The Favourite a little strange but the acting and costumes were superb. This article by Amy Froide in The Conversation, a cool and smart website for news, shares her historical perspective on women at the time of Queen Anne. The whole idea that women were shrewd investors then was a surprise to me. I suggest that reading her book about women investors in the 18th century would be full of such insights.
Now Available: Food Routes
Even if we think we know a lot about good and healthy food―even if we buy organic, believe in slow food, and read Eater―we probably don’t know much about how food gets to the table. What happens between the farm and the kitchen? Why are all avocados from Mexico? Why does a restaurant in Maine order lamb from New Zealand?
In Food Routes, Robyn Metcalfe explores an often-overlooked aspect of the global food system: how food moves from producer to consumer. She finds that the food supply chain is adapting to our increasingly complex demands for both personalization and convenience―but, she says, it won’t be an easy ride.
Networked, digital tools will improve the food system but will also challenge our relationship to food in anxiety-provoking ways. It might not be easy to transfer our affections from verdant fields of organic tomatoes to high-rise greenhouses tended by robots. And yet, argues Metcalfe―a cautious technology optimist―technological advances offer opportunities for innovations that can get better food to more people in an increasingly urbanized world.
Metcalfe follows a slice of New York pizza and a club sandwich through the food supply chain; considers local foods, global foods, and food deserts; investigates the processing, packaging, and storage of food; explores the transportation networks that connect farm to plate; and explains how food can be tracked using sensors and the Internet of Things. Future food may be engineered, networked, and nearly independent of crops grown in fields. New technologies can make the food system more efficient―but at what cost to our traditionally close relationship with food?
Food Routes is now available for purchase on Amazon.
Robyn’s Corner #3
February is half gone and I’ve done one sketch a day and kept on Duolingo for Italian. So far, holding steady.
A Most Unlikely Twitter Account:
The Museum of English Rural Living Tweeted what might seem a shocking image on Valentine’s Day. The Tweet is just one of many delivered by a crack social media team that manages to engage its over 100K followers every day. They pull it off with a sense of humor, smartness, and loyalty to the museum’s mission. They dig up images from the archives, find a way to inform while amuse, and sure enough, their followers come back with sometimes long and surprising retorts and comments. There’s much to learn here and it may take more than a month of Tweets before their secret sauce becomes apparent.
WIP (Works in Progress)
- Podcast progress: Just before Christmas, I took the plunge to start a Podcast. Yes, everyone seems to have the same idea, so no credit for originality here. It’s just that blogs have become such a slog for so many. How to share a story without contributing to the noise in the ether? I found three willing subjects for the first three episodes: an expert on GMO salmon, food logistics expert and an professor of international food businesses. I’ve got the recordings, found someone to help with editing and launching, and am now considering what I should call the podcast. For the moment, I’m taking a step back, considering the audience and how the podcast could be interesting to more than one or two listeners. Stay tuned.
- Geocaching: The one that got away: Over the holidays, I fell for geocaching, the odd sport of finding hidden objects using only a few hints and some compass coordinates. The geocaching crowd consists of yet another nerd cult. And now I know why. Finding these small capsules, hidden boxes, and clues, brings out an obsession with detail and stirs it in with the surreal feeling of living in an alternate universe, filled with Mugglers and people wandering in parking lots and gullies. While on holiday in San Diego our family nailed at least five caches in an hour, actually post mid-night on New Year’s Eve. Back in Austin, I found three in and around the parking lot near our home. When you fail to locate a cache, you must log a Did Not Find note on your profile within the Geocaching.com app. Although I am sure no one cares, it feels like a low blow. I’ve returned to the location where the cache is supposed to be now at varying times of the day, wandering around, looking up, down, up into trees, in drain covers, all over the grass dividers ….. while nearby shoppers regard me with mild suspicion and certain curiosity. Am not sure how to recover from this loss, the inability to ever find another cache other than in the post New Year’s Eve haze. Have begun to search for easy caches, those rated on the app as easy finds and see if I can redeem just a modicum of caching confidence.
The Transalpine Run August 31 through Sept 9, 2019
8 days, four countries 275 KM, 170.87 miles) and 16,416 M of positive vertical ascent (about 10 miles).
This is the race I’m doing this year. It’s epic and it will be the second time for me; I ran this 10 years ago. My running partner and I aim to complete this together and as artists, we are a team names “Sketchy Sisters.”
|SKETCHY SISTERS||Metcalfe Robyn w | Austin||Bazany-Taylor Alexandra w | Maidenhead||SENIOR MASTER WOMEN|
We have about 6 months left of training. As of now, we are doing our own training thing, building and maintaining our foundation with lots of cross training. For me this means every week I get in three days of running (a total of 20 miles, broken into three runs of one long, one hills, and one speed. Also 3 days of bike trainer workouts using Zwift. Two days of strength training and one day of boxing. This means double workouts on some days. During the next few months, Sandra and I will work together to do more hills, work on equipment, and work out the logistics for 8 days of runs. Mentally, we are already in the game. We’ll work on what we think we can control and leave the rest to surprises and adventure. You can follow both Sandra and I on Strava, if you are curious about our daily workouts. Other friends and family are joining the run this year, all 8 of us. Very exciting.
Sandra and I had a tough time during the first day of the race when we did this before, so Sandra and I will plan to meet at the race start in June to train over that first day’s route, just to get over it and not have it buffalo us again.
This week, I worked out a way to keep track of my hill repeats. There were 10, as you can see here.
Read Ryan Holiday’s Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Atomy of Intrigue. This is a riveting read as Holiday takes you through the conspiracy of Thiel’s team and Hulk Hogan to attack Gawker. While the lawsuits did achieve their intended goal of bankrupting Gawker, Holiday wonders if conspiracies have lost their role in today’s culture of self interest and a fragmentation of resolve.
In a strange way, another book I’m reading, Bene Brown’s Daring Greatly explores vulnerability and shame in a way that resonates with many of the characters in Holiday’s book. Finding connections between books is always a surprise.
Am also working my way through a biography of Adam Smith called Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life by Nicholas Phillipson. Am only through the first third of the book and it’s a bit slow going as the author lays out Smith’s background and the ways the Scottish Enlightenment informed the basis of his economic philosophy for The Wealth of Nations.
Doodle of the Week: Teacups 8 Ways
Robyn’s Corner #2
- Restart Italian Lessons on Duolingo. So far 1458 points, compared to my son’s 5780 points for Portuguese and daughter’s 1201 points for French. But, hey, my son is highly motivated since he married a Brazilian woman and my daughter has only just started. Yeah, we’re competitive.
- Read a book every two weeks. So far, so good, with three read in January (see notes below). One was really short, so is that cheating?
- Get back to sketching. Nope, total fail. Watch for my new February Challenge.
Did you know that The University of Texas’ mascot, BEVO, is an endangered livestock breed and that there are only 1,200 purebred Texas Longhorn cattle left in the US? This breed is disappearing because most ranchers don’t want to deal with those enormous horns and instead cross them with other less-horny breeds so they can benefit from the Longhorn’s unique genetics while avoiding those hook’ems. I bring this up because the University has an opportunity to make the breed its poster-child for the conservation of agricultural biodiversity. Why not use $1 from each athletic event at UT to fund a conservation program at The Livestock Conservancy? And to engage ag students to find a market need for these creatures so that farmers will add a few of these impressive cattle to their herds? Just wondering. Seems so obvious a win for ag and a creative way to support diversity.
Anniversaries: Memories of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919
In case you missed this, on January 15th, one hundred years ago, over two million gallons of molasses burst from storage tanks in Boston’s North End. A combination of warming temperatures, ethanol, cold syrup, and decaying storage tanks all contributed to the wave of sticky molasses that rolled through the area, killing 21 people and injuring over 100 people. I noticed this when researching the history of food supply chains. Could this happen again today?
Unexpected and Surprising
While attending the Antigua Forum in Antigua, Guatemala (of all places) I learned about the history of Haas avocados, our current toast obsession. In the 1920s, Wilson Popenoe of The United Fruit Company brought the Antiguan variety to Southern California where it eventually became the Haas variety. A plaque in Antigua presented in 1946 by the California Avocado Society celebrates the connection with Antigua; in the 1950s, I remember three avocado trees growing in our front yard. I’d pile the ripe ones in my red wagon and sell them door-to-door on the street where we lived. An early startup venture. Wonder if they were the new Haas variety? (See my doodle below)
Books Read in January
- In January, I read three books, each entirely different. Edward Dolnick’s Clockwork Universe covers enlightened, scientific thought from Aristotle to Sir Isaac Newton. He explains how scientists began to view the world as a machine, decipherable through an enlarged understanding of mathematics. He moves from Copernicus to Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and finally to Leibniz, showing how each built their theories upon others, some arguing, disputing, and sometimes stealing the ideas of their peers. Looking forward to re-reading the last chapter of Newton’s The Principia, written in 1729, where Newton’s spiritual views come to the surface. “This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets,” he says, “could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Another example of how art, science, and spirituality comingle.
- J. Jacobs book, Thanks a Thousand (A Gratitude Journey) is just that. A journey from a field of coffee beans to his morning Joe. He seeks out 1,000 people who brought him his cup of coffee and personally thanks each of them. Not only does it reveal just how many people perform the tasks required to deliver a simple food item, but mostly how important it is to practice gratitude. Not naturally an optimistic, grateful sort, he is honest about how challenging it is for us to stop to thank those who perform simple tasks. Inspiring and a quick read.
- H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald is not a quick read. I picked up the book after taking a lesson in falconry over the holidays and remembered that the book also related to the death of the author’s father. My dad passed away in September, so the two touch points pulled me into her story. Don’t even think about trying to skim those pages for you’d miss her exquisite prose, words that pop, stop, and pleasantly ramble. The passing of her father creates a compulsion to return to her hobby of falconry. Her story exposes her pain and the process of finding her place in a new landscape. So much to learn here about falcons, especially Mable, her goshawk. In the end she her new landscape embraces her as she rediscovers love and a balance between humans and the natural world. There’s a quick trip to Maine near the end that reveals Maine’s falconry culture, a far cry from MacDonald’s Cambridge fens.
Manic Color: Pierre Bonnard exhibit at London’s Tate Modern
One of my favorite museums is the Tate Modern in London. This month it opened an exhibit of paintings by Pierre Bonnard from around 1912. His paintings are full of vibrant color, everyday domestic scenes, transparent yet luminous. Rich layerings of texture and color.
What better canvas for Bonnard’s colors than my own hair, noted above over the past year or so.
Sundance Film Festival, just a taste
For our 39th wedding anniversary, my husband and I attended the Sundance Film Festival and saw (among other films) the premiere of The Innovator, a film about Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos. Most of you will be familiar with the rapid rise and calamitous downfall of the company. Ms Holmes and her former partner (the COO) are currently awaiting trial for wire fraud … among several other counts of fraud. The company has dissolved. The story is dramatic; woman drops out of Stanford, creates a company built upon the promise of making blood tests accessible and affordable to the public. The problem appears to be a combination of a bold vision, miscalculations of the complexity of the problem, and a total lack of transparency. While the film seems to disparage Silicon Valley startups as being arrogant and irresponsible, perhaps a lesson for us here today is that, like technology for blood testing, technology in our food system can have direct life and death consequences. Food poisoning for example. Perhaps, the lesson one could draw from Theranos is that when it comes to startups with ideas that involve our personal health, we need to be even more diligent about the consequences, on multiple levels. Human privacy, physical integrity, health. While the payoff can be huge, transparency, personal control of our health, less waste, the downsides are also huge….some of Theranos users received test results that falsely indicated they had cancer. Innovation in our food system will deliver positive results, but requires extra due diligence not apparent in the Theranos story.
Other films of note that we saw: (star-ratings, totally my own)
Monos: (3 out of 5 stars) Lord of the Flies meets Apocalypse Now
Share: (5 out of 5 stars) Moving story about a young girl who survives the fallout after images from a night she can’t remember appear on social media.
Sea of Shadows: (4 out of 5 stars) Panoramic, action-filled account of the Mexican Mafia, Chinese traders, and the loss of sea life in the Sea of Cortez. The main character is an endangered whale, the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale. Only 10-15 remain, threatened by sea nets used to catch totoaba; the Chinese falsely claim the totoaba bladders are a remedy for various diseases. Intense film, a grim view of how multiple levels of corruption cooperate.
1.)Food+City has done its share of conferences and events, so why wouldn’t you do one for fun, real fun. Our family (Metcalfe’s) is crazy about running, food, maps, travel, and prime numbers, it seems. But it is always up for dry, sarcastic humor. Even dark, sometimes. This Christmas, my family held its sporadic Metcon conference. Sporadic because it last took place in 2015. We copy normal conference formats, including pre-registration, registration, an icebreaker, presentations, badges, and breakout sessions. A full house is all five of us. If you want a full debrief of the conference this year, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2.)Am in the process of launching a podcast, something I’ve been curious about for years. In December I recorded three podcasts and am now working on packaging them for a soft launch to come. The first person I interviewed was Mark Walton. The podcast aims to explore what’s happens when technology affects everything we eat. Thanks to the enthusiasm and support from Laura Lorek who showed me the ropes.
3.)At Food+City, we publish a magazine as a way to introduce our readers to the art and science of feeding cities. After 4 issues, we discovered that our beautiful and carefully researched and written magazine wasn’t getting read. Well, it was, by our dozen or so friends and family. So we’re headed back to the garage to see how best to share our stories. Instagram? Youtube?
4.)Tuesday, my book editor and I headed out to visit Steven and Carey Kraemer, owner of Buena Tierra Farm. We are prototyping a new book project that would include photos and stories about the people who are invisible workers within our industrial food system. While the Kraemers are not of industrial size, they were gracious enough to allow us to test our interview style and photo/recording technology. As it turned out, an unexpected story did emerge from our visit, which you can read.
5.)Am always interested in anyone working on sensors for our personal biometrics. Check out UT’s Division of Textiles and Apparel’s event hosting Dr. Juan Hinestroza from Cornell University, called Fashionable Nanotechnology. Wouldn’t you hope he will show how fibers can be smart?
6.)My forthcoming book, Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating, will be published by the MIT Press in March. It will be available at SXSW in Austin this year, on Amazon, and in a bunch of independent bookstores. After three years of writing, which included writing two versions of the book, I am almost ready to find a new project that enables me to learn something new. More on that in a later newsletter.
7.)This past weekend, I attended the Antigua Forum, an annual meeting of free-market thinkers who spend the weekend solving problems using a process similar to a hackathon, but better. The ten challenges included finding a way to generate new sources of energy in Lebanon, developing a grass roots project in Senegal to enable entrepreneurs to begin to own and operate their own businesses, developing an integrated health care system that enables individuals to control their own health data. The Forum has some good ground rules, such adding value, not engaging in a critique of ideas, and engaging in the small group format. The process was similar included the design thinking process but included some pretty impressive methods for following the projects after the conference. Congrats to the facilitators; they were impressive.
8.)Books, movies and stuff I’m listening to:
a. I’m reading this month. Just completed The Clockwork Universe, by Edward Dolnick. While you might find the long sections on how to calculate the speed of a falling rock, the book gives you an overview of how we began to use the language of calculus and mathematics instead of relying on empiricism and observation. He begins with Aristotle, Euclid, and ends with Newton and Liebnitz. After seeing the Super Blood Moon last night and hearing the scientists explain the phenomena, it is clear that we’ve come a long way since Galileo looked at the moon.
b. Watched the Netflix movie, Bandersnatch, inspired by Black Mirror. After choosing all the alternative story lines, using a remote for our TV, we finally arrived at and ending that sort of made sense to us. Being in the story feels almost like losing the serendipity of discovering the story rather than shaping it. Almost too much control. If that’s possible….
c. During training runs and bike workouts, I’ve been enjoying Tim Ferris (Interview of Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism. I read his book a couple of years ago and now he’s gotten even better describing how to say “no” to all those projects that distract you from what’s important. Freakonomics continues to inform, now about sports with its series “The Hidden Side of Sports.” Lots there to learn about mental discipline.
This week’s doodle: “The Tower” – Buena Tierra Farm
Startup Spotlight: FENIK
Originally known as Evaptainers, Fenik started out as a student project at MIT. The team’s goal was to develop a low-cost method for preserving fruits and vegetables in remote areas. Five years and many prototypes later, Fenik recently wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign and launched production of its Yuma No-Ice Cooler.
While the new product will keep your camping supplies nice and cool, Fenik’s mission is to provide an inexpensive food-preservation solution for people in developing countries who lack access to electricity and refrigeration. We caught up with co-founder Spencer Taylor to hear Fenik’s latest news.
What’s your founding date?
How big is your team?
What problem are you solving?
Last-mile food insecurity in arid developing nations.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running your business?
How few true-impact investors actually exist. They are often talked about, but you rarely meet one.
What was the big idea that got you started?
In an MIT class called Development Ventures, on the first day the professor said, “I want you to come up with a good or service that will change the lives of one billion people.”
Whom are you competing with?
Primitive evaporative coolers, such as the Zeer Pot, or draping wet cloth over food to help to preserve it.
The coolest food system innovation I’ve heard of is…
the sheer amount of innovation going on in the food space these days.
The scariest thing about today’s food system is…
the amount of waste that is endemic throughout the cold chain in both developed and developing markets.
What’s your latest big news?
We’re taking delivery of our first production units of the Yuma in January 2019.
Best advice you’ve received?
Hardware is hard.
What advice do you give to potential startup founders?
Start with a problem you have experienced, or one that you deeply understand through others. Assume nothing and validate your approach compulsively as you progress with your client base. Constant course corrections are not the product of inexperience; they are critical to success.
Startup Spotlight: UAV-IQ
Using military-developed technology, UAV-IQ combines high-tech field surveillance, environmental sensors and specialized software to help farmers keep a close eye on their crops. Pinpoint imagery allows farmers to focus on problem areas — locating issues such as water puddling or the beginning of a disease outbreak — and address them before they spread. Information sensed by the drone, including images that show detail down to individual leaves, can be transmitted to tablets or other tools used by farm staff anywhere in the field. We caught up with Andreas Neuman, co-founder and CEO of the Food+City Challenge Prize 2018 winner, to get its latest news.
What’s your founding date?
How big is your team?
What problem are you solving?
Precision agriculture has proven to be highly effective for growers who practice it, but many growers perceive pricing or lack of training as barriers to adoption. Starting with drone-based remote sensing (which tells growers where their crops are healthy and where they’re stressed), UAV-IQ makes precision agriculture technology accessible and implementable within existing workflows to growers of any size and sophistication.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running your business?
That there are so many people genuinely interested in helping young companies get started.
What part of the food system are you in?
We focus on helping growers.
What was the big idea that got you started?
That one of the most fundamental problems for farmers — identifying where their crops are struggling and targeting their treatments precisely where they’re needed — was a solvable problem by using properly equipped to drones to rapidly scout fields.
Who are you competing with?
Inertia — sticking with an inefficient status quo — is our largest competitor. We also compete with satellites and other imagery providers.
The coolest food system innovation I’ve heard of is…
The use of hyperspectral sensors to identify specific disease, ripeness levels and other qualities while the crops are growing.
The scariest thing about today’s food system is…
Lack of diversity.
What’s your latest big news?
We are starting to provide a new service that utilizes drones to drop biological control agents (beneficial insects) to suppress pest populations in California.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
If it’s not a “hell yes,” it’s a “no” when contemplating early employees and partners.
What advice do you give to potential startup founders?
Focus on building the best team before focusing on building the best product or service.
Startup Spotlight: Vinder
Founded in Port Townsend, Washington, by Sam Lillie, Vinder connects home veggie gardeners with folks who want to buy that fresh produce. The app brings together community members who are interested in ultra-local food and reducing food waste. It also boosts the local economy by opening up a revenue stream for green thumbs who connect with their neighbors to share their garden’s bounty. We recently reached out to the 2018 Food+City Challenge Prize contestant to find out how things are going at Vinder.
What’s your founding date?
January 21, 2018.
How big is your team?
Four full time.
What problem are you solving?
Food waste, cost and food insecurity.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running your business?
As much as I heard and read about it, the investor “run-around” has been my biggest surprise. Most professional investors I’ve had the privilege to speak with don’t give a solid “no.” They give advice and information, which is great because it helps hone the pitch and business plan/strategy. But it may not be the right type of advice that works for your company or be useful when approaching other investors. It ends up being a massive time/energy zap.
What part of the food system are you in?
Vinder is situated in the distribution of hyper-local produce — neighbor to neighbor. Yet, we do not own any delivery vehicles or own any inventory.
What was the big idea that got you started?
My community, Port Townsend, Washington, had a big problem accessing local organic produce for a reasonable price. Vinder was created not to be some massive, disruptive company, but to solve a problem in my community.
Whom are you competing with?
For convenience, we compete with HEB or Whole Foods. For freshness and locality, we compete with farmers’ markets. However, we see ourselves as a tool to help those small vendors reach more customers and increase sales direct-to-consumer.
The coolest food system innovation I’ve heard of is…
a company called Vinder that allows you to buy, sell or trade homegrown produce and neighbor-made goods directly from your neighbors. It’s free to sign up and free to sell or trade.
The scariest thing about today’s food system is…
we have normalized an absence of connection to our food system. We have no idea what is actually going into the soil in which our food is being grown (or what chemicals are being sprayed on them), who is growing it or where exactly it is being grown.
What’s your latest big news?
We are now a user-owned and -operated company. After successfully closing an Equity Crowdfunding round of more than $85,000 via WeFunder and receiving matching angel investments, Vinder issued preferred shares to users who are taking a stand against our current food system and are opting to create the neighbor-made food system of the future. Vinder is also now available for iOS and Android.
Best advice you’ve received?
In the words of entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham, “Focus on getting 100 people to love you rather than 1,000 people to kind of like you.”
What advice do you give to potential startup founders?
You don’t need a lot of money to start a company. First, come up with the lowest-budget minimum viable product and validate that the market needs your solution. Then build out manually, followed by tech. Let tech be a solution to make a process more efficient rather than the primary focus.
Startup Spotlight: Grit Grocery
Grit Grocery has put a gourmet grocery into a food truck. Working directly with farmers and other local producers, Grit Grocery launched a fleet of grocery trucks to bring fresh ingredients and meal-kit bundles into urban areas — starting in Houston — underserved by traditional grocery options. We visited with cofounders Michael Powell and Dustin Windham to find out how they’re doing after competing in the Food+City Challenge Prize in 2018.
What’s your founding date?
Founded in 2015, pilot in 2016-2017, full-scale launch in April 2018.
How big is your team?
Five co-founders, plus a team of seven who drive trucks, sell food, work in the kitchen and organize the warehouse.
What problem are you solving?
Grit Grocery trucks bring fresh local food products to urban locations that don’t have food retailers or that have stores that carry mainly processed nonperishable food. We’ve designed a shopping experience that provides ideas and inspirations for healthy, easy, fresh, local-food meal solutions, tonight.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running your business?
A lot of local brands are producing and growing great food, but they don’t have access to customers through a retail outlet. We get a lot of these groups asking to get their products on the truck. We also hear from apartment complexes and developers requesting that Grit be at their residences. We already have a long waiting list of sites.
What part of the food system are you in?
Grit Grocery is a retail destination. We source directly from local farmers and ranchers as much as possible. As a retailer, we are at the front line of customer interaction.
What was the big idea that got you started?
Why is it so difficult to put together all of our meals over the course of the week with fresh, local, healthy food? There’s something wrong with food retail — and with the traditional grocery store model, in particular — that makes it hard for so many people to eat healthy, find local foods and put together meals. While we’ve seen a lot of innovation in how food is grown and produced, retail innovation has been lacking. New online options are promising but lack the flexibility to be a good fit for today’s urban life. This is where Grit Grocery started.
Whom are you competing with?
Traditional grocery stores and other big-box stores are obviously the main source of food retail. Organic and specialty grocers offer food more in line with what Grit offers, but they mainly carry nonlocal food and a lot of processed food. Farmer’s markets are not competitors, but they do overlap with Grit’s offerings — though their shopping experiences are not strategically designed for customers. Online grocers and meal-kit providers are similarly flexible when it comes to delivering food retail access, but they also come up short in responding to a customer’s daily food issues and needs.
The coolest food system innovation I’ve heard of is…
Coolbot. Build a poor man’s walk-in cooler.
The scariest thing about today’s food system is…
Nowadays, food is everywhere you look, from the airport to the hardware store, schools to the office. But most of it seems to be processed junk. Society is busier than ever and we have created more on-the-go occasions to eat food than can possibly be healthy, or that can accommodate real food solutions. The processed food industry likes that and profits enormously.
What’s your latest big news?
We released a Chatbot in October 2018 that allows people to use their smartphone to order a meal for pickup at the truck. They can also use the Chatbot to find the Grit Grocery truck and order a Grit-Together, a unique dinner party event for small groups.
Best advice you’ve received?
Be resilient. That’s what grit is all about. Keep trying new things, putting ideas into action and watching to see what works and what needs further improvement.
What advice do you give to potential startup founders?
Good strategy and technology are not enough. People and their food habits are kind of weird and hard to predict. You need to test and get in front of people, see how they really engage with your food or product in their daily lives.
Grocery Stores: The IoT of Food
Tired of comparisons to the much flashier internet, supermarkets are working hard to ditch their unsexy descriptor: big-box stores. These days you’ll find a Murray’s Cheese outpost in Kroger, a kombucha bar at Whole Foods and poke bowl counter at Albertsons. All these flashy foodie options are good distractions from what’s happening under the hood, which is that grocery stores — the physical four walls — are going digital.
Ready or not, consumer packaged goods (CPGs) — those pre-wrapped items found in so many center aisles — are nudging grocery stores into the future. And so is Amazon. The online retail giant’s entrance into brick-and-mortar supermarkets forced every retailer to innovate or die.
It’s been decades since the internet changed the way we shop, so why are American retailers slow to get on board? The founders of Trax, a retail technology firm based in Singapore, might point to our love for the status quo. The U.S. Census Bureau’s figures (from second-quarter 2018) bear that out, indicating that e-commerce sales account for 9 percent of total sales. That means 91 percent of sales still occur in stores. Maybe U.S. retailers aren’t scared yet?
In contrast, the true retail visionaries are found in Australia, Brazil and China. Yair Adato, Trax’s chief technology officer, says China is five years ahead of the U.S.
“In China, you can go to a store, scan what you want to buy, put it in your cart and they’ll deliver it to your home in 30 minutes,” Adato says.
Soda giants were early pioneers in creating speedy distribution channels. Yet despite raking in billions of dollars in sales, they couldn’t point to exactly how, when or why. Brands were guessing what was on the shelf, how much was left, what was selling at what times of day and even what their competitors had on the shelf. Short of physically walking in to every single store in the world and snapping a photo of the soda aisle, they had no idea what was happening.
In some countries, brand managers might have trusted their employees when they said they went to a store and reported that everything “looked good.” But in China or Brazil, managers wanted visual proof. “It’s a culture thing,” said Adato. “I want to know that I paid the right bonus to my employee.” In Australia, instead of proof, they wanted to improve processes using data analytics.
But it was a little bit like the chicken and the egg. Brands wanted to harness data to make better business decisions, and stores wanted to evolve. They saw that online shopping was more engaging for customers than a trip to the store, but it was an expensive undertaking with no clear financial incentive for either party. While a brand like Coke might want to push retailers for improved ways of tracking its sales, the reality is that it has only a few thousand SKUs (aka, inventory items). Target, on the other hand, has hundreds of thousands. But before it could become cost-effective for retailers to adopt new tracking tools, the technology — sensors, beacons, cameras — needed to advance.
In 2010, Trax began offering its image-recognition software, which incorporated physical images (taken by humans) and store data (including store layout and register sales), then stitched them into one actionable gold mine. For the first time, sales teams could have detailed product and category information including out-of-shelf, share-of-shelf, planogram, pricing and promotional compliance delivered to their mobile phones in real time. This was something managers could trust.
“In a grocery store there is so much dynamic movement,” says David Gottlieb, vice president of retail at Trax. “Something like 40 percent of products will change — a new item, or line extensions and new packaging.” Gottlieb deeply understands the in-store problem.
“Manufacturers are using us, even without feet on the street [robust sales teams] to collect information to get true metrics as to what degree their customers are making perfect stores, and that incentivizes the sales team to do a better job,” explains Gottlieb. He joined Trax in 2018 when the company purchased his startup, Quri, which used a crowdsourcing model to leverage large groups of people to perform paid “microtasks,” like taking images of store shelves.
With the acquisition, Trax now has half a million shoppers active in 6,000 U.S. cities with access to 150,000 stores. Despite this, the company is moving beyond human photographers and is beginning to install battery-operated internet-connected cameras underneath the shelves. The cameras take photos every minute of the day.
“It creates opportunity for use cases — like intra-day replacement,” CTO Adato says. “Our customers are looking at how long things last. That’s an indicator of lost sales that wasn’t available.” CPG clients that use Trax report their out-of-stock rates reduced by 10 to 15 percent and category sales (e.g., soda, crackers or condiments) increased by 3 to 5 percent.
While Trax was homing in on the perfect store, Shelfbucks, an Austin-based technology startup, was grappling with another unknown: marketing. Brands were spending money on in-store product merchandising displays to promote their products, but they had little idea what worked or whether they even made it to the floor. Erik McMillan, the CEO of Shelfbucks, made a fairly compelling argument for his technology: “You spend a $100, and you’re wasting $50.”
Through a fortuitous meeting with two of the biggest display producers in the U.S. — West-Rock and Menasha Packaging Co. — McMillan gained access to an untapped business opportunity that helped brands answer their age-old question: Does my marketing have an ROI?
If it sounds like meta-marketing-speak, that’s because it is. You send a physical piece of signage into your supply chain and on the other end it arrives at a store. It’s supposed to be put up somewhere, on the end cap (those shelves at the end of each aisle often filled with promotional items) or the shelf, but maybe it never makes it out of the back room. With no analytics, you’re left hoping for the best. Given the amount of money spent on merchandise promotion whose effectiveness can’t be tracked — a waste factor of 50 percent, according to McMillan — in-store marketing isn’t much better than shooting in the dark.
In coordination with brands, Shelfbucks puts sensors on displays, and in coordination with retail customers, it places sensors throughout stores. The sensors track the movement of the signage — whether it’s in the back room or out on the floor. When there are problems, Shelfbucks gets an exception report, which is sent to the store manager as an alert in the store’s task management system.
“We are literally generating data about something (store managers have) never seen before,” McMillan says. In 2014, one of Shelfbucks first customers was CVS Pharmacy; today Shelfbucks is in CVS stores nationwide. Fresh food is his next target. “We are focused on the three national chains: Kroger, Albertsons and Ahold USA.”
How these changes benefit consumers is open for debate. Perhaps it’s as simple as knowing our favorite soda — Dr Pepper Vanilla Float, perhaps — will never be out of stock again. And while it may seem as if the CPGs of the world are driving change, McMillan reminds us otherwise.
“Brands can’t force retailers to do anything. Retailers have the power. That’s a really important point,” McMillan says. “The brands have the money, and the customer buys their product, but the retailer owns the shopper.”
Markets Go It Alone
The buzzword for today’s brick-and-mortar retailer is “frictionless.” It refers to a shopping experience where customers can come and go with ease. It means not waiting in lines and never having to take cash or a credit card out of your wallet. Sounds dreamy, right? It’s happening now, and here’s where to find it.
Zippin: San Francisco, CA
When Krishna Motukuri’s wife sent him to Trader Joe’s for a bottle of milk, he came back empty-handed. Why? The checkout lines were too long. When he dug into a study from MIT that found 37 billion hours were lost waiting in line every year, he was stunned. Wanting to help solve this problem, Motukuri took his computer science background and co-founded Zippin.
But while most of us think of the physical store as the end goal, Zippin only wants to be the powerful back end. This month, the startup launched a basic concept store in San Francisco to showcase its technology. To get through the slick entry gate, customers scan a QR code on their mobile phones. Once identified, customers can pick up a can of mango La Croix, a bag of sea salt Boomchickapop popcorn or perhaps a deli sandwich. Soon after they pass through the exit gate, an electronic receipt is sent to the Zippin app. And that’s it. Zippin’s AI-based software platform will allow retailers to deploy a “frictionless” shopping experience that wipes out time spent standing in line. According to Motukuri, operators of physical stores would need only minor upgrades — weight sensors on the shelves and overhead cameras — at a cost of about $25 per square foot. These enhancements, along with Zippin’s software (charged on a monthly subscription) will tell a retailer precisely what has been taken off the shelves.
Amazon Go: Seattle, WA
In January, Amazon opened its first cashier-free store on the ground floor of one of its many offices in downtown Seattle. Called Amazon Go, the store is a free-for-all of convenience foods, meal kits; even beer and wine. As reported by Recode, by being first on the scene, Amazon hopes to “carve out a loyal customer base outside of its website and inside a physical store where the vast majority of food and grocery shopping still occurs.”
Shoppers with the Amazon Go mobile app gain access to the store with a QR code, shop for snacks, take whatever they want and then they “Just Walk Out” — the name for Amazon’s technology. This includes overhead cameras, weight sensors and deep learning technology that detects what shoppers take off the shelves or if they change their mind and put something back. When customers leave the store, the “Just Walk Out” technology debits their Amazon account for the items and sends a receipt to the mobile app. In August 2018, Amazon opened a second location in Seattle. Expect subsequent stores to crop up in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, where Amazon has already signed leases for two locations including one in the famed Willis Tower.
The Moby Mart: Shanghai, China
While Amazon wants to help us eat more snacks, Wheelys, a Stockholm startup, is developing a market on wheels stocked with hip sneakers, fashionable magazines and yes, milk and cookies. In collaboration with Hefei University of Technology and tech firm Himalafy, the team created a roving, train-shaped convenience store on the university campus, 450 miles west of Shanghai, that can be located using an app. Self-driving, drone-equipped, powered by solar and always open, The Moby Mart is a tech nerd’s space-age fantasy come true.
Wheelys’ foray into automation began with modular-bike cafes. The easy-to-schlepp coffee carts could be moved around Stockholm for anyone not ready to commit to a lease. It was so popular that by 2016 Wheelys had sold 550 bikes. Looking beyond their Nordic country for their next innovation, the founders settled on China because of its large population and the country’s near-ubiquitous adoption of phone payments. While The Moby Mart is still running in beta, Wheelys is moving ahead with what co-founder Tomas Mazetti is calling “magic tech,” or hidden tech.
“At the moment, we believe that hidden technology is the next revolution, not just in retail but in many industries,” Mazetti says. “Imagine walking in through an open door, seeing a beautiful pair of sneakers, trying them on and then leaving the store with them, without ever having talked to anyone or seen any security.”
Farmhouse Market: New Prague, MN
Thankfully, not every automated market is so hands-off. In Minnesota, married couple Kendra and Paul Rasmusson opened Farmhouse Market in 2015. The Rasmusson’s wanted to open a store that offered delicious goods from local farmers, but they knew that staffing a store (and raising their three small children) would be a big challenge. Undaunted, the pair came up with some ingenious ways to run a mostly automated farm store that has some human touches.
First, there’s a membership base — $99 to join and then $20 annually. Members (now in the hundreds) can drop by 24-7 and receive a 5 percent discount on all purchases. Nonmembers can get in on the action at specific hours during the day when there is an actual person behind the counter. And it’s not all that high-tech: Members and farmers use a keycard entry system, and motion-activated lights and tablets enable self-checkout. (There’s a one-theft-and-you’re-banned-forever policy.) The store, only 650 square feet, is monitored with remote cameras, and inventory is tracked digitally. As with every one of these stores, humans are still quite important. Ms. Rasmusson prices items from home and texts orders to suppliers.
How They’re Watching Us
In the early days, retail stores tracked customers via turnstiles. After turnstiles, some stores turned to electronic beams, while others used light sources to count traffic in aisles. These methods were largely impersonal — they didn’t capture our faces, our phones in our pockets and they didn’t connect the dots: Suzy likes to shop on Mondays, has three kids and prefers to buy name brands. These days, our favorites stores have that information and a whole lot more. Here are ways we’re being tracked:
While you’re wandering the aisle, your phone is busy looking for a Wi-Fi signal. Retailers can use this ping to track us as we wander the aisles wondering what to eat for dinner. This can be a good thing, says Mike Lee, an expert in supermarket behavior. “If done right, these tracking technologies can provide a wealth of data that can inform merchandising and layout decisions aimed at creating a more efficient shopping experience,” he says. Using GPS and Wi-Fi tracking tied to shoppers’ mobile devices allows retailers to deliver targeted messaging, advertising and coupons in a more precise manner.
Similar to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows our movements to be tracked by the persistent ping from our phone to any Bluetooth beacon within range. Although a weaker signal than Wi-Fi, Bluetooth is a good backup when Wi-Fi is disabled. If both of these are disabled on our phones, our phones still give off a traceable signal. According to Joseph Turow, in his book, “The Aisles Have Eyes,” our phones’ own signals can establish location within 150 feet. As long as there are several access points, Wi-Fi is accurate to within a few meters and Bluetooth can locate you to within a few centimeters. This means eventually you’ll be reading the back of a box of cereal and simultaneously receiving an alert to get a dollar off that very box.
Apps on Our Mobile Phones
Most cell phone makers disguise our Bluetooth signals using randomized codes. But if you have an app downloaded then you’re fair game. Recently, Amazon connected its Prime membership to its Whole Foods stores, offering discounts on certain grocery store items. How did they want us to connect our accounts? Using the Whole Foods app on our phone. If your location services are turned on, you can bet the retailer is watching you.
Sensors & Beacons
Most cell phone makers disguise our Bluetooth signals using randomized codes. But if you have a store app downloaded onto your phone then you’re fair game. Recently, Amazon connected its Prime membership to its Whole Foods stores, offering discounts on certain grocery store items. How did they want us to connect our accounts? Using the Whole Foods app on our phone. If your location services are turned on, you can bet the retailer is watching you.
Trax, a Singapore-based retail technology firm, makes battery-operated, wireless cameras. Mounted underneath the shelves, these cameras take pictures that allow retailers to know what’s in stock and out of stock (using sensors). The body of the camera is the size of a deck of playing cards. The camera lens, only 1 by 1.5 cm., extends out from the battery pack via a narrow ribbon and fits onto the edge of the shelf. The software’s image recognition enables any photos with people to be deleted immediately to protect shoppers’ privacy. The cameras talk to each other and to local servers inside the markets so that Trax can accelerate image processing on site to deliver real-time metrics.
Side Dish Gallery: Mom & Pop Shops
As we conceived of this grocery-themed issue, our minds naturally went to the tech-laden big-box stores. But then we remembered how grocery began: the small, independent mom-and-pop shop. Here’s a selection of our followers’ favorite small groceries — some stores are thriving, while others are shuttered, perhaps depending on economic realities of the communities they serve.
Trending: Grocery Stores, Meet Smart Kitchens
As i was leaving for the Smart Kitchen Summit in Seattle in October, my toaster broke. The ashen heating elements failed to flicker for one last slice of bread. In fact, all toasters — those kitchen staples since 1893 — may be on the way out.
Based on what I saw at the Summit, toasters — and practically all other kitchen appliances — are about to be unfamiliar in every way. Manufacturers promised that my appliances will recognize my face and voice to know my food preferences and biomedical data to produce the most perfect toast the world has ever tasted. And it won’t be a toaster, but a device that may toast, boil, sous-vide, fry or braise. Transforming ingredients into meals will be the goal of our new Smart Kitchen.
Imagine this: Your kitchen in 2030 will use voice activation to operate the handful of kitchen tools and appliances that remain after designers remove wires, Instapots, trash cans and microwaves. Your kitchen will be smaller and wireless, maybe even portable. Croatian startup Dizzconcept makes portable, pop-up kitchens that fit into any space. Perhaps our new homes will come without kitchens, and we’ll simply select these movable, modular, personal kitchens to drop into our new spaces.
Countertops will be charging surfaces for your devices. Screens will be voice activated (so you don’t have to touch a screen with fingers sticky from the syrup dispenser). These new surfaces will show what’s in your refrigerator and pantry, with data about the shelf life of all perishables. Your fridge will sense when you need to buy more milk — and will order it for delivery when your house knows you will be home. Garbi, another startup, is working on a trash can that recognizes what you discard, sorts it for recycling and reorders items.
Recipes will be personalized. No more single recipes from that book on the shelf, printed on paper, that may be good for someone but not you, with your recent calcium deficiencies and preference for mild flavors. Your kitchen will know what’s in your pantry and will design what to cook based on its knowledge about your health and preferences. Big Data for food has arrived.
Where does that leave grocery stores and restaurants? Many will be left out of this new food landscape, while others will get smaller and prepare food for delivery services. Still others will become experience centers, with more grocerants (restaurants in grocery stores) where you select your ingredients and the grocery store chef cooks it for you to eat in the store. Grocery stores, themselves smarter because of all the customer data they now own, will be fulfillment centers, some modeled after Amazon, and many integrated into Amazon’s platform.
Because your kitchen will be so smart, it will become a commerce center. You will shop from home, with tools such as augmented and virtual reality that give the sensation of being at the store. You will smell and touch what you buy, without the headache of parking or standing in a checkout line.
Perhaps these new kitchens will be maker spaces, educational centers that will teach us how to cook, what to cook and inspire us to tell stories around our food making. We’ll be content makers for a new media — food — a far cry from the static food photos we post on Instagram. We’ll stream our cooking experiences in our kitchens.
And who really likes to peel potatoes or chop onions? Food printers now produce fresh food from organic ingredients, freeze-dried and pulverized. The Last Mile is now no mile at all.
Kitchens, grocery stores and restaurants will be hubs for innovation. The engineers and designers at Bosch, GE, Kenmore and Siemens are fiddling with a whole new world in our former kitchens. Appliance makers have become hardware and software companies. Grocery stores and restaurants will fill new roles as they adapt to these new “platforms,” as our kitchen counters and frying pans will come to be known.
We might miss the joy of cooking. Or the satisfaction of making. Or the delight of creativity and the unexpected. Where along the road of automation will we pause? As our kitchens change into service centers that defrost and heat food delivered to our home, will we yearn for the temperamental toaster?
Food for Thought: South End Grocery
Dody and Steve Hiller are “mom and pop” of a small grocery store in Rockland, Maine, a fishing village turned tourist town. Fishermen still live and work there, but a few decades ago the town looked toward its art community for income and began shedding its image as a working waterfront.
South End Grocery has endured these changes, competing with modern mega-markets and maintaining a close connection with its community. The store thrives in a city whose 7,000 year-round residents have an annual median income of just $30,000, despite its new persona as an arty destination.
On a steamy summer day, customers form a long line at the lone cash register. The Hillers’ store is the third-largest grocery store in Rockland behind Shaw’s and Hannaford’s, two big supermarket chains. Despite its competitors’ being so large, South End seems to carry much of what they do — and more. You can find baseball memorabilia in one case, aisles lined with beer-packed coolers that share space with bananas and a bustling deli at the back of the store.
A bright blue runner leads customers through its single doorway, in which one often finds a community volunteer, raising funds for the animal shelter or a bereaved family that just lost a child to cancer. Sharing their space is one way the Hillers maintain a connection with their customers, about 75 percent of whom are fishermen. When the economy crashed in 2008, the Hillers saw fishermen struggle to make ends meet and decided to address their needs, seeking lower-priced products whenever possible.
Dody runs the deli area, which is responsible for 60 percent of their revenue, preparing meatball sandwiches and breakfast sausages. Son Shawn manages the bookkeeping and tech side of the business and boasts an impressive knowledge of local craft beers, which may be the reason South End is the top seller of beer kegs in the region.
Steve is the logistics guy, always calculating how much to order and when, then figuring out where to store it. He’s always on hand to meet vendors and distributors who pull up outside. In fact, if truck drivers roll into town too early to deliver their loads at Shaw’s, they rumble down to South End, where Doty greets them with hot coffee.
When a Walmart store came to the area a few years ago, the Hillers thought their store might be threatened. But their business recovered and carried on as usual, holding steady every year since then. Their biggest fear is the arrival of a Dollar General Store. Chances are, though, it won’t come with its own mom and pop.
Food Movers: Confessions of an Instacart Shopper
He’s standing near the fresh herbs, staring at a forest of tiny green bundles, scratching his head, looking up and down from his phone. I offer some help, and he asks, “Where’s the basil?” After I help him choose a perky bunch, he thanks me and mumbles, “I hate shopping for vegetarians.” He’s wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Instacart logo.
Twenty minutes later I’m back in the produce section, and the man is still staring at herbs, looking defeated. “She wants fresh sage, not dried sage. What is it with these vegetarians?” he grumbles. In his defense, none of the herbs are labeled. I point out the fresh sage and wish him luck.
Those increasingly ubiquitous personal grocery shoppers roaming the aisles at a supermarket near you are paid a per-order bonus in addition to the minimum wage they earn per hour. The more orders they can complete in an hour, the more money they can make. But when they can’t find the right fresh herbs, like the shopper I encountered, their slowed quest results in fewer completed orders that day: in other words, money left on the table.
“If you do enough orders in a day and you’re really fast, you can make a lot of money,” explains a different Instacart shopper nearby.
Personal food shopping services have grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. In Austin alone, six companies offer a range of personal shopping and delivery services at more than 10 stores. Nielsen’s Food Marketing Institute predicts that by 2025, 70 percent of consumers will be purchasing consumer packaged goods online. According to One Click Retail, Amazon already holds 18 percent of all online grocery sales.
That said, grocery shopping can be deeply personal. Customers have habits, preferences and quirks that retailers must accommodate with their third-party hand-picking-produce abilities.
“Ask anyone at HEB if they’ve had to find tahini and they’ll tell you, yes, it’s the hardest thing to find, and everyone wants it.”
As one shopper explains, “The people at Whole Foods are, well, ‘Whole Foodsie,’ ordering $50 jars of honey” and giving picky instructions about their produce. Because of this fastidiousness, online grocers started out offering only consumer packaged goods — pantry items like rice, beverages and breakfast cereals. But lately, most businesses have developed strategies for also offering fresh produce.
Still, online grocery shopping has room to grow. Less than 10 percent of customers in North America buy their fresh groceries online, according to Nielsen. Companies like Instacart have developed technologies that enable customers and shoppers to communicate as the shopper moves through the store. It’s a handy way to reassure customers that they’re getting exactly what they want. But shoppers may find their flow disrupted by picky comments such as, “Can you make sure to get the salmon that’s fourth from the back with the horizontal grill marks?” Or more frustrating: “I’m allergic to that brand.” Customer demands can get extreme, and shoppers feel the need to be polite even as they try to round up everything on their list.
Each company operates slightly differently for shoppers, who tend to stick to one company and one unique store. One exception is Burpy, which operates like the Uber of grocery delivery. Burpy shoppers may fulfill one order with products from a variety of stores. Shoppers are also paid differently depending on the company, ranging from minimum wage with bonuses per order, to flat hourly rates, to tips only. Shoppers generally work flexible schedules, which makes it an attractive second job or a good fit for students.
Regardless of payment criteria, speed matters. Shoppers create efficient strategies for moving through stores. Texas regional grocer HEB even has a digital platform that sorts a customer’s order according to the store’s unique layout, creating a “perfect workflow.” But despite deep store experience and superior technology, some items are still elusive to shoppers.
“Tahini,” one shopper says. “I’ve worked at five HEBs, and every time it’s a wild goose chase. I think it likes to hide itself. Ask anyone at HEB if they’ve had to find tahini and they’ll tell you, yes, it’s the hardest thing to find, and everyone wants it.”
Even when shoppers find everything on the list, customers must still get the groceries home. Because customers see only an itemized list, they often don’t realize how large their order is — an especially risky scenario when it’s for a pickup service or orders from Costco. Sizable orders of bottled beverages pose serious challenges.
“They pull up, and we’re dragging out three carts of groceries, two of which are full of bottled water, and they pull up in a VW Bug,” complains an HEB Curbside shopper. Amazon Fresh shoppers experience the same problem: “People will order 40 boxes of La Croix seltzer, and it’s crazy! You need eight shopping carts and that’s a lot of work.”
Despite the interconnected relationship between shopper and customer, an interesting disconnect remains. Shoppers frequently work in stores in which they do not personally shop, and often shoppers are asked to select items out of their comfort zone, like fresh herbs or fine wine. It begs the question: Can personal shoppers overcome these barriers to make this platform the future bread and butter of grocery shopping?
Food Movers: Paper or Plastic
The plastic grocery bag as we know it today comes from Sweden. Working for a plastics company called Celloplast in 1965, engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin developed a technique for sealing a folded tube of plastic and punching out a hole to create sturdy handles.
The polyethylene bag was waterproof, less likely to tear than paper, cheap to make and light to ship — and so cheap that stores have been giving them away since Day 1. Alas, they are so light that they blow into trees, fences and waterways with ease.
These single-use bags that revolutionized the retail world have now polarized it.
As one of the more visible forms of litter, plastics bags have over the past decade become the target of environmentalists around the world who advocate banning them. Some of the bag bans passed in cities such as Austin have been challenged by lobbyists and lawmakers who argue that plastic bags are more useful than they are harmful to the environment.
Even though bag bans in places like China and California have led customers to reduce all bag use by upwards of 70 percent, critics cite numerous studies that have found that manufacturing and shipping paper bags is two to three times more harmful to the environment than making and moving single-use plastic bags.
For example, a single truck can transport two million plastic bags, but it takes seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags. That works out to five to seven times more cargo weight on both sides of the chain — i.e., coming to stores as new bags and transported in the waste stream — as well as added greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientists use what is called a life-cycle assessment to determine the global warming potential and environmental impact of how different kinds of bags are made, transported, used and recycled. The United Kingdom’s Environment Agency compared different kinds of bags for a life-cycle assessment study in 2011 and found that you’d have to use a paper bag four times for it to be more environmentally friendly than a standard single-use plastic bag. And what’s more surprising? A cotton bag would have to be used at least 173 times. In other words, because of the intensive resources used to make and manufacture cotton bags, you’d have to use a cloth reusable bag 173 times to have the same environmental impact as a single-use bag.
But there are other factors to consider in that study: Plastic bags are more toxic in aquatic environments, and they break down into micropieces; however, paper bags require more water, energy and chemicals to produce, which can be toxic to the environment during the manufacturing process.
As is often the case, the solution may not be a simple binary choice between paper or plastic. For example, in some countries with bans, such as Morocco, you’ll find flimsy recycled paper fiber bags that feel like soft fabric and are biodegradable, while Canada is leading efforts to create a recycling stream for existing polyethylene bags.
Even if the bag bans don’t last, the effort to use more sustainable, reusable packaging to move our food will continue. That requires changing consumers’ and retailers’ behavior, no small feat in the grocery business.
A cotton bag requires more resources to make and transport than a plastic bag. So many more, in fact, that you’d have to use it 173 times for it to be more environmentally friendly than a plastic bag. But, plastic bags are much more toxic to aquatic environments.
Food Movers: Keg Cycle
Few pieces of hardware are as synonymous with a good time as a keg. And while other carbonated fluids are stored in these aluminum or stainless steel tanks, when we hear the word keg, we think of one beverage: beer.
Nationwide, breweries opened at a rate of nearly three per day during 2017 — 997 in total — and each brewery has its own fleet of kegs. Each one of these vessels has a salmon-like lifecycle in which it leaves its homeland full of life and returns home depleted. Unlike a spent salmon, an empty keg can jump back in for another round. But like all too many migrating fish, many kegs never make it home. Of those 997 breweries that opened in 2017, 165 went belly up. For a company that’s barely covering its costs, keg loss can make the difference between a red or green bottom line for the year.
When a keg is filled at a brewery, it is ready to go out into the world and do its job dispensing beer to the people. A distributor facilitates its journey, which may include a retail outlet such as a bar, restaurant or liquor store — the first stop before its destination at a party by the lake or other #goodtimes. If all goes well, and everyone keeps their word, the empty keg will eventually return to its home brewery. If not, and the keg never makes it home, the brewery that owns it foots the bill.
An American-made stainless-steel keg can cost a brewery more than $100, and the average annual keg loss nationwide is about 6 percent, says Tim Cognata, business development director of the beer services company Satellite Logistics Group (SLG). This transformation from stainless steel to statistic ends up costing a lot more than the $30 deposit normally collected when the brewery lets a keg go. For a small brewer, he says, replacement costs for kegs can add up quickly and take a big bite out of the profit margin.
SLG offers a service called KegID, introduced in 2012, which uses scannable barcodes to keep track of a keg’s movements, including timestamps at various stops in the keg cycle and notes about maintenance and contents.
If a keg is not returned, services like KegID provide concrete data for tax-loss purposes. Even though breweries may lose more than 5 percent of its fleet of kegs, Cognata says, most breweries are writing off a mere 1 to 2 percent drop in keg numbers because they don’t have the documentation to prove greater losses. If breweries had tracking data for each keg, they could claim all of those lost vessels without worrying about facing a penalty for overclaiming, in the event of an audit.
The same data that allow a brewery to prove its loss to the IRS can also serve as evidence with which to confront a distributor for losing kegs. Sometimes a retailer collects a larger deposit than the brewery charges the retailer, which can be especially bad for keg recovery. Regardless of the reason a keg is lost, and whether or not it’s found, breweries are happy to be armed with the data KegID provides, says Cognata.
“KegID has an invoice function where you can bill a distributor for the residual value of a keg, minus the deposit,” Cognata explains. “Most distribution contracts state that the distributor is responsible for any lost assets. We provide the concrete data so that conversation can happen: ‘We sent you X number of kegs, and Y came back.’”
Thanks to that hard evidence, Cognata says, when distributors know a brewery partner uses KegID, kegs start coming back.
Other technologies are being deployed toward similar goals. A handful of well-to-do breweries are welding GPS transmitters to their kegs to track their every move — but it’s extremely expensive (think satellite phone versus cell phone). In 2009, New Belgium Brewery began attaching Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID) to its 100,000 kegs. RFID is a different way to keep track of information similar to what KegID stores.
“(RFID) lends itself to keeping track of whole pallets of cargo rather than individual kegs,” Cognata says. New Belgium has since moved from RFID to SLG’s tracking technology.
The ability to closely track these mobile assets adds up to big cost savings for brewers. Today, more than 200 breweries use KegID, from well-known national micro brands like Sierra Nevada to well-named niche labels like Moustache Brewing Company.
When the container is worth almost as much as the contents it holds, it pays to keep track.
Best Before… Who Knows?
Real food. It’s what everyone wants — farm fresh and chemical free. But real food spoils. In the field, on the truck, at the store and in your fridge. That’s why innovators and entrepreneurs are coming up with new and nifty ways to help prolong the life of food.
The next time you purchase perfectly heart-shaped strawberries on the East Coast, consider this: They were probably picked and packed into their plastic clamshells on a Central Valley farm in California between five and eight days ago.
They could have been harvested on a balmy 70-degree morning or in the 95-degree heat of mid-afternoon. Perhaps they sat in the field for one hour — or four. Maybe the pallets took five days to cross the country in a temperature-controlled trailer, or maybe the trailer refrigerator broke down halfway through the journey. Once at the store, the strawberries might have sat on the shelf for a day, or a few more. “Many things can impact shelf life,” says Kevin Payne, vice president of marketing at Zest Labs, a San Jose-based tech company trying to take the mystery out of produce shelf life. “But you can’t see those until the very end,” when 24 hours later, your picture-perfect ruby strawberries morph into camo-green fuzz balls.
Six dollars wasted. Dreams of strawberry shortcake vanished.
And now you can add that pound of trashed berries to the 400 pounds of food you personally waste each year. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 40 percent of food produced for human consumption in the United States goes uneaten. Just one-third of that wasted food could feed the 48 million Americans living in food-insecure households.
Wasted food is bad for humanity, but experts believe it could be even worse for the earth. Food waste is responsible for 16 percent of our country’s methane emissions — the pollution equivalent of driving 37 million cars per year. Growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food uses roughly 10 percent of the U.S.’ energy budget, 50 percent of our land and 80 percent of our fresh water consumption. So, when you figure 40 percent of that goes unused, that’s a lot of unnecessary pollution accelerating climate change.
In the developing world, most food waste occurs in the field or in transit due to poor infrastructure or lack of refrigeration. But in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world, the majority of food is wasted on the farm, at the supermarket and at home.
The food industry had mostly resigned itself to these inefficiencies. “The approach has been that waste is the cost of doing business,” Payne says. “And the solutions have historically been reactive.”
That’s all starting to change thanks to a shift in food culture, environmental awareness, technological advances and a host of entrepreneurs shaking up the industry through food-shelf-life innovations.
Polluting the Planet
Wasted food is bad for humanity, but experts believe it could be even worse for the earth. Food waste is responsible for 16 percent of our country’s methane emissions — the pollution equivalent of driving 37 million cars per year. Growing, processing, transporting and disposing food uses roughly 10 percent of the U.S.’s energy budget, 50 percent of our land and 80 percent of our fresh water consumption. So when you figure 40 percent of that goes unused, that’s a lot of unnecessary pollution accelerating global warming and climate change.
Searching for ways to prolong a food’s shelf life is nothing new. Humans have been salting fish, meats and cheese for thousands of years. We’ve created techniques like smoking, pickling, waxing and, more recently, adding chemical preservatives or ozone, to prevent spoilage. Today, delicate greens are packaged in Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAPs) to replace most of the oxygen in the bag with carbon dioxide (a gas that slows spoilage). What’s more, refrigeration technology, which many experts agree is the key to extending shelf life, continues to grow more efficient.
Yet some of the industry’s most impressive technologies — canning, freezing and pasteurization — were developed nearly 200 years ago. Fresh produce, which is wasted more than any category of edible food, is in higher demand now than ever. People want cleaner food — food that’s safe, with few ingredients and very little processing. Therefore, we need to find alternative ways to slow down the basic life process known as respiration. Food respires after it’s harvested, which means it consumes oxygen and gives off CO2, heat and water. If you slow a plant’s respiration rate, you can extend its shelf life. If you extend shelf life, you can reduce food waste.
“Most solutions today have been focused on the transport period” of harvested produce, says James Rogers, founder and CEO of Apeel Sciences, a San Diego-based company that developed an imperceptible, tasteless and organically derived second-skin for produce. “We have controlled-atmosphere shipping, refrigeration, high-humidity storage — all of these are kind of solving the key things that cause produce to spoil, which are water loss and oxidation.”
Slowing food spoilage during transit is important, but Rogers wanted to protect produce through all stages of the supply chain, especially on the farm and at the grocery store.
“If you look at some of the most successful companies of our era, they’re using resources that were not being optimally utilized,” Rogers says, referring to Uber and Lyft for ride sharing and Airbnb for house sharing. “We can use technology to unlock some of that wasted value to improve efficiency.”
That’s what Rogers did when in 2012 he launched Apeel Sciences. The idea came to him while driving through California’s lush Central Valley, listening to a radio program about the one billion people who are hungry on this planet. He wondered why, when there was such an abundance of food growing around him, was one third of that food being wasted. With his knowledge of material sciences as a Ph.D. student and grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation, he began experimenting with ways to improve the shelf life of African cassavas, mangoes and bananas without using costly and environmentally unfriendly refrigeration.
To do this, he looked to organic materials left over on farms — grape skins, stems, leaves, etc. He and his team of scientists blended the matter up and extracted fats and specific food molecules. When these molecules are transformed into powder and combined with water, the resulting liquid can be rinsed over produce at wholesale produce-sorting facilities to create an undetectable “second skin.”
“We’re trying to use food waste to solve the food-waste problem,” Rogers says. The added “peel” acts to “physically slow down the rate at which water evaporates out of the produce and the rate at which oxygen gets into the produce,” he explains. “By doing that, we can dramatically extend the shelf life of most types of fruits and vegetables even without the use of refrigeration.” This science led to a Series B $33 million investment in the company, with big grocers like Kroger and Costco buying Apeel-treated produce to reduce their food waste.
Another entrepreneur using food to save food is Kavita Shukla, founder and CEO of The FreshGlow Co., which developed a natural paper infused with organic spices and active botanicals that when placed near produce can double — sometimes quadruple — its shelf life.
The idea came to Shukla when she was 12 years old, visiting her grandmother in Bhopal, India. Her mother had warned her not to drink the water, but she forgot while brushing her teeth. Her grandmother quickly mixed up a spice elixir for her to drink. Shukla never got sick. When she got home, she began experimenting to see if the same spices could clean dirty pond water. They did. Her tests soon turned into a winning science-fair project, which set the course for her professional life.
“For the most part, food-spoilage technologies involve toxic pads, refrigerated transport or a lot of plastic,” Shukla says. But “customers are really aware now. They are asking, ‘Hey, is that apple waxed? What is the wax?’”
To make FreshPaper, the company infuses a proprietary blend of bacteria-inhibiting spices into compostable, organic paper. The paper can be slipped into berry cartons, vegetable bins or bags of leafy greens. The exposure you get to the spices is similar to what you might get while walking through the spice aisle of a grocery store, Shukla explains.
Best of all, Shukla’s paper is inexpensive, compostable and safe for humans and the environment. “I had my grandmother in mind when I designed the technology,” Shukla says. “She never had a refrigerator.” The product is already sold in 180 countries.
For the FreshGlow Co., which has taken it slow and steady, scaling up is the goal: to bring its product to larger produce companies and food distributors around the world. “That was always my intention — to use the technology to reduce food waste across the supply chain,” Shukla says.
While entrepreneurs are recognizing the financial and humanitarian opportunities of extending food shelf life, Silicon Valley hasn’t really tapped into this huge revenue stream. Zest Labs in San Jose is trying to change that. The tech company is making the cold supply chain more efficient by accurately predicting the shelf life of produce as it moves around the country. It does this through the Internet of Things (IoT), the interconnection of computers and everyday objects through data sent and received via the Internet. These IoT sensors monitor the temperature of produce on each pallet, from field to the retail shelf.
“The largest impact on produce is temperature, harvesting conditions and variety of the product,” says Zest Labs’ Payne. “Pallets harvested first will vary from bottom to top,” he explains. “We can figure out that pallet A has this much shelf life, and pallet B has this much.” They do this by producing a Zest Intelligent Pallet Routing (ZIPR) code, which routes pallets with less freshness to the nearest location and those with a longer shelf life further afield.
Zest Labs has “removed the randomness of food distribution,” says Dr. Jean-Pierre Emond, a co-founder of The Illuminate Group and an expert on the cold chain. “For each pallet coming in, they now know exactly what to do with it.”
Zest Labs technology is enabling growers and retailers, who have never had this type of data, to profit more and waste less. They do this by reducing pre-harvest water, fertilizer and labor costs, as well as post-harvest costs for waste removal. Large companies like Costco have tapped into Zest Labs’ technology to help their growers, distributors and themselves.
“I never see anyone winning with food waste,” Emond says. The entire food supply chain stands to benefit from these new solutions.
Sell by? Use by? Why?
Food loss on the farm, in transit and at the retail store is significant. But the largest category is even closer: Nearly half of America’s food waste happens at home. A 2012 NRDC study found “the average American consumer wastes 10 times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia, up 50 percent from Americans in the 1970s.”
The food-waste problem is partly cultural. In the U.S., food is relatively inexpensive compared to other parts of the world. Thanks to busy lifestyles, we over-buy and under-plan. And inconsistent shelf-life food labeling confuses consumers and retailers. What does “sell by” and “best if used by” mean? Are foods past those dates actually spoiled? Often, they are not.
In 2013 the NRDC reported that food expiration date codes contribute considerably to the estimated 160 billion pounds of food trashed each year in the United States, “making food waste the single largest contributor of solid waste in the nation’s landfills.” Food expiration date codes are not federally regulated. They vary by state and are often arbitrary, providing false confidence in a food’s freshness or spoilage.
“There isn’t a rhyme or reason to how food codes are set,” says Michael Malmberg, chief operating officer of Daily Table, a nonprofit Boston-based grocery store that sources nearly expired food from local farms, distributors, grocery stores, restaurants and bakeries, and resells that food at affordable prices. “It’s set by the manufacturer or packager and can be done for marketing reasons — if they want to turn a product over faster.”
Doug Rauch, a former president of Trader Joe’s — and Malmberg’s boss — saw an opportunity to change perceptions of shelf life at the retail level. Rauch was well aware of how much perfectly good food was wasted by grocery stores due to confusing food labels. While a fellow at Harvard University, he also learned that food malnourishment meant not just “a deficit in calories; it was a deficit in nutrition, and supply chain issues,” Malmberg says. “(Doug) realized there is a need not only for access to food, but access to healthy food that’s affordable.” Out of that came the concept for Daily Table, which opened its doors in June 2015.
Rauch likes to think of his two grocery stores, located in Roxbury and Dorchester, Massachusetts, as the T.J. Maxx or Marshalls of the food world — where you can shop for quality products at reduced prices without the stigma that comes with visiting a food bank. This model, backed by the PepsiCo Foundation, the Kendall Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recognizes the flexibility in food expiration codes.
“It’s all well and good to have healthy produce,” says Malmberg. “But if people get home from work and don’t have dinner on the table, they’re in trouble.” So Daily Table also set up an on-site kitchen and hired chefs to turn ugly produce or products that are not moving off the shelves quickly enough into affordable, nutritious, ready-to-cook and grab-n-go meals that cost the same price or less than nearby fast food. Daily Table hopes to open more stores because “the concept will be more effective at scale,” says Malmberg. “We are currently covering 65 percent of our expenses. We think with a third or fourth store, we can break even.”
Breaking even, when it comes to food waste, would be a big step in the right direction.
Food packaging has been around as long as people have traded goods in markets. How else are you going to schlep that wine home across the desert? Given all that’s new in packaging and shelf-life technology, we’re taking a look back to some golden oldies, from skins and amphorae to the humble milk bottle.
Plants, animals and even humans have skins that inhibit the loss of water, so we will last longer. Food packaging performs the same function, inhibiting water loss and gain to extend freshness during transportation and storage. Too much water for any living creature causes cell death, so food scientists have been working for centuries to find the best way to provide a barrier between food and the environment.
Before the 17th century, that optimal barrier was literal skin. Leather bladders and other animal hides were convenient packaging materials beginning in prehistoric periods, and most “packages” for food were not removed during the cooking process. Animal bladders held meats and mixtures of vegetables and seasonings over the cooking fire. In a sense, haggis and natural sausage casings are modern-day versions of this ancient packaging.
Though we now have more options than our 17th-century ancestors did, we still protect many foods from spoilage by applying a protective skin.
Think of spoilage this way: Any perishable food ingredient, processed or unprocessed, breathes just like we do, taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. Bacteria grows faster if it exists in conditions that enable it to breathe, allowing it to break down the plant or animal cells. That’s why you frequently see cheeses and fruits covered with wax. The Chinese popularized this tactic during the 12th century, when they wrapped citrus fruits in wax to decrease the interior oxygen content and ensure the fruits made it to the emperor’s table. Different types of waxes (e.g., sugar cane and carnauba) are often applied by spraying or dipping fruits and vegetables to preserve or improve the appearance and protect the produce during storage.
Wax isn’t the only kind of protective skin: Victorians used lard to coat food, and M&Ms are covered with confectioner’s shellac, a substance made of an insect-derived coating that’s produced in India and called lac dye. Your french fries remain white and crispy because of a coating applied during processing to inhibit discoloration. Some other coatings aren’t so natural, including calcium acetate and calcium ascorbate. Even wheat gluten becomes a skin for some foods that are not grain-related at all.
Jars and Pottery
Three thousand clay jars of fermented fish sauce emerged gently from the sea in 2015. A team of archeologists led by Simon Luca Trigona celebrated their trove after two years of painstaking work around a Roman ship that was built sometime in the first or second century. These containters, called amphorae (singularly, amphora), have been around since the Neolithic Period (10,000 to 2,000 BCE). They were made of clay and often carried wine, oil or a fish sauce known as garum. The fish sauce, which resembled ketchup, was most likely from Spain and bound for Roman markets.
Fish sauce traveled in pottery vessels long before the sinking of the Roman ship. At the time, clay was also used as a sealant for baskets that carried grain. To eliminate the absorption of liquids by the vessel, clay, resin or pitch coated the interior surfaces. Manufacturers of amphorae applied a stamp to the outside that indicated its origin. In some cases, other information would be written or painted on to indicate weights, contents and market information.
Not often recycled, Greek and Roman amphorae were broken up after they reached their destinations. Rome’s Monte Testaccio is a mountain of these vessels, a Roman pottery garbage heap.
Glass, Crates and Cartons
Milk travels along the supply chain in bulk and consumer packaging, contained in glass, plastic and paper. A rusty milk jug worked its way up to the soil surface in our backyard last summer, with a metal label indicating it had belonged to the Turner Center Creamery in Auburn, Maine. The creamery, which operated in Auburn in 1893, manufactured the first commercial ice cream in New England. Customers would send jugs to dairies where the farmers would refill and deliver the milk back to the customer.
In more urban areas, metal milk jugs had been replaced with glass bottles topped with metal caps. Alexander Campbell introduced these bottles in 1878 in Brooklyn, New York, and by the early 1900s, fiber material and paraffin covered the metal caps. At first, customers resisted the glass bottles because glass was commonly used for medicines from the drug stores, and dairies worried about broken glass. But distributors preferred glass for sanitation and easy handling, so both dairies and consumers overcame their concerns, and glass replaced the metal jugs until paperboard appeared in the early 20th century.
In 1915, John Van Wormer patented a wax-sealed paper carton with a gable top that could be shipped flat for assembly at the dairy. Gallon and half-gallon plastic jugs became the preferred package for milk by 1970, but paper milk cartons have made a comeback since being fitted with screw tops in the 1990s.
Plastic jugs travel to stores in milk crates, which were once made of metal, but were replaced with plastic by the 1960s. Each crate carries four to six one-gallon plastic milk jugs. About 20 million crates go missing every year, stolen for shredding and reselling at a profit. The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) estimates that U.S. dairy companies spend between $80 and $100 million to replace stolen or missing plastic milk crates (read about another beverage container that often falls out of the supply chain).
Smart Cities Are Forgetting Food
Smart cities use technology and data-driven solutions to make people’s lives better. But until recently, cities have failed to adopt this methodology for what is perhaps the most critical urban system: food. As urban agriculture builds momentum, now is the time for cities to embrace this young industry and foster urban food systems through a data-driven and “smart” approach.
Urban agriculture has the capacity to ameliorate many issues plaguing urban areas. It can contribute to green infrastructure efforts, create a food source that’s safeguarded against climate events and provide a variety of local jobs. But despite the potential of this nascent industry to improve the lives of city dwellers, urban agriculture is often left out of the Smart City discussions and policy decisions that have quickly gained popularity across the globe.
Nevertheless, the urban agriculture industry is growing rapidly as it tries to meet an ever-increasing demand for nutritious local produce. AgriFood Tech investment reached $10.1 billion in 2017, including $200 million in Series B funding for vertical farming company Plenty.
Let’s be clear: Urban agriculture is not the solution to our food system crisis. Other solutions are sorely needed as well, including ways of fostering stronger regional connections between farms and cities. Food waste is also a major issue that needs to be tackled. But urban agriculture is, and will continue to be, an essential component of how every country and city restructures its food system to make fresh food supplies more available, resilient and ecologically friendly.
Cities and Agriculture
Just like energy, transportation and internet access, the processes of food production and distribution are integral parts of the urban ecosystem. And like those other system components, agriculture should be supported through smart policies that are data-driven and context specific. The path forward for resilient cities and communities must include thoughtfully planned urban agriculture.
Some cities around the U.S. and abroad are beginning to implement policies to encourage the industry’s growth as a critical part of local and regional food systems.
In Atlanta, for example, a director of urban agriculture within the mayor’s Office of Resilience ensures that municipal support is consistently available to local farmers via the AgLanta digital resource hub, along with a wide range of other initiatives. Through the city’s “Grows-A-Lot” program, Atlanta residents and nonprofit organizations can secure renewable five-year leases to farm vacant city-owned property.
Many other cities have passed zoning ordinances and started programs to promote the expansion of urban agriculture. In Boston, Article 89 comprehensively addresses where different forms of urban farms should be permitted within the city. In Minneapolis, the Homegrown local food program brings municipal and community actors together to research and plan out future supportive policies. In Paris, a municipal initiative called ‘Parisculteurs’ aims to cover the city’s rooftops and walls with 100 hectares of green space by 2020, and to dedicate a third of that space towards food production. And in Singapore, developers are incentivized to include urban farms as part of green building requirements.
But these efforts are largely piecemeal. Few cities, if any, are using data-driven urban-agriculture planning and analysis to ensure future resilience in this burgeoning sector of municipal economies. By performing in-depth analysis on where the greatest vulnerabilities lie within their local food systems, cities can change what today is mostly a feel-good concept into a critical framework that can be scaled to transform local food production. Using data can help determine the best opportunities to bolster urban and peri-urban production to achieve goals such as food access or stormwater management.
The idea here is not to turn urban agriculture into a top-down model. The decentralized and diverse nature of urban farming models is a major contributing factor to the industry’s rapid pace of innovation and its ability to be a resilient source of food production. Rather, the idea is for cities and regions to understand where the greatest vulnerabilities and opportunities lie within their local food systems, and then to plan out and provide support to targeted areas of the food economy, perhaps through local food distribution hubs and farming incubators for entrepreneurs and startups.
Advances in urban agriculture planning are happening — slowly. Cities and communities are starting to work together across sectors and silos to recognize and promote agriculture’s role as an integral component of smart, resilient cities. But there is plenty of work to be done.
Taking the Next Step
Now, like passionate entrepreneurs first entering the food- system space, many cities have great intentions for urban agriculture. Unfortunately, many cities also lack the capacity and technical knowledge to understand where the local food system should be strengthened to most effectively make it smarter and more resilient against environmental, social and economic stressors.
For cities to become smart in this sector, they no longer need to recognize the many benefits of urban agriculture — that has already happened throughout mayoral administrations, academic halls and even more recently in Congress. The time for putting energy into persuasion is over.
For our part, at Agritecture we have designed a new service called Urban Agriculture Scenario Analysis to assist cities in analyzing and strengthening their local food capabilities. Using site-specific and scale-specific data and modeling, Scenario Analysis can transform a city’s piecemeal farming community into a diversified urban agriculture economy.
The good news: There is a wealth of burgeoning technology around urban and peri-urban food production and distribution. Many urban farms are already “smart,” using sensors and data to tailor everything from lighting to crop nutrition. This is true in large farms such as AeroFarms, which dominates an entire converted warehouse in Newark, New Jersey, and also in smaller farms like Farm.One, which takes advantage of underutilized basement space in Manhattan to cultivate rare specialty crops for the city’s restaurants.
But if cities are going to be successful in integrating advances in food system technology into their wider metropolitan planning efforts, they must apply a data-driven methodology similar to the approach that many urban farmers are taking to more effectively grow crops.
A Smart City revolution is currently sweeping the world. Although we remain in the early stages, this revolution will soon transform the way that cities support the most essential components of urban life. To ensure that food isn’t left out of the equation, cities must start supporting urban agriculture in targeted ways that work with the urban agriculture industry to reconstruct our food production and distribution systems into smarter, more localized and more resilient networks.
Edible Bugs: More Than Just Protein
Flavor notes range from peppery lemon to pine-nutty to prosciutto-savory. Some varieties make for lovely garnishes on your seafood salad, while others are perfect as the heart of a well-salsa’d taco.
Some new-ancient legume? The latest grain-based trend? No — I’m talking about edible bugs.
And I’m not the only one. Bug-based recipes are showing up all over Instagram and your favorite cooking magazines. Yet while we in the West are playing catch-up, some cultures around the world have been enjoying arthropods and mealworms for millennia.
If you think about it — with a wide-open mind — bugs aren’t all that different from crustaceans. After all, crayfish (or, crawfish) are known by some in Louisiana as mudbugs. Just as we enjoy the sweet flavor of shrimp and the slight crunch involved in devouring a crab or lobster, eating bugs just takes a bit of practice.
That’s what Aly Moore believes, anyway. Her site (eatbugsevents.com) and beautiful Instagram feed (@bugible) are dedicated to making bugs seem like the white-hot snack trend you’re dying to try. She even does bug-and-wine pairings to highlight the wide variety of flavor notes. And, who knows, maybe the wine helps reduce inhibitions against taking that first bite.
Bugs Around the World
While eating bugs may be a novel idea for Americans and other Westerners, insects have long been a valuable ingredient in many parts of the world.
crickets served instead of bar nuts
escargot (technically a mollusk, but they do live in the garden)
“I think people are all really pleasantly surprised,” she says about guests at her bug dinners and wine-and-bug pairing events. “I give people a spiel that does everything from comparing bugs to seafood to describing the tasting notes, and you can see them starting to warm up to the idea. That lightbulb moment is great, when they realize bugs are not at all bad. In fact, they have a familiar flavor.”
Focusing on flavor is a key tactic for Moore — especially in her wine events, where she highlights specific bug flavor notes and pairs a complementary wine. Crickets go nicely with lighter reds like pinot noir, Moore says, while meatier-flavored grubs want a more robust Zinfandel. Scorpions, you might be surprised to learn, have a delicate salmon-y flavor that’s perfect with a zingy sauvignon blanc.
If you’re not ready to take the plunge with a whole roasted tarantula, there are lots of ways to experiment with eating bugs without knowing they’re an ingredient — for example, cricket- flour protein bars or chips are increasingly easy to find in mainstream grocery stores.
But, really, Moore is a fan of highlighting the whole insect in all its glory to help people begin to think of them as a tasty option in their everyday diets.
“Comfort foods” — like pizza topped with meaty grasshoppers (aka chapulines in Oaxaca) or sago grubs, which are known as the bacon of the bug world — “are a great way to help people get over the hurdle,” Moore says. “Making comfort foods that people can relate to helps create positive associations with eating bugs.”
Ready to start cooking with edible bugs? Check out the “Buy Bugs” link on eatbugsevents.com for resource ideas.
How do you go from crawling to crunchy without the use of toxic pesticides or a dramatic SQUISH? Oh, just chill — the bugs, that is. While many studies concur that bugs’ central nervous systems aren’t complex enough to feel pain, you might worry a bit anyway. A humane and simple way to corral those critters is to refrigerate them. Because they’re cold-blooded, they fall asleep, at which point you can move them to a freezer to ensure they’ll never crawl, jump or fly again.
The Return of Sail Cargo
For centuries, sailing ships offered the fastest, best option for transporting goods and people. The Age of Sail (1571–1862) marked the reign of tall ships, with clipper ships representing the apex of commercial sailing’s progression.
The visually striking clippers had strong lines, V-shaped bows that sliced through water and dozens of sails to capture wind. First developed around 1845 by American shipbuilders looking to give small fishing boats an edge over pursuing pirates, clipper ships evolved to carry modest amounts of cargo at unparalleled speeds. A clipper ship could reach more than 15 knots and cover 300 nautical miles in a day, easily outpacing a steamer ship’s 9 knots.
During the Gold Rush, in 1849 — 20 years before completion of the transcontinental railroad — ships carried 25,000 Americans west. While wealthier passengers could spring for Panama-bound steamers, take the train across Panama, then steam up the West Coast, most forty-niners endured a five- to seven-month journey around Cape Horn via clipper ship. Flying Cloud set a world record for this trip, which stood for more than 100 years, when it arrived in San Francisco after 89 days, 21 hours.
These greyhounds of the sea were the obvious choice for the British Empire’s most prized cargo: tea. Thirst for tea was such that a so-called tea clipper could earn £3,000 from one cargo load — roughly 20 to 25 percent of shipbuilding costs. The first ship of the season to reach London’s docks would win a premium.
The Great Tea Race of 1866 demonstrated the logistics underlying tea mania. Clipper ships lined the docks in Fuzhou. The first ship to clear customs had an early advantage, but favorable winds, stronger tugboats and the luck of the tides made for a competitive 16,000-mile race between five of the day’s fastest clippers, Flying Cloud among them. Ninety-nine days after leaving Fuzhou, Taeping and Ariel docked within 20 minutes of one another and split the premium.
But as 45 million pounds of tea flooded the market, tea prices plummeted, illustrating one of sail’s disadvantages: Ships couldn’t keep a schedule, which meant supply-side volatility.
The Great Tea Race occurred between two dips in the popularity of sailing. When American banks shuttered in the Panic of 1857, trade slowed, as did the demand for sailing ships. Later, in 1869, the Suez Canal opened and gave an advantage to steamer ships, which could complete the Europe- Asia route in 50 days. Overland transport improved, too, with railroad expansion.
By the turn of the 20th century, countries were abandoning sailing ships in favor of steamers, which offered reliability and greater cargo space. With the opening of the Panama Canal and the onset of World War I in 1914, sail’s demise seemed assured. By World War II, sailing ships were restricted to commercial fishing trades. Tall ships seemed destined for nostalgia, until — nearly a century later — the winds shifted once more.
From 2012 to 2017, shipping accounted for 3.1 percent of global CO2 emissions. The International Maritime Organization estimates that shipping emissions will increase by an additional 50 to 250 percent by 2050. As some in the industry look to lower their carbon footprint, there’s renewed interested in wind power.
In recent years, sail cargo projects have sprung up along old trade routes. U.K.-based Grayhound Lugger crosses the English Channel, trading Cornish ale and organic French wine. Dutch-based Tres Hombres crosses the Atlantic with cacao, coffee and rum. Schooner Apollonia plans to launch on the Hudson River by year end, bringing cider, beer and apples downstream to New York City.
In 2019, Sail Cargo Inc. will open a carbon-neutral shipyard in Costa Rica. Through its 3½-year build process for Ceiba (a 45-meter sailing cargo vessel with a chilled hold space and 25-ton cargo capacity, crafted from sustainably harvested wood), Sail Cargo Inc. plans to offer a traditional skills apprenticeship program, where participants can learn shipbuilding, blacksmithing or woodwork — all green jobs.
While sail may have traditional roots, its means have been updated. Today’s sailing ships have biodiesel engines or solar batteries to augment wind power, plus GPS and plotting technologies to plan efficient routes.
Still, challenges remain. Routes aren’t operable year-round, and — as in the past — sticking to a schedule can be difficult. Port infrastructure might be set up for recreational boats with floating docks that make loading tricky or for the giant post-Panamax cruise and cargo ships. What’s more, to realize a profit, sailing ships need premium cargo. Vermont Sail Freight’s founder, Erik Andrus, said only one crop would deliver an ROI of $0.50 to $1.00 per pound of weight: Pot.
Growth potential aside, modern sail freight has neither the capacity nor efficiency to supplant tankers. Instead, cargo shippers will look to wind to lower emissions. Maersk is trialing rotor sails (invented 100 years ago) to add wind power to tanker ships, which will conserve some 1,000 tons of fuel. And Cargill, which charters over 500 vessels, is co-funding SkySails, a kite sail initiative.
Sail freight’s early adopters are largely companies with the desire (and cash) to align their business with their values by using emission-free shipping for organic, hand-crafted products. Other clients value the interactive marketing experience sail cargo offers: Guests can board the ship, sample products and form a powerful brand connection.
Unlike sailing ships of yore — which competed as fiercely as any 21st-century big-business rivals — today’s sailing ships operate as a network, sharing tips and routes. That unusual collaboration highlights the focus on relationships that could cement this trend as a viable shipping option.
Jason Marlow of Schooner Apollonia acknowledges that sail cargo’s client base is limited at present. Yet, he is optimistic. The more people start to identify sail transport as an option, the more they will request it.
“As it starts to scale up and there are more vessels and it’s more connected, then it starts to compete pricewise with other modes” of transportation, Marlow says. In the meantime, the new-old industry breathes life into port towns that may be struggling to redefine their economies.
The Freshest Leafy Greens
Have you ever had a salad with lettuce freshly picked from the garden? Maybe your grandmother grew her own greens, or perhaps that farm-to-plate restaurant you love makes amazing salads. Unless you have your own backyard garden, fresh lettuce most likely travels the distance from the farm to your grocer on a long-haul truck. Until now.
A 21st-century lettuce farm no longer requires muddy rows cut into a rural field subject to the whim of weather and labor. Behind a suburban grocery store in Dallas, fresh leafy greens are produced under a limitless pink glow inside a clean, 53-foot-long, steel shipping container, yards away from where they will eventually be sold.
The glow — provided by LED lights in both the red and blue spectra — is an engine that works 24-7, producing spicy arugula rich in vitamins and antioxidants, fresh green leaves ruffled in purple and romaine so crisp that it oozes milky sap when cut.
Since May 2017, Central Market, the gourmet offspring of the family-run, Texas-based H-E-B Grocery Co., has been selling lettuce and herbs grown on-site. Production is contained and perfected so that customers have access to a daily harvest of fresh, organic greens. While Austin-based rival Whole Foods has partnered with another company to sow seeds on a store’s roof, and startups like San Francisco’s Plenty have built large urban food-production facilities, Central Market’s growing container represents the first time that a grocery store has grown produce on-site with their own staff.
The container garden is the brainchild of Marty Mika, produce specialist and buyer for Central Market. After years of working to procure the freshest ingredients for customers, he is well aware of how difficult it is to always have the best on hand.
“There are so many variables in produce: Mother Nature, seasonality, labor issues, water and even transportation,” says Mika. “So, we looked at how we could take over some of the supply chain and put all of these issues under our own umbrella.”
Americans eat a lot of lettuce — about 11 pounds of romaine and other leafy lettuces per person per year, and even more if hardy iceberg varieties are considered. In 2017, romaine and other leafy green harvests were valued at over $2 billion, a substantial increase in value from the previous year. Salad, a key component of a healthy diet, is so popular that many fast-food chains have added salads to their menus. At-home salad consumption is increasing too, thanks partly to new packaging in bags and clamshells that can extend freshness.
But getting lettuce to the table at the peak of perfection is not an easy task. The challenges are numerous: drought, pests, temperature, contamination and physical damage during transportation.
Lettuce is a cool-weather crop, so it grows best when days are not too hot and nights are not too cold. Because of this, 90 percent of all romaine and leafy greens harvested in the U.S. hail from either California or Arizona. As a result, much of the lettuce produced travels great distances to end up plated with a tomato and vinaigrette.
The transportation challenge means that lettuce is often picked just before maturity and immediately bundled onto a truck for distribution. Driving lettuce to markets adds to the cost of food, especially when fuel costs fluctuate. A 2013 USDA report found that a doubling of diesel prices could lead to an average increase of 20 to 28 percent in wholesale prices for a variety of produce.
Another issue related to transportation is nutrient loss. Research has shown that as lettuce is trucked across the country from farm to market, levels of ascorbic acid, chlorophyll, carotenoids and important minerals decrease, a reduction in quality that persists as long as the lettuce is being moved or sits on a shelf in a supermarket before purchase. Transportation also introduces new risks into the food chain: If vehicles are not adequately cleaned and maintained, there is always the potential for contamination.
So, what is a purveyor of produce to do?
Contain. Contain. Contain.
To facilitate growing their own fresh greens, Mika and his Central Market team purchased a domestic shipping container from Growtainers that had a few modifications crammed into nine feet of headspace: neat units with four shelves, a system for modulating temperature and an LED growing system that shines 24 hours of pink light into every corner. The crop grows in a perfectly controlled environment primed for maximum production.
In Dallas, Central Market employees sow varieties of lettuce and herbs into a medium made of melted rocks. This clean, sterile substrate is the perfect underpinning for growing plants hydroponically, or without soil. Nutrients are added to the water, and the plants grow rapidly without pesticides or herbicides. In addition, the temperature range in the container can be optimized for growth. And though scientific research has not shown that pink light makes plants grow more quickly, the LED system that uses only some wavelengths of the light spectrum allows plants to flourish while saving on energy costs.
Many commercial hydroponic growers do not want to talk about proprietary data and results; however, research suggests that crops can be coaxed to grow between 20 and 50 percent faster in hydroponic conditions. Recent research also shows that hydroponic farming can yield 11 times as much lettuce per area under cultivation and uses a fraction of the water when compared to conventionally farmed lettuce.
The Dallas team plants and harvests by section within the container. Each new planting takes over a new set of shelves, which enables a scheduled harvest of perfect greens to be plopped into a clamshell and then moved to the market shelf in minutes. The work is very detail oriented, but once the process starts, it is consistent and easy to maintain.
Even better: Transportation of product to retailer is now a mere few feet, and customers have access to pesticide-free, organic produce.
“We produce enough of different, basic varieties each week to sell in the store: not too much, not too little,” said Mika. “Customers like the flavor and freshness of the greens, and they like the fact that we’re reducing the carbon footprint.”
There are some disadvantages to producing container lettuce, though, including high initial costs for equipment. In addition, because container farms tend to be in urban areas — close to customers — the cost of land is high. These costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for greens. Hydroponic farming also uses much more energy than conventional farming — more than 80 times the amount of energy, although this excludes energy used for transportation.
Stay tuned. Researchers are developing more sustainable practices for indoor farming that should further reduce the carbon footprint.
Fish Out of Water
As the lobster capital of the U.S. looks to diversify its commercial fishing industry, new options for harvesting seafood are emerging — in ocean-based farms, in cold rivers and even on land. Maine is diving into aquaculture.
Independent fishermen, the backbone of the Maine commercial seafood industry, play a vital role in the state’s culture and economy. Roughly 5,000 lobster fishermen produce 80 percent of the value of Maine’s commercial seafood catch – an estimated contribution of more than $1 billion to the state economy. But relying too much on any one species could put the state in a precarious position. The volume and value of Maine lobster fell more than 15 percent from 2016 to 2017, from $533 million in 2016 to $434 million in 2017. Tariffs imposed in July 2018 by China on select American products, including lobster, represent a new factor that could affect Maine lobstermen this year, despite a very productive season so far.
Climate change is another problem. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) has identified the waters off of coastal Maine as “one of the fastest-warming ocean ecosystems on the planet.” The volatility of the water temperature is just one reason many small fishermen began to focus primarily on lobster, where prior generations made a living on a varied catch. In this new reality, re-diversifying production and having more direct control over cultivation will help sustain Maine’s commercial seafood industry. Two aquaculture endeavors now in development represent decidedly different alternatives for America’s lobster capital.
The Rise of Aquaculture Worldwide
Aquaculture in Maine has been practiced since at least the 1800s. While laws regarding fish and shellfish culture date back to 1905, the Maine Legislature only began to regulate aquaculture as an industry in 1973. In the last few decades, Maine-based institutions have dived into aquaculture research, but many questions remain about how to make production more cost-efficient. Farmers bringing product to market also play an important role in determining aquaculture’s viability: by finding ways to integrate into existing supply chains or to create new ones and by understanding how consumers relate to new products, including their willingness to pay to them.
Worldwide, consumers seem very willing to pay for farmed fish. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), global per-capita fish consumption is on the rise. As of 2016, aquaculture accounted for 47 percent of all fish consumed as food. Further, the first-sale value of all aquaculture production was estimated at $243.5 billion — almost double the value of global fishery production. Investors have noticed. Venture capital and private-equity capital from the same entrepreneurial ecosystems that have long funded tech startups are turning to food systems ventures.
“Fish is the new beef,” says Mike Velings, a Dutch venture capitalist and founder of Aqua-Spark, the first aquaculture investment fund. His 2015 TED talk, “The Case for Fish Farming,” has been viewed more than a million times. In light of this global surge in aquaculture, Maine’s fishing industry is exploring ways to move beyond lobsters.
What is Aquaculture?
The term aquaculture refers to the farming of aquatic organisms in water and can include finfish, shellfish, crustaceans, sea cucumber, seaweed, kelp, algae — anything that grows in water. It’s related to hydroponics, which generally refers to growing plants in nutrient-rich water, without soil, as well as aquaponics, the symbiotic cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in a recirculating environment. Aquaculture differs from conventional fishing or even harvesting of shellfish and seaweed in that it explicitly includes propagation (almost always in a land-based, lab-like setting, or “hatchery”) as well as tending to the crop, or stock, through the whole growth cycle. Vertical ocean farming is essentially an aquaponic practice in an ocean environment, in which seaweed and shellfish farms are vertically arranged in the water column, mimicking the arrangement of natural systems and promoting interactivity with other ocean species around them.
All Eyes on Scallops
Tenants Harbor in St. George is a picturesque spot in Maine’s mid-coast region, nestled between two hillsides that protect it from the winds off the bay. I’ve come here to meet Ryan McPherson, Merritt Carey and Peter Miller, members of the newly formed Maine Aquaculture Co-op. The topic: sea-scallop farming in Penobscot Bay. It’s a new idea for a region more associated with lobsters, and the hope is to reintroduce a measure of diversification for independent fishermen so they can continue to make a living from the sea.
“It’s all about local knowledge,” Miller, a fourth-generation fisherman, says. “I want every young fisherman to have the chance that I had.”
Maine isn’t new to scallop production, but its cold ocean temperatures mean they grow slowly. “To harvest wild scallops in Maine, they have to be four inches, which takes about four years,” McPherson explains. “The product we’re landing doesn’t have those restrictions, because we’re growing them.”
A former fisherman with a degree in entrepreneurship, McPherson purchased Glidden Point Oysters in Edgecomb, Maine, with leases in the deep water of the Damariscotta River, in 2017. He has quickly made inroads in the state, expanding relationships with chefs and maintaining Glidden Point Oysters as a premium product, a philosophy he brought to his involvement with the Maine Aquaculture Co-op. In addition to making chefs aware of the co-op, he fostered a tie to Island Creek Oysters, which provides a robust point-of-sale and distribution network for products that share Island Creek Oysters’ emphasis on celebrating American merroir. The co-op’s first live, whole scallops — not just the abductor muscle that most people traditionally think of as a scallop — started selling on the platform in early 2018.
“Before we pull them out of the water, they are already sold,” McPherson says. Literally pulling them out of the water is interesting, too. As the net emerges from the water, the petite scallops respond to the change in their environment and clap their shells shut in unison.
A 2016 market analysis for Maine-farmed shellfish confirmed that the portion of shellfish produced by aquaculture in Maine remains quite small — less than 1 percent of the landed value of oysters, mussels and scallops in the United States. Despite the small quantity, Maine scallops garner the highest price per pound of any state. Yet Maine produces only 2 percent of the country’s volume. To meet consumer demand, the United States imports 40 million pounds of scallop meat, with a value ($350 million) close to the value of scallops it produces domestically ($380 million). Projections about future consumer demand may be conservative because they don’t consider the impact of expanding direct-to-consumer buying options and prepared meal kits. The report also notes that Maine has the cold, clean waters to support shellfish aquaculture expansion, with projected acreage needed by 2030 estimated to be less than .3 percent of state waters.
like the French terroir, which refers to the flavor notes a wine gets from the grapes’ soil and growing region, merroir describes the way seafoods reflect the taste of the waters in which they’re grown.
For delicious scallop pics and shots of the sea farmers at work, follow @MaineAquacultureCoop on Instagram.
The Salmon Story
Maine’s wild Atlantic salmon population hovers on the brink of extension due to loss of fresh water spawning habitat, overfishing, pollution and other forces. Heavily depleted by the late 1960s and declared an endangered species in 2000, wild Atlantic salmon is no longer fished commercially in Maine waters. In 2016, habitat restoration projects began, and small upticks in population are now being recorded.
Responding to the vast U.S. market hungry for salmon, Norwegian investors are focusing on Maine for land-based production. The U.S. exports the majority of the seafood it harvests, while importing species such as salmon — an inefficient crossover that generates heavy carbon dioxide emissions. But salmon farmed in Maine can efficiently reach more than 50 million people in adjacent states, a “grow-local” solution.
“The exciting thing is, you can place production close to the consumer,” says Erik Heim, CEO of Nordic AquaFarms. “So instead of airfreighting in tons of salmon from New Zealand, Chile, Norway, Scotland, you can produce it locally.”
Nordic AquaFarms aims to produce 30,000 metric tons (approximately 66 million pounds) of salmon annually in a facility in Belfast, Maine, estimated to cost $500 million when fully complete. Due in part to concerns associated with ocean-based finfish farming, including fish feed sourcing, disease, use of antibiotics, fish escape, pollution and others, the location of aquaculture is changing dramatically. Earlier aquaculture practices for finfish entailed producing eggs and growing juvenile fish in land-based hatcheries, then releasing them into sea-pens — or in the case of stock regulation, into the wild. Today’s finfish aquaculture is increasingly keeping the fish indoors for life.
Heim explains that the facility will comprise three main production areas: hatchery, grow out and processing. The facility’s engine is a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS). “Land-based farming is basically where everything is happening indoors,” Heim says. “You’re taking water in and releasing water out, so you can clean it and treat it,” a practice that allows for recirculation and a reduction in overall water usage and nutrient discharge. “That’s a key part of the concept.”
Deploying aquaculture on a large scale indoors means confronting questions about selective breeding, genetic engineering, use of fertilizers and antibiotics, and waste processing — issues familiar to other types of industrial-scale land-based farming. Another question is how the introduction of foreign-investor-driven projects will impact the local communities and economies that host them. While operations of this size should mean more jobs, fishermen may have to adjust to harvesting their catch on land.
While building on decades of knowledge, Nordic AquaFarms operations are relatively new. Founded in 2014, its business units include Sashimi Royal in Hanstholm, Denmark, the largest yellowtail kingfish facility in the world, which began producing commercially in early 2018; and Fredrikstad Seafood in Fredrikstad, Norway, which will be the biggest salmon facility in Europe when it comes online in 2018. The Fredrikstad operation is “the blueprint for what we’re doing here. What we’re looking to do is not just build a land-based facility. We want to change this industry, and we’ve invested a lot into innovation,” Heim says. “We’re taking the science to an entirely new level.”
This raises an important question: How can radically new practices — so new they aim to be innovative on a global scale — be embraced by communities devoted to traditional methods?
Heim takes a stab at the answer. “If you look at the Maine seafood industry, it is very fragmented, many small producers, mostly concerned about their own business. Enormous resources go into building seafood brands and salmon brands in Norway. I think there is an opportunity for the industry (in Maine) to get together and do more.”
Yet, Maine is a vastly different place politically, socially and economically than Norway. Rather than solely focusing on exporting Nordic best practices, what will the Norwegians seek to learn from Mainers, ensuring that knowledge sharing is a two-way process? And how will they address concerns raised by their host community: What does releasing waste and nutrients a mile off shore really mean? How will it affect the bay? How will it affect me as a swimmer? How many people do you intend to employ and how much will you pay them?
On the Dinner Table
Land-based salmon farming and ocean-based scallop farming operate under wildly different assumptions about how people acclimate to new ideas, from winning over potential consumers to gaining support from host communities and existing players in the commercial seafood industry. Each presents a distinct set of questions about the impact on the state’s environmental resources. Each relies on and will amplify different industry knowledge. Can Maine go forward in a way that its land- and sea-based farming industries not only limit negative impacts for each other, but also find opportunities for knowledge sharing and mutual benefit?
Returning home to Boston, I find a flyer in the mail from the meal kit delivery company HomeChef, showing whole carrots, enticing bok choy and two precisely cut salmon filets. It reads, “Designed with you in mind, using fresh, thoughtfully sourced ingredients.” As food production and consumption continue to evolve, it still remains up to us to decide what exactly “thoughtfully sourced” means.
On Our Loading Dock
Our nightstands are loaded with books to read, and our laptops are packed with websites to explore and unpack wisdom about the global food supply chain.
The Omega Principle (Paul Greenberg)
The author of several books about our seafood, Paul Greenberg takes us for a deep dive into the merits, demerits and challenges of Omega 3, a nutritionally beneficial fatty acid found in seafood. As you might imagine, the consequences ripple right through the seafood supply chain.
American Catch (Paul Greenberg)
In another book, Greenberg uses stories about three types of seafood — Eastern oysters, sockeye salmon and shrimp — to chart the rise and fall of American fisheries.
The Plant Paradox (Steven Gundry)
If you think eating bread makes you fat, you might find an argument in this book to support your theory. There’s lots of debate between these covers, and nutritionist Steven Gundry will give you reason to reconsider the science behind most diets.
The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America (Marc Levinson)
For some history about mom-and-pop stores, in the context of the grocery juggernaut that was A&P (aka The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company), read Marc Levinson’s book about the grocery giant. A&P threatened Main Street stores long before anyone had ever heard of Walmart.
Eat This: Our Daily Bread series
We continue to be fans of Jeremy Cherfas’ “Eat This Podcast.” Recently, he explored every angle and story about wheat in at least 31 micro-episodes. You will learn about Red Fife, sourdough, bakeries, mills and more. We love enthusiasm, and Mr. Cherfas’ zeal takes us to a very complicated slice of bread.
Born out of the financial crisis in 2008, National Public Radio’s podcast about the economics of everything covers food in unexpected ways. From the cost of popcorn in a baseball stadium to the concept of “free” food, Planet Money is full of insights about the role economics plays in how we eat.
Food52’s Burnt Toast
Since 2009, Food52 founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs have curated this community-based trove of kitchen goods and recipes. Their podcast, “Food52’s Burnt Toast,” will elucidate just how your toast burns — and why. Such a simple food, with a complicated twist.
We found another ingredient map in the article “Deconstructing the Environmental Footprint of a Sandwich” in Anthropocene. You may never again order a meat sandwich. Check out the first issue of Food+City for our map of the ingredients for a sandwich made in Austin.
Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown
The passing of food legend Anthony Bourdain is a good reason to review (or re-view) his award-winning Parts Unknown. It’s worth reconsidering every episode in appreciation of his close-up view of food and the people around the world who make it.
As our screens flood with documentaries that shame and disgust us, we are ready to see a new take on the food world. David Chang does this with his series about ordinary food made by ordinary people. The series also has helpings of Chang’s personal story about his beginnings as a chef and his conflicted relationship with Korean cuisine.
Water and Power: A California Heist
Food production relies on water. With fires raging in California during the summer of 2018, water resources for firefighters were even more scarce. Long the focus of battles between environmental conservation activists and economic development advocates, water resources are hotly contested. If you want some historical context for this topic, check out the PBS “Cadillac Desert” series, especially “Mulholland’s Dreams.”
Startup Spotlight: Ten Acre Organics
Urban farming is a hot topic in food production right now, but creating a profitable farm in the middle of a city is a hard field to plow. We caught up with 2015 Food+City Prize winner Ten Acre Organics to find out how they did it.
Ten Acre Organics (TAO) co-founders Michael Hanan and Lloyd Minick have been working on their urban aquaponic farm since 2013. Since then they have been through several iterations of products, processes and procedures. Thanks to determination and their perfect-looking, colorful variety of Bibb, Romaine, Oak Leaf and Red and Green Leaf lettuces that have attracted Austin’s top chefs, TAO became profitable in early 2018. Their five-year journey has required patience and persistence — qualities that are emblematic of every entrepreneur.
Bootstrapping the capital to get started via a Kickstarter campaign, they stayed afloat in the early years with grant money and the support of friends and family. Ten acres of land, Hanan and Minick thought, “was the ‘just-right’ size for a diversified farm to achieve economies of scale and profitability while still being able to distribute 100 percent of its produce locally,” Minick says.
Working on the farm as a “garage project” for the first year, they painstakingly developed about one-tenth of an acre from scratch in their backyard in north Austin, consuming most of what they produced. At that point the co-founders faced a question all entrepreneurs must address: How do I quit my job and work on this full time?
Raising a seed investment round is a good way for startup founders to earn the ability to work on their company full time. It’s also validation that other people see value and promise in your idea. TAO was looking for both. Then, in 2015, a panel of industry expert judges named Ten Acre Organics the Grand Prize winner of the inaugural Food+City Challenge Prize, which came with $10,000 in prize money. While the money helped them float the operation for a few months while they continued to raise money, the more important thing, according to Lloyd, was the validation.
“Winning the Food+City Challenge Prize proved to us that we had a good idea, and that investors recognized the opportunity. It really helped in terms of our reputation,” he says. Later that year, TAO closed their seed investment round with $500,000.
Receiving validation and investment are big milestones for startups. But the work doesn’t end there. With big milestones come big expectations. Scaling a business from working prototype to profitable company is often more difficult than drumming up initial success. And in the farming business, where margins are notoriously thin, economies of scale are the only way to have financial success.
But expanding an urban farm can be challenging because city land is expensive. Hanan and Minick could have moved a few miles outside of town to save on land and utilities, but their dream was to grow a community, not just food. Creating a place for community workshops, think-tank style dinners and private events is their way to help people understand and appreciate where our food comes from, how it’s grown and by whom.
“We want to make an a place that is not just a farm but a community center as a change agent, where people who feel disconnected and alienated by the modern industrial food system can experience social cohesion,” Micinic says.
With the community in mind, they stayed true to their dream and in 2016 purchased an existing urban farm just a few miles from downtown Austin. Hanan and Minick saw potential in an urban farm that was struggling operationally and financially. They decided that they could improve upon the business with things like better system design and engineering, better staffing and personnel management, improved horticultural practices to maintain product quality and consistency, and an increased focus on sales and customer development. With these improvements, they thought, Agua Dulce farm could be the model profitable urban community farm. In early 2018, they celebrated their first profitable month. Their certified organic, aquaponically grown leafy greens are the opposite of ugly produce, and the quality of the product is one of their most significant accomplishments. It’s also a differentiator that helped them catch the attention of some of the most high-profile restaurants in Austin.
All it took was four years of back-breaking labor, day in and day out. And that’s just on the farming side. There are also business duties and decisions to be made regarding human resource management, accounting, sales and marketing, and disaster control. While he stops short of telling people not to build more urban farms, Minick has a strong warning for the folks who think urban farming is more romantic than rigor.
“Farming is hard. Starting a business is hard. And starting a farming business is just insane,” Minick says. But if you’re insane enough to work long hours in the Texas heat for several years, you just might end up with a successful business.
Startup Spotlight: Bento Picnic
It’s not easy or cheap to open a restaurant in a growing city, and entrepreneurs are coming up with creative ways to realize their dreams of a traditional storefront restaurant. We caught up with Leanne Valenti, founder of 2016 Food+City Challenge Prize participant Bento Picnic to find out how she did it.
Leanne Valenti, founder of Bento Picnic, learned her craft from a master. Just after graduating from the Natural Epicurean culinary school in 2011, a close friend offered Valenti an opportunity she couldn’t pass up to move to Tokyo, live with her family and learn traditional Japanese cooking from everyone’s favorite chef: Mom.
During her time in Japan, Valenti became enthralled by the beautiful and healthy style of Japanese cuisine. She was particularly inspired by the bento box lunches that, according to a recent study, nearly half of the population of Japan eats each day. Seeing potential to serve delicious and healthy food to an increasingly on-the-go American market, she set a goal to provide healthy food at affordable prices.
“When I founded Bento Picnic in 2015, I did not have a storefront or a distribution plan,” she says. Undaunted, she dove right in, seeking opportunities to sell her products whenever possible. In addition to catering, she sold bentos at farmers markets and had pop-up shops, including one in a kids activity center and one in a rock-climbing gym that remains operational today. But she gained the most momentum from businesses who brought in lunches for their employees. With their compartmental style, Bento Boxes can be easily customized to fit many dietary preferences — which makes it easy for customer to order from one restaurant and please omnivores, vegans, vegetarians and gluten-free folks.
After a year of doing business in a variety of settings, she knew she had a product that people loved. Her challenge was finding “the best way to expand my footprint beyond farmers markets, pop-up pushcarts and catering.”
Prompted by a mentor, Valenti entered Bento Picnic into the Food+City Challenge Prize in 2016. She points to the competition as a time when she really started thinking more critically about how to grow and scale her business.
“One piece of advice I received from a Food + City judge stuck with me, and it proved to be true,” she recalls. “He said that it is very difficult to bring a new product to market AND develop a new method of coming to market concurrently. Since I am first to market with homestyle (as opposed to sushi-restaurant-style) bento boxes in Austin, he suggested that I would have more luck if I could come to market in a more traditional way, like a storefront.” Good advice, but easier said than done.
Opening a restaurant in Austin is tricky business. Despite the city’s reputation as a destination for foodies, more than 70 restaurants and food trucks closed in 2017 alone. Meanwhile Austin’s growing population continues to drive up real estate prices for retail and residential properties. The competition from large restaurant groups and corporate chains is also increasing, and the actual number of viable restaurant properties is limited.
Because of this, many entrepreneurs start small, channeling their dreams of would-be restaurants into food trucks, food carts, pop-up stores, catering operations run from commercial kitchens and farmer’s market businesses. Their goal is to build momentum and secure enough capital and customers to scale up and enter the brick-and-mortar scene. It’s a model that has proved successful for some Austin’s restaurants, including places like Franklin Barbecue and Veracruz All Natural, which started as food trucks.
“The two main things that kept me from launching a storefront from day one were the upfront capital investment required and the difficulty of acquiring a second-generation restaurant space in Austin,” Valenti says.
Focusing instead on catering and a pop-up kiosk model, Bento Picnic achieved slow but steady growth in 2016 and 2017. Renting a kitchen space in the back of a marketing firm’s office was a good way to keep overhead down and establish a customer base for its catering, pick-up and delivery business.
By the end of 2017, growing demand offered an opportunity to expand. That’s when a bit of serendipity occurred. When the marketing business decided it was time to move on, Valenti says she jumped at the opportunity to buy the place and open a bento shop storefront.
“We felt really lucky that the space became available, and it was too perfect to pass up,” she says.
The move is paying off. “So far, it has been a good move, with Bento Picnic seeing a noticeable increase in brand awareness, catering sales up 60 percent and the daily lunch business exceeding the sales that used to occur in a full week,” Valenti says.
While the jump to a brick-and-mortar establishment is never easy, most entrepreneurs know there’s a leap of faith that goes along with getting bigger. And for some, unlimited faith in their growing business comes naturally.
Valenti says she’s considered taking one of her original creations, “guacamame” (edamame guacamole), to market as a consumer-packaged-good (CPG) product. And having opened a storefront in the ultra-competitive Austin market, opening in other cities now seems achievable.
“Now that I’ve honed my business model and launched my brick-and-mortar space, I’m looking to expand Bento Picnic’s presence statewide,” Valenti says. It seems the scaling never ends for food startups.
Side Dish: Fashionable Foods
When trendy foods pop, suppliers and retailers have to be ready — or figure out how to make adjustments fast — to meet demand. In this age of food as social media fodder, we looked into the reality of getting more açaí, seaweed and turmeric on shelves — stat!
Açaí bowls are Instagram shark bait. How can you resist snapping a photo of a beautiful deep-purple smoothie bowl layered with tart red strawberries, fat blueberries and flaky white coconut?
It’s almost unfathomable that just 20 years ago, few Americans had even heard of this tiny Amazonian super fruit. Sambazon co-founder Ryan Black says his açaí company struggled to get people interested in the palm fruit “because they hadn’t ever heard of (açaí) and couldn’t pronounce it.” (It’s AH-SIGH-EE.)
Sambazon’s attempts at açaí education have helped drive açaí to the top, as have the influence of social media word of mouth and a surge for health foods. Get enough people declaring something is good, and their Instafriends will want to try it themselves. As of today, #acaibowl is winning Instagram with 885,608 public posts — while the health food of yesteryear, #avocadotoast, nets only 653,172 posts.
In 2016, more than 300,000 tons of açaí products were sold across the world. By 2026, that number should be above one million tons. To keep up with demand, “we have increased sourcing and production in the last few years,” says Sambazon co-founder Jeremy Black. Sambazon owns a processing facility in the Amazon. They have vertically integrated production to streamline their work and protect the delicate fruit, which needs to be quickly processed because it rots.
For a product that feels very 21st century, the harvesting method remains surprisingly ancient and human. Workers scale the trees, pick the fruit and place it in woven baskets to be moved rapidly downstream to the processing facility. The company has been careful to ensure the sustainability of its açaí business by hiring locals to wild-harvest and hand-pick açaí, as well as to plant new seeds.
So far, there doesn’t seem to be an açaí shortage. But what if demand exceeds expectation, or if açaí bowls become the new favorite of a huge market like China? Can the Amazon handle the future of açaí?
“Civil Eats,” the 2014 James Beard Foundation Publication of the Year, calls seaweed “the next big thing in sustainable food.” McCormick Spices identifies furikake as a spice to look out for in its 2018 Flavor Forecast. And the World Bank considers it an ecological product that’s also a problem-solving darling when it comes to feeding Earth’s hungry population.
Seaweed is of course a staple in Asia, where kombu, nori and wakame are consumed daily in soups, seaweed rolls and side dishes. According to the FishStat (2014) Electronic Fisheries Database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, nearly all — 99.4 percent — of the world’s seaweed, is produced in Asia. While Asia has long been seaweed-mad, in the western world nori is suddenly popping up in packaged snacks and in all-American foods you wouldn’t expect, such as popcorn, mayonnaise, smoothies, burgers and hot dogs. Seaweeds are versatile and are produced in many forms to suit many tastes — from a funky fried hijiki tofu burger popular at a New York University student fave called Dojo, to pungent wakame “birthday soup” at L.A. Koreatown’s Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo, to Uchi’s clean-cut, nori-wrapped negihama roll in Austin. It’s a far wider array than the leaves of wakame swimming in your Japanese miso soup.
“It is definitely a trend, similar to the recent kale craze,” says Michael Graham, creator of Monterey Bay Seaweeds. “There are flavored nori sheets and seaweed salad in Costco. These are not new products, but they are new vendors, and they are reaching new customers.”
Graham, also a biology professor at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and the editor of a seaweed scientific journal, says he receives dozens of emails and calls a month from people who want to know more about seaweed. “I don’t know if the interest will last many years,” Graham says. “But regardless, it’s positive. Seaweed really is all that it is cracked up to be — so good for you, and good for the environment.”
Seaweed farmers are responding to the demand. From 2011 to 2012, the most recent years for which World Bank figures were available, global production of one of the most commonly eaten seaweeds, red nori (the dry, crispy wrappers of your maki rolls), increased by 13.57 percent, or 82,634 wet metric tons. Global production of an even more popular seaweed, wakame, ramped up by 21.94 percent, or 384,973 wet metric tons. Overall, including other seaweeds, global production in 2012 was approximately 3 million tons dry weight, increasing by 9 percent per year.
By 2050, if the World Bank has its way, we’ll be producing 500 million dry tons of seaweed, adding 10 percent to our current food supply. That’s definitely all-you-can-eat maki. To do that, we’ll have to augment seaweed farming by 14 percent per year. And the bank thinks we could do that in only 0.03 percent of the ocean’s surface area. More for less is usually a scam, but seaweed may be the bargain store of the sea.
While Americans have just “discovered” golden milk (aka moon milk, golden latte or turmeric tea), its origin is an old Indian drink called haldi doodh. But its new in-demand status as an anti- inflammatory health food means turmeric, an ancient Ayurvedic root, has staked its spot in the mainstream American pantry.
Turmeric has hit the big time financially, shooting up from $2,700 million in 2012 to more than $3,160 million in 2016. By 2021, according to a report on Technavio, the global turmeric market is projected to post a compound annual growth rate of 6 percent (other sources list it as 5.5 percent by 2027).
“Volume is exploding for organic turmeric,” says Kai Stark, commodity manager at Frontier Co-op, a cooperatively owned wholesaler of natural and organic products based in Norway, Iowa. “In the last 10 years, the amount of organic turmeric Frontier Co-op has purchased increased by a factor of 10.” Despite the demand, turmeric farmers are struggling to stay alive, even as golden lattes sell for $15 per cup in the United States.
Approximately 80 percent of turmeric is grown in India, both wild and farmed. But the small margins are leaving some Indian farmers high and dry. To fight this turmeric poverty, Frontier Co-op collaborates with an organization called Peermade Development Society. PDS works with marginalized farmers, especially women and poor rural folks, to develop both the land and the farmers’ budgets sustainably.
“In the past, marginal farmers, who have only one to two hectares of land, would sell their commodities to middlemen for a small price, and then middlemen would sell again, taking the entire margin,” Stark says. “PDS Organic Spices came in to eliminate the middlemen and help these farmers sell directly to companies like Frontier Co-op.”
In 2009, as the turmeric craze began to take hold, Frontier supported a PDS program to scale up their farmers’ organic turmeric production. PDS, with Frontier’s help, began trials to grow a variety of turmeric with a higher content of curcumin, the potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory in turmeric. Frontier also diversified its organic turmeric supply chain, adding suppliers from Central America.
Sana Javeri Kadri, owner of Diaspora Co., a sustainable, single-origin, direct-trade turmeric company, also cuts out the middleman to bring maximum profits to her turmeric farmer, Mr. Prahbu, in Andhra Pradesh.
Javeri Kadri founded Diaspora Co. as a small side project but was inundated with high demand from the start. When her first four batches of turmeric sold out within hours, she contacted Mr. Prahbu and asked for everything he had. Her last batch sold out in about six weeks. Between filling 20 to 100 orders a week, she closely manages 12 wholesale accounts, asking buyers for six-month projections so Mr. Prahbu has adequate time to plan.
Javeri Kadris says turmeric is planted between May and June, before monsoon season, when it soaks up all the rain. Harvest happens between January and February, so the timing is important — as are the seeds.
“Find the seeds your grandma was using, before the British showed up,” Javeri Kadri says. “If you don’t protect biodiversity, you end up with the heartiest tomato that will survive the grocery store but doesn’t taste very good. It’s the same with turmeric — we’ve already got this mass-marketed bright yellow turmeric with a mild smell, with no biodiversity or cultural history.” Her explicitly political mission is to preserve pre-colonial biodiversity, create the best-tasting, most diverse array of turmerics and reward turmeric farmers in India while doing it.
Still, we can expect the inevitable when it comes to trends: strange products like turmeric-flavored coffee creamer, croissants and cronuts, and frozen turmeric shakes (despite Ayurvedic wisdom that turmeric should be eaten heated for optimal benefits). Because when a trend takes hold, reason may exit through the pricey gift shop, in the form of a chai golden milk donut that screams, “I <3 turmeric.”
Where Are Food+City Startups Headed?
If the 2018 Food+City Challenge Prize entrants are any indication, we’re well on the way toward improving our food system.
Four years into our competition for food supply chain startups (read about all four years’ of finalists), we’ve noticed some interesting trends, including changes in the way entrepreneurs think about innovation. Progress is apparent despite food regulations, a lack of consistent data standards and the companies’ need to achieve scale while remaining small and agile. For many startups, technology is central — but it’s not necessarily all about apps anymore.
Instead, futuristic tools that bring new rigor to agriculture and warehouse management are on the horizon. UAV-IQ Precision Agriculture, one of three $10,000 Food+City Prize winners, provides precision crop monitoring for farmers using drones and sensors. The new technology enables farmers to use the gathered data to make decisions about resources to maximize their yields and reduce crop losses.
“UAV-IQ is attacking the fundamental lack of precise knowledge of where variability exists within fields,” says co-founder Andreas Neuman, former assistant director of operations for the U.S. Air Force’s Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial System. “This lack of knowledge and suitable toolkits to first identify and then manage variability leads to massive inefficiencies due to one-size-fits-all approaches, which often result in over-usage of water and chemicals.”
Another high-tech agriculture solution is Transaera, which is commercializing a material developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that absorbs moisture within greenhouses. The product gives indoor farmers more control over their growing environments and enables them to reduce plant disease and increase yield while also reducing energy consumption.
“To feed nine billion people by 2050, we need new agricultural systems,” says founder Sorin Grama. “Indoor agriculture could be an answer, but it is an energy-intensive operation that will not scale unless we figure out how to grow foods using less energy and water.”
Entrepreneurs are also using technology to connect links in the food supply chain. For example, Stowga, a London-based business-to-business startup, connects retailers to unused warehouse space. This “Uber for warehouses” helps firms with excess storage use their space more efficiently; and it offers below-market options to businesses that may need space for only a short time.
Team mentor PJ Tanzillo, head of product at Favor Delivery, has high expectations for Stowga, led by CEO Charlie Pool. “Charlie and team are not your typical early-stage startup,” Tanzillo says. “They have a clear line of sight to a sustainable business, and they have achieved product and market fit. I’m confident their success will continue.”
Making connections across chain links continues to be a key draw for startups. Vinder is a digital platform that connects home gardeners who grew more than they can eat with community members who seek freshly grown food. Sam Lillie launched Vinder by going door to door in his hometown of Port Townsend, Washington, asking residents whether they had home gardens and if they ever had extra produce they’d be willing to sell. It wasn’t long before Lillie connected dozens of home gardeners with produce-hungry families, moving more than 300 pounds of fruits and vegetables among them.
“We have been trained over the last 70 years to buy our produce and processed goods from a giant supermarket chain that sources products from all over the world,” says Lillie. “Vinder reduces the food waste that happens in every city across the country while efficiently reducing delivery miles because you are buying from your neighbor and not some farmer in Argentina.” With the Vinder website and app, consumers in dozens of cities in 11 states can connect with nearby growers to buy the produce they seek, reducing food waste and putting money back into their communities, literally at the grassroots level.
If you don’t have a garden but want to grow your own food, Indiana-based Aggressively Organic, one of three Prize winners, can help. It offers micro-gardening systems for people without access to earth-based gardens. Users can grow lettuces, tomatoes and other fresh veggies in just one square foot of space in their homes. Anchored by cardboard “micro-growth chambers,” the hydroponic systems use a mere 16 ounces of water to grow a head of lettuce. In contrast, conventionally grown lettuces require 25 gallons of water per head.
“Instead of cut-and-kill or pull-and-ship — like all other current modalities of agriculture that end up shipping already dead and dying goods that end up being wasted — our stuff stays living, and we harvest when hungry,” says founder Jonathan Partlow.
Vinder and Aggressively Organic aren’t the only companies working on solutions to curb the growing amount of food waste. The 2018 submissions included ideas for moving excess food to consumers and methods for repurposing waste such as spent grains from beer breweries as ways to limit the amount of waste that ends up in the landfill.
The most tenacious and complicated problems that startups try to solve involve aggregating and transporting food from local producers to markets, restaurants and grocery stores. It’s a problem that food hubs have tried to solve for years. Today’s startup teams are working on a range of platforms: from apps that aggregate farm inventories to hauling and logistics businesses that focus on the transport of food from local producers to consumers. One of our contestants, GrubTubs, retrieves food waste from restaurants, turns it into compost for local chicken farms and then provides eggs back to the restaurants.
Another, Houston-based Grit Grocery, brings the grocery store right to your neighborhood, using a food truck model. Consumers no longer have to travel to the fringes of their communities to shop at energy-gobbling big-box grocery stores. Instead, Grit Grocery trucks bring locally grown produce, local honey and meal kits — featuring, for example, shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico — right into communities, shortening the last food mile and cutting the distance from farm to table.
“The shopping experience fundamentally shapes the flow of food, not only by creating limitations on what kind of food can be supplied but also by subtly creating demand for certain foods or even entire categories of food,” says Dustin Windham, who founded and operates Grit Grocery with partners Michael Powell and Jamal Ansari. “Building on that, we want to develop a new kind of localized supply chain that is specifically tailored to retail experiences, which is more curated, community-driven and socially intimate.”
Some of these startups rely on volunteers and are modeled more like nonprofit organizations that rely on grants and donations. Others are attempting to create value for both farmers and consumers by charging either the farmer or the consumer for their logistics services. These startups are responding to increasing consumer demand for local food from small producers. But it’s not clear if this local supply chain can find a way to make money without working with the larger food distributors.
In Kenya, where large food distributors aren’t as common in the food system, Taimba seeks to tame a chaotic and fragmented supply chain by connecting farmers with retailers and vendors through a cashless business-to-business app. Vendors order their produce via the app, then Taimba retrieves it from the farmers and delivers it to the marketplace. Farmers receive a fair price for their goods, and vendors receive inventory at below-market prices.
“The ability to offer a market and good prices to small-scale farmers has really boosted farmers’ earnings by reducing wastage and paying promptly,” says founder Dominique Kavuisya. Taimba went home with one of three $10,000 Prizes.
While consumers everywhere want more local food, the system to deliver the goods is still awkward, unsustainable and encumbered by capital equipment expenses and the lack of technology and tracking on the small-producer side. We are anxious to see how our finalists work on solving these issues.
Through the innovative work of our contestant startups, we are optimistic that we will see more locally produced fresh produce reach consumers, less food waste in the landfill and better and safer products in our food system.
FOOD+CITY Challenge Prize
Innovation in food takes all forms, from making improvements to pallets to creating new avenues for delivering food or designing packaging that increases shelf life. Since 2015, we’ve hosted a challenge prize for startups in the food space that are challenging our notions of how the supply chain works. The 2018 Challenge Prize was awarded on March 13, 2018, at SXSW Interactive. Visit foodandcity.org/prize to learn more about this year’s entrants and winners.
Chain Gang: New Tech Links Trucks on Open Road
Pelotons are not just for bikers. Truckers are bringing their rigs in line with packs of other trucks to save on fuel costs and increase road safety.
Companies such as Peloton and Daimler Trucks are entering the market with their connected truck platforms, enabling convoys of trucks to travel together in close proximity while sharing software and connectivity.
A compromise between driverless trucks and human drivers, these new systems still include a human driver that steers each rig. But the entire convoy accelerates or brakes based on the movements of the driver in the lead truck. Tesla is also joining the pack with its autonomous, electric trucks.
Convoy software can perform real-time route optimization from the cab and provide truckers with an alternative to spending hours, days and weeks at the wheel, navigating traffic and avoiding collisions.
GoGo Chickens: Watch Them Grow from Egg to Dinner
If you live in a city but still want to look deep into the eyes of your dinner, you’re in luck. Thanks to blockchain technology being developed by Chinese insurance tech company ZhongAn Online, people will soon be able to use facial-recognition technology to track organically farmed chickens they’ve pre-purchased. They will also be able to monitor their bird’s movement in real-time through GPS tracking bracelets attached to birds’ legs. Welcome to the brave new world of farm-to-table eating in the 21st century.
ZhongAn is billing the program — called “GoGo Chicken” — as a way for health-conscious city slickers to follow the life cycle of their food, giving them an illusory experience of being just a little less displaced from a food system that is increasingly out of sight of most. Right now only 100,000 birds have been outfitted with GPS bracelets, but the Shanghai-based company plans to incorporate about 23 million birds into project over the next three years, pushing the Internet of Things onto Chinese farms, according to the South China Morning Post.
Once inducted into the GoGo Chicken system, the free-range birds will be attached to devices that track their movement and what kind of food they ate. Because these chickens are slow-grown, they’ll live for four to six months, as opposed to the 45 days most factory-farmed chickens live before slaughter. The facial-recognition technology will ensure that anyone who buys one of these birds will be able to actually see chicken from their smartphones. Technology that can recognize an animal’s face is not new; Google has used it to identify pets in people’s photos.
ZhongAn is trying to take advantage of the growing “farm-based tourism” trend in China, where city-dwellers take weekend trips out to farms where they can interact with food animals. The company has said its technology is a tool for members of China’s surging middle class who are also concerned about food safety and want to keep closer tabs on the sources of what they eat. Those anxieties spread rapidly in China after a 2014 crisis in which a supplier for McDonald’s and KFC was caught selling rotting and expired meats to the fast-food chains.
Recipe Tracker: Cooking Out of the Box
Have you ever had a compost bin full of bits and druthers that you think are almost edible? You know, the thin peels of broccoli or carrots or apples? What about a refrigerator drawer with wilted greens or the selection of cheeses you got for that cocktail party a month ago? Do you just chuck them out, concerned that they’re not fresh enough to use or be delicious?
And what about the money you spent on those ingredients? Or the costs of producing them? Does tossing no-longer-fresh food take a toll on your grocery budget, as well as your environmental conscience?
As landfills are increasingly brimming with food that was produced but never consumed (for a variety of reasons), it may be time to reconsider the ways in which we assign a value to ingredients. After all, in less affluent eras — or areas of the world and the U.S. — people couldn’t afford to waste food products that could still contribute to a tasty and nutritious meal. Think of it as a really good time to figure out how to be creative with your organic kitchen matter.
The good news is lots of people, including some of the world’s best chefs, are working on ways to address this very issue. In fact, two recent cookbooks — or, let’s say, sources of recipes — approach the notion of creating a dish from opposite ends of the spectrum. One, “Bread is Gold,” by the world-renowned chef Massimo Bottura, is a collection of recipes and stories by and about a variety of chefs who were called to cook using only products that arrived at a pop-up soup kitchen during the 2015 Milan World Expo as excess, day-old or deemed insufficiently fresh to sell.
The Expo’s theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” spoke directly to Bottura, who worked with a parish priest in the city to transform an old theater into a dining hall that could accommodate, restaurant-style, 100 guests each day — serving lunch to area school children and supper to local homeless people.
For the fancy chefs who came to Milan to cook for a day or two at the Refettorio, their constrained ingredient lists were the catalysts to their creativity. Deliveries included days-old bread, produce in various states of maturity or discoloration, cheeses and other dairy products that were nearing or past their sell-by dates. Each day’s supplies were different and unpredictable. After the initial shock of the arbitrariness of that day’s delivery wore off, the enterprising chefs got straight to work, creating delicious and comforting meals for their guests.
“Something of apparently no use could become a secret weapon in the kitchen, a super power that could magically transform a dull dish into a vibrant one,” Bottura writes about the solution Chef Cristina Bowerman devised for using the outer — and often discarded — leaves of vegetables: Dry them and grind them into intense powders that add stealthy flavor to dishes. (She’s not the only one who makes savory powders from dehydrated vegetable peels; read on.)
The chefs wasted nothing because very little was available to start with. Even banana peels were used to make a chutney. It was a revelation, even to one of the world’s top chefs, Bottura. “If you open your mind and start thinking differently about ingredients, then you no longer have to throw away a banana peel ever again,” he writes.
By contrast, for Chef Watson, developed by IBM — yes, that Watson — the sky’s the limit when it comes to ingredients. Through machine learning and algorithms, an online app called Chef Watson will take in up to four ingredients that you suggest (whether or not you see how they might result in something delicious) and output a set of instructions that it “believes” will create an edible dish. Chef Watson offers a never-ending source of combinations for any ingredient under the sun. [Editor’s note: Alas, IBM closed its Chef Watson site in June 2018.]
The computer ingested the entire archive of Bon Appetit magazine, as well as a huge dataset of different ingredients and their detailed flavor profiles. From there, Chef Watson learned to recognize synergies — ingredients that seem to go well together (understood perhaps by frequency of pairing or through the logic of their marrying profiles). Garlic and tomatoes. Mushrooms and butter. Pork and apples.
As the recipe appears on screen it displays three graphic measurements — synergy, pleasantness and surprise — that help the user determine how the hypothetical dish might turn out. Just as constraints fueled the chefs at the Milan Refettorio, the search for novelty drives Watson’s recipes.
While the platform is available online for anyone to use, Chef Watson has been on a few roadshows, employed by featured chefs to make novel dishes. The chronicle of these events is a book called “Cognitive Cooking,” another collection of experiential narratives and try-it-yourself recipes.
Central to the recipe successes shared in the book are the chefs — the human cooks — whose expertise and creativity helped shape Watson’s “suggestions” of unusual ingredient combinations into viable outcomes. For instance, an early trial was a pastry recipe for Spanish Almond Crescent. But the ingredient list included more liquids than would work to make a stable dough. A chef at the Institute of Culinary Education tweaked the recipe, substituting some ingredients for others to ensure a satisfying outcome but still maintain the flavor profile Chef Watson suggested.
“This is the nature of the human-machine collaboration,” the book notes. “The computer doesn’t dictate. It suggests.”
For IBM Watson Group Engineer Florian Pinel, Chef Watson has great potential to help people eat more healthfully by personalizing recipes according to dietary constraint and personal preference. It also could help reduce food waste by making suggestions based on what lurks in your refrigerator, finding ways to use the last of those beets along with the remains of the star fruit and ground pork you bought for last weekend’s cooking project.
“People can create new, personalized recipes on the fly,” Pinel said in a 2014 TED@IBM talk. “People can cook food that’s flavorful and healthy without ever eating the same thing twice.”
Whether you come to your starting line with leftovers and remainders or a motley collection of ingredients for your next unique Watson creation, a key component is a human willingness to see the value in every piece of the puzzle. Whether it goes into tonight’s dinner or becomes part of the stock for tomorrow’s sauce, just about every edible thing on Earth has a value that should prevent it from simply being next week’s landfill fodder.
That’s certainly the philosophy that drives Chef Ian Thurwachter of Intero, an Italian-themed fine-dining restaurant in Austin.
Fine-dining restaurants are often known for their pristine ingredients and precise techniques, the combination of which should result in a mind-blowing dining experience that’s hard to replicate at home. But often, there’s a cost to this level of quality, and it’s not only found in the prices on the menu.
For example, to create carrot brunoise, the delicate ⅛-inch dice that often garnish soups or stews, one must start with an irregular, round vegetable and make it square. In the same vein, to get to the heart of a broccoli stem, arguably the sweetest, most tender and delicious part of the green brassica, the outer peel must be removed first.
In both instances, once you’ve finished cutting and have the finished ingredients, ready to sprinkle or roast or puree, you also have a pile of peel and other trimmings — byproducts that often end up in a compost bin, or worse, the garbage.
Not so at Intero, where Chef Thurwachter operates a no-waste kitchen in which every stem, peel, animal organ, off-cut of meat or other commonly tossed odd and end is put to flavorful use.
Take the humble, fibrous broccoli peel. At Intero, they pack it with salt and sugar and leave it to ferment for several days. “It balloons up, is intensely pungent, with a very off-putting smell. But the flavor is really awesome — it’s got this tart saltiness,” Thurwachter explains. “We take all that and dehydrate it and turn it into a powder that’s got this background funkiness. It’s intensely savory, and we use it as a seasoning.” (Another clever dehydrated use for vegetable peels….)
The idea for this transformation came from a sous chef who had seen some something similar with mushrooms. Thurwachter engages his team in regular brainstorming sessions to figure out how best to use all the scraps.
“About once a week it’s a necessity,” he says, “but we try to make it an ongoing thing. Every day we have projects.” Projects such as dehydrating the smoked carrots his bartender used for a cocktail. The resulting powder will go into a pasta dough. Or using remnants from artichokes that were served as a bar snack in a stock that pairs with a rabbit tortelloni. “It’s just constantly trying to move these puzzle pieces around,” he says about the challenge of using all the parts.
It’s a challenge that resembles the no-waste reality of Italian farmers of earlier generations. “I love Italian cooking more than I love Italian food because it’s really a cuisine that historically is based on poverty,” Thurwachter says. He explains how veal farmers used to sell their prime cuts to fancy restaurants in Milan and keep the off-cuts — the lower-valued and harder-to-sell cuts — such as the shanks and head, for themselves.
But just as Bottura’s chefs made scrumptious meals from undervalued ingredients in Milan in 2015, Italian farmers of yore tapped into their own creative wells.
“They came up with things like osso bucco milanese (using the veal shank), which is the quintessential Italian dish,” Thurwachter explains. And it didn’t stop there. Arancini, fried rice balls, are made from leftover rice, stuffed with leftover veal and fried the next day for yet another meal originating from humble ingredients. “And then there are these really elaborate preparations where the farmer’s wife took the time to completely bone out the veal head and roll it up into this beautiful roulade and braise it and then slice it super thin and serve it with bitter greens and a salad. I would take that veal roulade with a salad over a veal chop any day of the week,” Thurwachter says, vividly illustrating an alternative way to value ingredients.
While he’s set a different challenge for himself than Massimo Bottura or Florian Pinel, Chef Thurwachter relies on a similar asset: “Our biggest resource in the kitchen is our collective creativity.”
Smarter TV Dinners: Getting Under the Hood of Today’s Takeout
Remember when you had to leave your house to eat restaurant fare? Today, eateries and delivery companies are working together to bring the restaurant dine-in experience straight to your dining room. Eating out in is just a click away. Here’s how it works.
“I ‘favor’ all the time.” Like many Austinites, Pete has co-opted the name of the local food delivery service Favor as a verb.
Exhausted after a multi-city business trip, he sinks into his gray green leather couch and plants stockinged feet onto an oversized ottoman. Plucking his smartphone from a row of remotes, he opens an app and scrolls past bright photos of tacos, pancakes and pho. He settles on an upscale neighborhood Italian restaurant and, within seconds, has sent an order into the ether. Almost immediately he receives notification that a runner named Joshua has grabbed his order.
Pete grins. “I cook at home when I have someone to cook with and for, but tonight it would cost me just as much to go to the store to buy food for a meal. And I’m lazy.” Pete’s not alone.
Favor, along with other meal delivery services like DoorDash, Uber Eats and GrubHub, is part of a rapidly growing niche within the foodservice industry. And they’ve become a boon to an otherwise mildly stagnant sector of the economy — restaurants. A recent study by industry analyst Bonnie Riggs, of market research company NPD Group, finds that half of meals purchased at restaurants are now eaten at home. She predicts that the future trajectory of the industry could improve if restaurants focus on providing consumers with the choices and fast delivery times they need and want.
In short, people from young professionals to busy families are increasingly taxed for time and stressed. One solution is to recover time typically devoted to shopping and cooking by browsing delivery menus. Five years ago, home delivery was largely still the realm of the pizzeria. In fact, Favor’s origin is intertwined with pizza through the college job experience of the company’s founders.
“Ben Doherty and Zac Maurais admit that they were probably the geekiest pizza delivery guys,” says Keith Duncan, senior vice president at Favor. “They were constantly calculating on spreadsheets the most efficient delivery routes.”
Favor, like many of its competitors, started about five years ago. Austin was its first market; now the company is concentrating on expanding into additional Texas cities. Duncan estimates that, since launching in 2013, Favor has completed more than seven million food deliveries — and 90 percent of these were prepared meals from restaurants.
“On the front end, we have a consumer app for placing an order, and on the back end there is a system that makes sense of all the orders and assigns them to delivery folks — runners — who can communicate with the customer once they accept the order,” says Duncan. “We are constantly optimizing the experience to increase the speed of delivery, and we encourage customers to order within a certain radius of their home because proximity is really important for the quality of what is essentially takeout.”
How has this new business model developed so quickly? A confluence of several factors — including the normalizing of cashless, online retail over the past decade, the fact that three people out of four Americans now own smartphones and a trend that sees half of all Americans using their phones for online purchases — has led to a rapid increase in mobile commerce. In fact, it is predicted that by 2020, m-commerce will catapult to include nearly half of total U.S. digital commerce, reaching $284 billion.
Even more critical to today’s digital meal delivery system is a new workforce made up of independent contractors. Favor, for example, uses more than 25,000 runners who snatch orders when they want to and deliver meals in cities using their own cars, scooters or bicycles. The benefit of this flexible workforce to restaurants — and pizza parlors! — is huge, since the delivery team is made up of on-demand contractors rather than regular employees, who would need to be paid by the hour regardless of whether they were out making deliveries.
More traditional restaurants also benefit by taking advantage of what is, essentially, a new revenue stream. According to a 2015 study by the delivery company GrubHub, restaurants that add digital ordering average a 30 percent increase in revenue from takeout. Anecdotally, Favor’s Duncan knows of hundreds of restaurants that avoided closing by capitalizing on this new revenue stream. Digital meal delivery is so successful that there is now a new trend in some cities: “ghost restaurants,” which are essentially just kitchens, with no table service or wait staff.
The growth of the meal delivery industry is also a boon to the companies who develop the digital apps. All seem to be capitalizing on the service provided by the flexible workforce. Favor delivers more than meals — everything from milk to medicine — which will only expand now that the company was recently acquired by regional supermarket chain H-E-B. DoorDash is no exception. Headquartered in the Bay Area, this company has expanded into numerous cities across the country to efficiently deliver any purchase.
“The vision for DoorDash is not just [being] a food delivery company but instead a logistics platform, [striving] to become experts in delivering anything in a city from point A to Point B,” says regional general manager Benjamin Lipson. “We get increasingly sophisticated and learn from our experience, incorporating it in our algorithms and focusing on optimizing travel time.”
Twenty-seven minutes after placing his order, Pete’s doorbell rings. There is Joshua, plastic carrier bag in hand. The exchange is seamless and short because Pete has already paid for his meal, delivery fee and tip through the app.
He now has the ultimate TV dinner for his night at home: delicate rounds of roasted beets and oranges resting amid bright specks of fennel and mint, followed by a perfect portion of beef nestled in polenta, shallots and savory gremolata.
Can you smell the sweet, layered herbs in the vinaigrette? Yum!
Handoffs: Bills of Lading and the Cargo Custody Relay
We’re hearing more and more about high-tech ways to track and trace our food as it moves through the supply chain to our plates — from barcodes to blockchains. But the practice of tracking food shipments isn’t new. It has long been a way for shippers to make sure their cargo is safe and secure throughout its voyage.
At each step along the supply chain, anyone who handles a shipment has custody, a specific term that connotes legal responsibility. The chain of custody confirms the identity and quantity of the shipment (e.g., 400 bushels of Italian pears), declares that the pears were continuously controlled and transported by the carrier and identifies everyone who handled the pears throughout the shipment. Having a clear record of this chain makes it possible for the shipper to track any theft or contamination of the cargo on its way to the receiver.
The documentation that authenticates the movement of food between a shipper and a freight carrier is known as a bill of lading. It’s a receipt that confirms the transition of goods from one link in the chain to the next. This document notes the details of the cargo and its intended path to you, including the type and quantity of a shipment. It’s provided at the end of a shipment to verify delivery of the goods shipped and is the basis for payment for the goods at the receiving end of a shipment. Without these bills of lading, neither the farmer nor the exporter gets paid.
Going back to maritime practices — before planes, trains and automobiles got involved — the bill of lading would have been prepared by a merchant to indicate that the shipper was responsible for delivering the items consigned to him. These receipts were originally called “bills of loading” as far back as the Middle Ages, and they listed what a merchant actually loaded onto a ship. It was a sort of contract between a merchant and a shipper that confirmed the receipt and safe transport of a specific cargo list.
Since shippers often lost ships and their cargo at sea, the bills of lading helped account for losses and reparations. Like today’s tracking tools, bills of lading indicate a transfer of responsibility throughout the supply chain. They are legal documents that confirm ownership of the goods and, as such, are assets the shipper can use to secure credit against expenses.
As the bill of lading moves through the supply chain with a shipment of, say, bags of coffee beans on pallets, the legal notion of ownership and custody travels with the chain. But the cargo list and a receipt are only two tools that leave footprints along a supply chain. These days, we need much more data than these documents provide to effectively track food through our chain.
Newer tools include smart labels with barcodes that communicate harvest dates and times. Scans of smart tags indicate precisely when food passes through the supply chain, when a USDA inspector has certified a meat shipment or the temperature of the interior of a shipping container or a tractor trailer. All this data is being gathered as food travels to our plates.
These new tools go far beyond those old bills of lading, but the intention of those bills and the chain of custody remain the same.
Just wait until blockchain technology picks up where bills of lading and custody left off. Then you’ll be able to see the passage of ownership of your carrots all the way from the farmer’s plot to your pot, who handled your carrot and why, when, where and maybe even the weather outside when the carrots moved between buildings. Be prepared for some surprises.
Route Optimization That Allows for Constant Change
When Layla Shaikley began brainstorming with three classmates, it was to fulfill an assignment in a class on entrepreneurship at MIT. The professor had challenged them to devise a technology that could change a billion lives. Focused on developing countries, the foursome looked at how to use data from volatile zones to draw conclusions about crime and personal safety. They decided to target cell phone data and searched for partners outside the U.S.
But when they began asking around, they learned that companies of all sizes had a more pressing problem: navigating day-to-day deliveries. While routing solutions such as Roadnet® — one of the largest — do exist, these technologies planned routes the night before. They couldn’t make real-time adjustments if a snowstorm hit, traffic got snarled, loading docks filled up or the customer didn’t turn up to receive delivery.
Along with potential customers voicing their needs, MIT advisors noted the same challenge existed in the U.S. Using harvested data as a backbone, the team tackled the complex problem of route optimization for the shipping and logistics industry. Here was the answer to their assignment: a technology to offer nimble routing using big data, machine learning and cell phones.
The first thing they discovered was that most traditional delivery routing systems weren’t accounting for the volume of available open-source data that could reveal historical patterns such as traffic and weather. The team created several algorithms that take in passive data, including historical service times or traffic patterns as well as direct feedback from drivers using their prototype — a straightforward mobile app for drivers to follow, paired with a web-based tool for managers to review.
The students searched for companies willing to share data so they could test it. That part was easy.
“We would cold-call companies on LinkedIn and say, ‘MIT and big data,’” says Shaikley with a laugh. Apparently, that combination was enough to pique interest. To better understand drivers’ challenges, Shaikley rode along with them. “I’d hop in these giant trucks and watch them use our app,” she says. “It was like standing in front of a crowd naked. Drivers are sharp and they know what they’re doing.” And they had immediate feedback: Drivers were critical of the abundance of in-app messaging. How could they deal with a ton of pop-ups while on the road?
After two years of fine-tuning their proof of concept, the team made it official, incorporating the business and naming it Wise Systems. After graduation in 2014, they joined an MIT startup accelerator. When they wrapped that, they searched for paying clients.
Through an advisor at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, they were introduced to Anheuser-Busch. They walked the beer giant through their process, explaining that by using data such as traffic, cancellations, late customers and weather, the Wise algorithms adjust drivers’ schedules on the fly. This means “they can make the most efficient decisions possible” about navigation and order of delivery, according to Chazz Sims, Wise Systems CEO and co-founder.
In 2016, Anheuser-Busch agreed to run a pilot using Wise Systems in two locations: Seattle and San Diego. The company still used Roadnet, its existing technology, for its route pre-planning, but it used Wise for day-of routing. Several months later, when Anheuser-Busch reviewed the metrics — driver satisfaction, shorter routes, quicker work time — they were impressed enough to roll the Wise launch out to every single U.S. wholesaler, plus two locations in Canada.
Wise’s success with the beer giant demonstrates the novelty of their solution — real-time route optimization.
“People think this is solved, but it’s not,” says Sims. Case in point: UPS spent billions to create its in-house system, called Orion. Initiated more than a decade ago, the system didn’t launch until 2016, with the help of 500 staffers working on the technology. In contrast, Wise has a staff of 15. While UPS has incredible numbers — handling 15.8 million packages on an average day — imagine how much technology has changed since Orion was initiated. A UPS spokesperson noted that real-time optimization, including real-time navigation and updates after each stop, won’t be fully deployed until 2019.
Wise’s app makes extensive use of third- party tools — including mapping, weather, traffic and navigation — and focuses solely on the algorithms that take in the data and create flexible day-of schedules.
“We pull real-time traffic, we look at history, we make projections of what the rest of the day will be like,” says Sims. Taking into account that specific route’s history, the software determines that if a driver continues with his or her current route, a delay is likely. At this point, the Wise app alerts the driver to a route change, which the driver can accept or reject based on his or her experience with the trip.
Shaikley calls drivers’ collective experience “tribal knowledge.” A driver who hits the same stop week after week knows some customers have good and bad times for deliveries. Maybe the Coke delivery guy will be there at the same time, maybe parking will be terrible, perhaps the customer is out for his daily coffee.
“They [drivers] can add their own knowledge and insight into the app, and we can take in the feedback,” says Sims, noting that future algorithms for a specific route would include those updates. Shaikley emphasizes their goal of being a driver-first solution.
With several new contracts on the horizon, Wise Systems is making progress expanding the business and plans to capture new market segments in 2018. They will have helped the delivery of 10 million packages by the end of this year by homing in on a single part of the puzzle: flexible routing. For a project that started as a grad school lark, Shaikley says they’re chipping away at the original goal of changing a billion lives by focusing on drivers. “Understanding what is in their heads is the most valuable.”
Wise Systems co-founder Layla Shaikley isn’t your run-of-the-mill MIT architecture grad. Yes, she co-created a tech startup that’s improving the way logistics companies optimize deliveries. But she also interned at NASA, co-founded TEDxBaghdad and co-produced a video featuring #mipsterz, aka Muslim hipsters. Creativity and impact are guiding themes for Layla and key pieces of a lesson her own Muslim parents instilled early on. “They had one rule for me growing up: Do whatever you want, just be the best at it.”
Keep up with the latest in logistics entrepreneurship and follow Layla Shaikley on Twitter @laylool.
The Evolution of How We Shop for Food
In 1900, the “eat local” movement wasn’t a movement — it was harsh reality. Just over a century later, advances in technology — from shipping to inventory management — allow us not only to eat Japanese sushi so fresh it’s practically flapping, but also to restock our fridge with delivered groceries we ordered two hours before. How did our food get here?
Located in a gritty section of Manhattan called Hell’s Kitchen is a large grocery store stocked with everyday essentials — but it’s not open to the public. The building is leased by Fresh Direct, the largest online grocer in the northeast; it’s part of a new hybrid of on-demand shopping and is called a “dark store.” Products on the shelf of a dark store are picked and packed by employees and sent off in cars or on bicycles to fulfill same-day deliveries. In today’s grocery store parlance, same-day has ousted Fed-Ex priority overnight as the new gold standard.
For FreshDirect, creating a new sub-brand to serve consumers’ last-minute needs was vital to remaining competitive. The idea was tossed around in 2011, when the team did a market assessment of its conventional model. Online grocery stores offered a wide spectrum of where and when you get your food. But if you needed something the same day — maybe because you hadn’t thought about dinner or you didn’t know where you would be — well, you were high and dry. The resulting concept, named Foodkick, launched first in Brooklyn in November 2015 and then in Manhattan in 2017.
The private company won’t share numbers, but Jason Lepes, vice president of merchandising, says they’ll be expanding to a third location soon.
“The business is going really well,” he says. “Huge.” FreshDirect is not alone. A McKinsey & Company report on the state of parcel delivery notes: “The last mile is seeing disruption from new business models that address customer demand for ever-faster delivery.”
While speedy delivery is what everyone says they want, consumers are mostly interested in the cheapest option. What will bring down the cost of same-day delivery? Scale, automation and robots.
The Roots of Food Shopping
How did we get here? While today’s passionate consumers debate the merits of local versus organic, in the early 1900s everything was local. Markets were small areas where carts, farmers, buyers and sellers gathered together to buy, sell and trade. In cities, if you couldn’t pick it up within a 10-minute walk from your home, it wasn’t in your bag. Markets were open six days a week, and notions like refrigeration were pure space-travel fantasy.
Eventually, these loose outdoor areas moved under roofs and inside buildings to create permanent spaces for vendors, which enabled more reliable sourcing and a greater selection of foods offered. Over time, improvements in transportation and shipping also increased selection.
Before cars overhauled our diet — allowing consumers the ability to drive longer distances to stores and buy more than one could carry home by hand — trains did. First, by moving commodities around the country, increasing selections and lowering prices at markets. And then, by incorporating refrigeration technology.
“The refrigerated rail car made meat affordable for average households by allowing companies to ship carcasses rather than live animals across the country,” writes Marc Levinson in “The Box,” his book about the shipping industry. Once refrigeration became an everyday reality, food products could be shipped farther from their origin. [Learn more about the importance of refrigeration in the food supply chain in our feature story, “Transcending Seasons: Following the Global Cold Chain.”]
But before shipping could become fully globalized, our food cargo had to transition from rails to trucks, a trend that began in the 1940s and firmly took hold in the 1950s.
Once trucking became the de facto interstate transit (complementing trains but surpassing them in goods delivered), leaders in the industry began retrofitting the human side of delivery, tackling shipyards first. Trucking magnate Malcom McLean realized that quicker loading times could improve every stage of logistics. He helped create a streamlined container, leveraging what he knew of trucks and trains. This shipping container became the industry standard and rapidly made delivering goods by boat an affordable idea. In the 1960s, once mechanical cranes transformed how containers were loaded and unloaded, removing traditional dockworkers from the process almost completely, goods from every continent, such as kiwis from New Zealand, Italy or China, could reach the world.
Read our story about early NYC’s network of markets, located so people could access provisions as part of their daily routines.
Each year, 817 million tons of foods are shipped around the world, with distances increasing over the last 50 years to an average of 1,300 miles. More than $50 billion worth of goods is moved every day by cars and trucks, a journey that depends on shipping containers. We need look no farther than our morning cup of coffee for an illustration of those miles.
“By the time you enjoy the beans back in L.A., they had traveled more than 30,000 miles from field to exporter to port to factory to distribution center to store to my house — more than enough to circumnavigate the globe,” writes Edward Humes in “Door to Door.” “Thousands of man-hours and billions of dollars in technology and infrastructure — along with the efforts of countless unsung heroes who pack, lift, load and drive and track it all — combined to bring that cup of coffee to my lips.”
Fast Versus Instant
Ten years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported that a “typical American-prepared meal contains ingredients from at least five countries outside the United States.” What’s in our refrigerator today represents an even bigger diversity, and the last mile these far-flung foods travel is being compressed into a sandwich of instantaneous desire.
While many companies and startups are focusing on speeding up the last mile, only a fraction of consumers are ready for it. In a survey of almost 5,000 people, McKinsey reported that only 23 percent wanted to pay for the same-day option. Despite that, “same-day and instant delivery will likely reach a combined share of 15 percent of the market by 2020,” McKinsey asserts.
Evidence of this burgeoning trend is everywhere: Amazon expanded its same-day delivery service to Prime members in 8,000 cities in early 2018. Around the same time, Target purchased Shipt, which has more than 20,000 personal shoppers, for $550 million. Instacart, which works with almost every major supermarket, has expanded to 69 regions across the U.S. and by the end of 2017 was serving 60 percent of American homes. Jet.com, owned by Walmart Inc., offers its same-day service for free, and soon, Walmart will pilot the same service in New York.
While everyone from big brands to startups attempts to tackle the challenges of same-day food logistics — a problem that involves route optimization, staffing, merchandising, scheduling and supply chain — the concept still relies on old-world delivery methods like trains, trucks and ships. Whoever dramatically changes that network — getting food delivered to our homes in game-changing ways — will also own that well-worn cliché: I reinvented the wheel.
Will Trucks Ever Vanish? The Future of Transportation
While trains, trucks and ships continue the global movement of our food in what is now a decades-old system, the evolution of that last mile to our front door is vaulting forward. Here are a few innovations that might become old hat within the next few years.
Don’t be surprised when you begin to notice your sidewalk cluttered with electronics instead of people. DoorDash, an on-demand food delivery service based in San Francisco, is testing out robots as an addition to its food-delivery workforce. [Read more about DoorDash in our story, “Smarter TV Dinners.”] With pilot programs that began in Redwood City in 2017, the self-driving robots deliver goods to customers within a two-mile radius. The futuristic helpers come from Starship Technologies and look like small refrigerators on wheels. The self-guided machines use nine cameras and sound waves to create an imaginary bubble around them, which allows them to go around objects or make a full stop. It’s not all rose-colored glasses, though, as cities like San Francisco attempt to enact restrictions limiting these pesky bots.
The future of delivery, according to everyone, is drones. But that reality — drones dropping boxes out of the air — is a long way off, despite stunts pulled off by Google and Amazon. However, two designs are delivering food in meaningful ways. Windhorse Aerospace has developed a one-use drone, nicknamed Pouncer, to bring food and other supplies to disaster zones. The device, made of lightweight plywood that can be used for firewood post-delivery, incorporates meals wrapped in thin plastic that could be reused in disaster shelters once the meals are finished. According to founder Nigel Gifford (above), the drone will feed about 100 people for one day. Inedible components, such as the electronics, are being kept to a minimum. One day, Gifford’s crafty engineers could wrap those components in bouillon cubes. Sounds delicious, right?
Another forward-thinking drone test is happening in our national parks. The pilot program is aimed at rescuing prairie dogs. The cute rodents have been hit by a disease that, if left untreated, could spell disaster for their primary predator, the black-footed ferret, an animal on the brink of extinction. This is where the drones come in: They’re dropping peanut-butter pellets — the size of blueberries — laced with vaccine for the sick prairie dogs on the ground. The beauty of the drones in both examples is the distance they can cover and their ability to serve hard-to-reach spots.
For six weeks in late 2017, Ford partnered with Domino’s to deliver pizzas to randomly selected customers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, via its Ford Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle. Customers who agreed to be a part of the test could track their pizza on the Domino’s delivery app, receiving text messages as the car approached. When it arrived, customers received a text with a unique code to unlock the heating compartment inside the vehicle and retrieve their pizza. Ford’s test cars use lidar, a method for measuring distance to a target using pulsed laser light detected by both radar and camera sensors. While the test did include an engineer behind the wheel, the windows were blacked out so there was no interaction. Despite these depersonalization measures, the team found people wanted to interact with the car, even saying hello to it and waving goodbye. As the second-most-profitable pizza company in the world, behind Pizza Hut, Domino’s is paying close attention to what role self-driving vehicles may play in the future. While Ford won’t begin building its self-driving vehicles until 2021, you can already order a pie from Domino’s simply by tweeting the pizza emoji to your local franchise. [Read more about the self-driving Domino’s vehicles in MIT’s Technology Review.]
In the distant future we may see the return of pneumatic tubes making their way back into the world as we know it. Several years ago, Amazon filed for a patent for a dedicated system of underground tunnels that could bring packages closer to home — a system that “may avoid congestion experienced by traditional transportation networks.” Late in 2016, the patent was awarded. Other companies are tinkering with similar ideas: Elon Musk is developing technology to bore tunnels below street level in Los Angeles, and Mole Solutions Ltd, an English company, has tested similar systems with government funding. But there’s another more obvious use for our underground spaces, and that’s for our salad bowl. So far, we’ve got greens growing inside giant warehouses, in shipping containers and on rooftops, and it won’t be long before we see hydroponic cells — microfarms, if you will — cropping up underground. When the lettuce is ready for harvest, it can be delivered quickly to surrounding areas, keeping the carbon footprint as tiny as a microgreen.
On Our Loading Dock: Food System Resources
Our nightstands are loaded with books to read and our laptops are packed with websites to explore and unpack some wisdom about the global food supply chain.
Before the Refrigerator (Jonathan Rees)
Before the refrigerator, there was the icebox. But if you didn’t live in the frozen tundra, getting ice required a complex choreography. Jonathan Rees traces the process of ice harvesting and distribution — a key method of preserving perishable foods — as it evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the country moved toward mechanical cooling, widely available ice played a vital role in transforming the American diet. (Read Jonathan Rees’s Food+City story about the cold chain.)
Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture (Louise Harpman, Scott Specht)
Some things just seem like they were always there, as if no one could possibly have spent time inventing them. The ubiquitous plastic lid on the humble paper coffee cup is just such an item. But take time to consider its nuanced and varied design features, as architects Louise Harpman and Scott Specht have in this delightful mini-primer on industrial design, and you may enjoy your morning joe even more.
Barges and Bread (Di Murrell)
It’s not every day that a historian has lived the life she’s writing about. But for Di Murrell, barging has been her way of life for more than 30 years. Her book looks way back to 13th century London and the history of the grain trade on the Thames. Grains and bread — not coincidentally, a synonym for money — were staples for all citizens because, as a commodity crop, grain was stable, and large quantities could be transported efficiently over even the shallowest waterways. Take a trip back in time with the historian barge master. (Check out our story about the role of barges in moving food throughout history.)
The Flavor Thesaurus (Niki Segnit)
As we investigated IBM’s Chef Watson, another source of clever food pairings sprang to mind: Niki Segnit’s “The Flavor Thesaurus.” Structured like Roget’s classic, the book lists ingredients — such as beets, blueberries, oysters — and offers classic and novel pairings based on flavor themes. Recipes and other suggested preparations are included in the text. It’s a fantastic resource for moving off the beaten path and developing your own recipes.
Fishing Lessons (Kevin Bailey)
Bailey provides a glimpse of the future of the global fishing industry, documenting the rise and fall of fish populations, the loss of indigenous fisheries and the arrival of fish farms. He makes the case for a future seafood industry that includes “new” artisan cultures while incorporating new ways of selling direct to consumers. He says that his book provides “a fine-grained view of the larger issues in the world’s fisheries — too many fishermen with too few fish, conflicts with other resource users, loss of fishing rights and degraded habitats.” There’s room for hope, according to the author.
The Long Haul (Finn Murphy)
Finn Murphy dropped out of college in the late 1980s, much to the chagrin of his parents, and became a long-haul trucker. He’s a furniture mover, but his experience driving the nation’s highways — and navigating the small lanes of Lower Manhattan or the mountain passes in Colorado’s Rockies — runs in parallel to the thousands of other haulers who transport our food, our packages and everything else we buy and ship. This catchy memoir offers multiple tableaux, and lots of juicy slang terms, of one life on the road. (Read about another truck driver, Annette Womack, in our Food Mover story from Issue 2.)
Host Aaron Niederhelman takes listeners with him as he examines problems with and solutions for feeding ourselves into the future. He finds leaders focused on food system reform and reducing environmental impact who tell stories worth pausing for. “Our goal with this show is to celebrate leading voices committed to promoting food values through proper natural resource management,” says the podcast’s website. “It is, after all, the sourcing which matters.”
This series of six episodes dives into various parts of the food supply chain, exposing some unsavory realities of the industrial food complex. Mass deaths of honeybees, the plight of peanut farmers in an age of allergies, the economics of dairy farming and the dwindling global fish supply are among the tough topics the filmmakers tackle. It may leave you wanting to move to the country and grow all your own food.
Eaten: The Food History Magazine
Social and economic historian Emelyn Rude launched a new magazine in the fall of 2017 with a focus on the history of food. Filled with luscious eye candy, rediscovered recipes and gastronomic essays, the magazine transports readers through time on a common vehicle — food.
The Bullwhip and the Beer Game
Only at MIT would students play a “Beer Game” to understand a supply chain phenomenon called the Bull Whip Effect. When you’re holding a whip, a small flick of the wrist creates ever-increasing amplitude down the length of the whip. It’s a problem food distributors deal with all the time because even the smallest variation in consumer demand can increase chaos and unpredictability upstream.
Jay Forrester, a professor at MIT from 1956 to 1989, devised the idea in the early 1960s to illustrate how supply chain forecasts can create inefficiencies. In the Beer Game, a single item — a case of beer — travels through a multilevel distribution system in a supply chain. Players operate four stages of the supply chain, and the objective is to order beer and deliver it to customers. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. The simple act of a player changing the amount of beer ordered sends a ripple throughout the supply chain.
As consumers — the demand side — change their behavior, the supply side adapts inventory and warehousing activities. Players also blame each other for feedback failures that result in a lack of beer. But a build-up of supplies in a warehouse also reflects a communication breakdown between consumers and producers. You lose if you create a large inventory while trying to adjust to the change in orders. Product sitting in a warehouse costs money, so having a stable supply chain and deftly adapting to changes in demand is the winning play.
Research shows that a variation of as little as 5 percent can lead to a variation of 40 percent up the chain. For example, if consumers order fewer bottles of beer, the grocery store will send a message up the supply chain. (“Up” in supply chain lingo means moving from farm to the table; “down” means moving from table to the farm.) That 5 percent decline in beer sales in April could lead to inventory build-ups within the chain, over- ordering of packaging material, and misguided communication between brewers and ingredient producers and processors.
Another way this concept affects the food supply chain is when weather forecasters predict bad weather. A prediction of icy roads in Texas leads to a rush on grocery stores to purchase food while roads are clear. Store shelves empty, and the store’s procurement team returns to its inventory system to squeeze out more stock, while suppliers downstream scramble to find additional ingredients or sources.
As Beer Game players discover, one strategy for variation in consumer demand is to have extra inventory on hand so they can absorb a temporary uptick in demand. But storage costs money, and many food suppliers, intent on creating a “lean” supply chain, want to minimize inventory to save money and avoid food waste. Sometimes, when consumers stop buying a product, stores offer discounts and promotions, but that may cause unpredictable surges in sales that create more problems downstream. You can only hold onto tomatoes for so long.
Forecasts seem to be the culprit here, and the bullwhip effect is more about the problems in forecast-driven supply chain than in supply chain dynamics in general. If your supply chain depends less on forecasts and is more aligned with actual consumer behavior, the bullwhip effect may be dampened. Food companies that link point-of-sales data and supply chain planning can tighten the loop between consumer behavior and other activities throughout the supply chain.
If nothing else, the Bull Whip and the Beer Game reveal the systems effect of the food supply chain. Everything is connected, and one failure has dire consequences. Lack of beer is just one of them.
Food Movers: Rolling Refrigerators
Originally, “reefer” was nautical shorthand, referring either to the midshipmen typically responsible for trimming or reefing the sail, or to the thick, double-breasted coat worn by sailors. Today, it is old-fashioned slang for what my dictionary describes, even more quaintly, as “a marijuana cigarette.”
But since 1911, a reefer has meant only one thing in the food logistics business: a refrigerated container, capable of preserving perishables as they travel over land and sea.
“We can handle 800,000 reefers a week,” port officials brag, sounding for all the world like aging potheads. “Yeah, we’re reefer specialists,” industry insiders will say, without even so much as a wink.
In the 1850s, those reefers would have been boxcars, bringing California lettuce and Chicago-slaughtered pork by train to America’s hungry East Coast, cooled first by ice hand-harvested from frozen lakes and then by mechanical refrigeration units. A few decades later, the term might also have referred to the chilled holds of fast-moving refrigerated ships, painted white to reflect the heat, ferrying New Zealand lamb to London and Honduran bananas to New York. Today, reefers are most likely to be special shipping containers, distinguishable from their ubiquitous peers only by the built-in cooling unit at the rear.
Nicola Twilley has long been interested in the cold chain. She curated
a 2013 exhibit called “Perishable: An Exploration of the Refrigerated
Landscape of America.”
Perfecting the Technology
Reefers cost six times as much as ordinary shipping containers, even before factoring in the electricity required to run them. They are correspondingly rare: despite the Chilean peaches and Argentinian steaks that fill our supermarket shelves, perishable food accounts for a surprisingly small proportion of global containerized trade. Although shipping companies are reluctant to share exact numbers, maritime industry analysts estimate that of the 25 million shipping containers in the world, only 1.5 million are reefers.
The first reefers with integrated cooling units arrived on the market in 1975, but they were slow to catch on. “Companies were moving these expensive, fragile commodities in lots of 40,000 pounds, and sometimes they would arrive OK, and sometimes they didn’t arrive OK,” explains Barbara Pratt, director of refrigerated services at Maersk, Inc. Pratt spent her 20s living inside a specially equipped reefer, trying to work out why melons from Mexico were rotting en route to Europe, and why General Food’s Dominican cocoa beans kept showing up in New Jersey covered in mildew.
Today, thanks to decades of research, Maersk offers high-tech reefers with powerful air handling systems capable of maintaining supersaturated humidity levels to prevent fruit from losing water weight as well as removing the excess carbon dioxide and ethylene gases that contribute to over-ripening. The company also issues detailed instructions about cooling cargo prior to “stuffing” the reefer, to prevent condensation.
In the past decade, reefer design has advanced to the point that specialized freezer reefers can keep sushi-grade tuna intact at minus 76 degrees F, even when the temperature outside is over 100 degrees. Meanwhile, onions and nuts, which prefer an extremely well-ventilated atmosphere, travel in their own bespoke reefers with double the rate of air circulation. Inside these finely tuned microenvironments, tomatoes remain pristine for a month or more. Maersk promises that even peaches can happily spend a couple of weeks at sea.
In response, more and more fresh food producers are choosing reefers instead of old-school refrigerated-hold ships or expensive air cargo. Container Management magazine recently speculated that specialized reefer ships might well go extinct sometime in the next few years, as the perishable sector finally undergoes the containerization revolution that transformed the rest of the logistics universe in the 1950s and ’60s.
But improved technology is only part of the reason why the seaborne perishable trade has grown so dramatically over the past decade — a trend that industry insiders expect to continue in the coming years. In the United States, for example, retailers have noticed increased sales of fresh fruit and vegetables, and a corresponding slump in the center aisles, as shoppers increasingly favor refrigerated produce over its canned or frozen equivalent. Meanwhile, in China, a booming middle class is eating more meat, much of which arrives in reefers from Brazil. Even millennial snacking trends have had an effect on global reefer movements, with Maersk launching a Mexico-to-Yokohama avocado route in 2016.
One fruit, however, remains a constant: the banana. Both Dole and Chiquita call at North America’s biggest banana port, Wilmington, Delaware, twice weekly, year-round, to supply tropical fruit to the 200 million people who live within 24 hours’ drive. Indeed, while any kind of cargo that is sensitive to atmospheric conditions can be found inside a reefer — French wine, high-tech Italian ski equipment, Japanese bonsai — Maersk estimates that every fifth reefer on the high seas is stuffed with bananas. They are cut and transported while green, hard and immature, their development delayed with cold storage until they are just a week away from delivery, when they are warmed up and gassed with plant hormones into artificial ripeness.
It is in the banana’s complicated journey from tropical treat to global commodity — with all its technological progress, economic impact, dietary shifts, agricultural diseases and Central American political instability — that we can see the story of the reefer most clearly, in all its time-and-space-distorting might.
Food Movers: Can I Get That To Go?
The pressure on food to perform has never been higher. For decades, pizza boxes, Styrofoam clamshells and the paper pails used for Chinese takeout each filled a specific niche in the restaurant industry. But during the delivery gold rush of the past 10 years, restaurants, food packaging manufacturers and customers are demanding more.
The original delivery foods (pizza, Chinese food, deli sandwiches and burgers, which became delivery staples in the 1960s and 1970s) don’t suffer in quality from the half-hour they might spend en route to your house. In contrast, many dishes offered today at casual eateries or fine-dining restaurants weren’t designed to be served in the insulated boxes of past decades.
Lynn Dyer, president of the Food Packaging Institute in Washington D.C., notices small changes: the tabs that make the containers easier to open, the discreet vents that allow steam to escape, the perfectly clear plastic that enables you to see your food before you open it.
Dyer says the innovation we’re seeing for 21st century delivery demands rivals the changes we saw during the fast-food drive-through boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Years ago, her industry group worked with auto companies to determine how many cupholders a car needed and what size they should be. Those measurements were originally used to design drinking cups, but now French fries, chicken nuggets and salads are packaged in cupholder-friendly containers.
PACKAGING FOR VISUAL IMPACT
Modern food packaging containers aim to create a “wow” moment for customers when they unpack their food. That’s why we are seeing Instagram-friendly logos, shapes, colors and clear plastic lids to show off the food, Dyer says.
We eat first with our eyes, but for chefs like Austin’s Rebecca Meeker, food quality is the top consideration. In her fine-dining days, she sent leftovers home in compostable containers. But today, every single food item from her company Lucky Lime is delivered. She needs containers that won’t get soggy and that will hold temperature so that when the food finally arrives, the customer will enjoy their dining experience as much as if they were in a restaurant — the packaging and flavors having fulfilled the website’s promises.
Safety is a concern, too — particularly when your delivery driver may not have a working tie to the restaurant. Manufacturers are working on tamper-evident packaging, such as a takeout bag with a tear strip on the top so a customer can see if someone has opened the bag since it left the restaurant.
COOKING FOR THE ROAD
Few restaurants start out with a plan to meet a growing demand for takeout. But in an increasingly cutthroat industry, many restaurateurs have little choice. Delivery adds expense and opportunity for error, but if a restaurant doesn’t offer its food to go, potential customers will go elsewhere to get it. Dyer says many restaurants consider packaging a small price to pay to make additional sales from people who aren’t sitting in their dining room.
“Foodservice operators want consumers to have the same experience as if they are in the restaurant,” Dyer says. “If they get the food delivered and it looks like a big mess, you don’t get the same experience.”
DELIVERY, NOT DOGGIE BAG
At Lucky Lime, Chef Meeker designed every dish with delivery in mind. For her delivery-only venture, Meeker developed healthy Asian-influenced dishes — with a French flair — that she knew would hold up during a car ride.
She prefers containers with clear tops (so customers can see the food) that seal securely so spills aren’t a problem. These days, one spilled container could mean a customer doesn’t come back, or worse: leaves a negative review about a delivery company that can’t deliver. But finding the perfect packaging can be a challenge.
“You want to highlight the food, but it adds expense,” Meeker says. She says she spends about $1 per order on packaging, often more if the delivery includes a drink in a plastic bottle.
Meeker uses about eight different containers for her limited menu delivered cold once a week. If she wants to add a hot menu, that’ll require a new set of packaging. Grease- and moisture-resistant compostable packaging has been around for about a decade, but some businesses prefer recyclable plastic, which can hold heat longer.
Meeker can’t order the compostable, molded fiber containers with the clear plastic tops that she’d really like to use because her sales are too small to meet the required minimum purchase of $750 every other week. For now, the recyclable containers she’s already using will have to do.
Some Like It Hot
More than 60 percent of Mama Fu’s business is to-go or delivery. Customers of this fast-casual Asian chain expect their food to still be hot when it arrives, and they want it in a reheatable container, says Director of Marketing Josh Churnick. The company, with two dozen locations in Texas, Arkansas and Florida, skipped the traditional paper pail and opted for bright red trays that customers can wash and reuse at home. “I hear from customers on a regular basis who have cabinets full of red containers.”
Food Movers: Bots in the Cold Chain
The second installment in our series about food bots focuses on tech in use in the cold chain. (Check out Part 1.) It’s not hard to see why robots would be ideal workers within these climate-controlled facilities, where temps often hover just above freezing for most perishable goods. Unlike humans, robots don’t get cold — at least, not yet.
Grocery Getter Bots
Some of the newest bot tech involves what are sometimes called swarms and the hive mind — as in dozens of robots working together (the swarm) to complete complex tasks, wirelessly sharing information in real time (the hive mind). Such is the case with Ocado Smart Platform robots, created by Ocado, a British online grocery retailer that’s working on making their delivery-only business as automated as possible.
Ocado’s squat, square, battery-operated bots zip about on an elevated grid over room-temp or refrigerated crates stacked several levels high. Each crate is filled with one specific type of grocery, such as eggs, organic apple juice or cheddar cheese. The robots work as a team to deliver the crates to “personal shoppers” — mainly humans, though another kind of robot could also do the job — that put together customer orders. If the hive mind sees one shopper needs cheddar, but it’s in a crate beneath the eggs and the apple juice, one robot zips by to move the egg crate, a second moves the juice and a third grabs the cheese and takes it to the proper shopper…all in a matter of seconds.
Thanks to the hive mind, every robot knows where every product is at all times; the robots are also tasked with refilling the tower of crates — aka “the storage hive” — as crates empty. Plus, when the bots themselves are low on charge, they ferry themselves off to a charging bay before rejoining their swarm.
Super PaQ Bots
Palletizing robots might not sound revolutionary — palletizing being the unsexy term for the unsexy process of loading and unloading boxes on and off a pallet — unless you’ve worked in a frigid warehouse. Supplies come in on pallets, and products go out on them, and not always neatly: If a mini-mart orders four cases of sliced turkey, a case of chips and two dozen packs of hot dogs from its supplier, somebody or something there has to put all those boxes together.
Palletizing robots are generally “articulated arm” robots, which means they have a stationary base attached to a robotic arm that can bend and swivel. Hand-like tools attached to the end perform specific tasks — in this case, lifting and moving boxes from one place to another.
A company called Swisslog — they design fully automated warehouses and distribution systems — even makes a palletizing robot called RowPaq that can build a perfect pallet of mismatched boxes in minutes. It’s fitted with a set of giant hand-like grippers that can pick up four different sized boxes at the same time and set them down in a perfect row because it already “knows” how tall, wide and long each box is before it arrives.
The Well-Below-Zero Bots
Think of the freezer as the final frontier for robotic solutions in the cold chain. Super-cold, sub-zero conditions — as in minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit — are just as hard on the moving parts and lubricants inside robots as they are on people.
The easiest solution is to put your robot in a protective suit, which is why when you do see the rare robot in a freezer, it’s usually sheathed in puffy white sleeves that look like a cross between a wind sock and a lab coat.
Most robots used in freezer conditions are large, sturdy palletizing machines with fewer small moving parts, such as bots used to stack table-sized slabs of frozen fish on a pallet. Other companies use spider-like “pick and place” robots to pack things including frozen meat patties and fish sticks into the proper plastic packaging. These bots are usually mounted over a conveyor belt, and the entire process takes place within a sealed, protective, temperature-controlled enclosure.
Investing in Tomorrow’s Food Chain: Walter Robb Moves Forward
Former Whole Foods Market co-CEO Walter Robb acknowledges that during his 26 years with the company the grocery giant helped usher in a new way of thinking about food — from farming to grocery shopping. Today, as an investor and advisor to food system startups, Robb is poised to influence the conversation again.
Walter Robb is the first to admit that it was not pre-ordained that he would become one of the modern era’s gurus of good food. After graduating from Stanford, he planned to become a lawyer, but he only lasted a week at law school. Next he tried being a teacher, a soccer coach and a farmer. None was the right fit.
In 1978, he borrowed $10,000 to open a natural-food store in an old garage in Northern California. He later sold his second store in 1991 to Whole Foods Market. By 2010, Robb was co-CEO with John Mackey, the visionary founder of Whole Foods. Sam Kass, the former White House chef and policy director for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, says Robb has done as much to change the food system as anyone in America.
With Amazon’s 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods, Robb, 64, is starting a new chapter. Through his firm, Stonewall Robb, he’s an investor and an advisor to innovative food startups. It’s a natural next step for him — after all, he got a $10 million payout when he left Whole Foods. But his acolytes will not find Robb a typical investor. He is thoughtful, rather than brash and obsessed with disruption. And unlike many technology investors, he is not searching for silver bullets. After 40 years in food, he understands the complexity of the food chain and knows that culture and conversation will be as powerful as technology in creating a more just food system. Robb talked to Food+City contributor Jane Black about what he looks for in a startup, the importance of creating a company culture, his hopes for the Amazon-Whole Foods deal and the future of grocery stores. Excerpts, condensed and edited for clarity, follow:
Jane Black: If you Google Walter Robb, the one thing you’re definitely going to learn is that your favorite food is lentils. Lentils?! Have you always been a healthy eater?
Walter Robb: No, I wouldn’t say. I grew up in a typical upper middle-class family. We had piggies in a blanket and we had Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables — stuff like that. It wasn’t really until I got to college that I opened my eyes to some of the healthier foods and started making my own bread and that kind of thing.
Black: College isn’t usually where kids start to eat healthy.
Robb: Well, in my sophomore year I started really reading [about food]. I read Wendell Berry’s book, “Culture and Agriculture, the Unsettling of America.” And that was pretty exciting for me. And I read Frances May Lappe’s “Diet for a Small Planet.” Frances was speaking in San Francisco at Food First on Mission Street, so I went to hear a couple of her lectures.
Then I also met Alan Chadwick (a pioneer of organic gardening in California). And I spent time apprenticing with him. Between all those things, my interests in healthy eating, the soil and healthy living overall sharpened up. It kind of started me down the path.
Culture is the sum total of the humanity of the company. It’s where the culture and values come alive with a presence. It’s: How does it feel around here? How do the customers feel? How do the team members feel? That’s what culture really is. It’s an alive thing.
Black: Jumping ahead, you joined Whole Foods in 1991 and rose through the ranks. In 2004, you were named co-president. In 2010, you were promoted to co-CEO. What do you think was your biggest contribution?
Robb: It’s always tricky to say stuff about yourself. But look, I think I was part of the core team that really helped Whole Foods change the conversation about food in America. So, I’m very proud of that. I think I’m a good retailer — at the craft of retailing. I love it. My number-one quote over the years was this: “We’re not so much retailers with a mission, as missionaries with retail.”
I think I’ve definitely helped to shape the retail and culture of Whole Foods, which, as you know, is one of innovation and experience.
Black: Which leads perfectly to my next question. As the food world shifts to be much more technology focused — Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods is just one indication of the trend — how does the culture you created survive?
Robb: Well, I think you start by realizing that culture is a living, breathing thing. Culture is the sum total of the humanity of the company. It’s where the culture and values come alive with a presence. It’s: How does it feel around here? How do the customers feel? How do the team members feel? That’s what culture really is. It’s an alive thing. It continues to evolve in a way that’s malleable, and, at the same time, that it’s anchored in the values.
So now the great question is: Will two wonderful companies [with their own strong cultures] have the courage, the wisdom and the humility to learn from one another, to learn from one another’s cultures?
At Whole Foods, we acquired 19 companies under my tenure as co-CEO. It takes about two years for two companies to really come together. So the answer to your question is, it’ll happen over time. But it will require efforts on both sides to really be thoughtful about how it’s happening.
Black: What are the big issues you see coming up in food?
Robb: There’s a new set of issues up on the table. Like food waste, like imperfect produce, like farm worker health, like full transparency on product. This new generation is going to look for a more, if you will, whole foods system. In other words, one that is more fully transparent, more responsible, [with] more options.
Black: What are you working on to address these new issues?
Robb: I’ve picked some companies to invest in and serve as a director. Food Maven [a Colorado startup that sells excess food acquired from producers and distributors to restaurants and institutions at a discount] came through Grant Lundberg, the CEO of Lundberg Family Farms. He reached out to me and asked me to talk to his cousin Patrick Bultema, who’s the CEO in Colorado Springs. And I guess it was just meant to be.
I’ve been troubled as a grocer for a long time about the food that gets thrown away. About 40 percent of food grown is wasted. It’s produced, there’s too much supply and about one third of what goes to landfills is food. It’s time for that to be met with some sort of thoughtful solution. I realized, “Wow, this is something we haven’t really worked on.” Here’s an area [in which] we can make a real change. I was drawn to that. I like working on things that matter. I like working on things that have a purpose, and [working with Food Maven has been] a great opportunity to work with people I enjoyed and to try to work on something that I know needs to be done. So that was an easy one.
Heat Genie came through Danielle Pruitt, my other half. She knew Mark Turner, the CEO. It is a technology that allows a can to self-heat in about a minute and a half. Think about it. Not only do you create new products for customers [such as self-heating coffee, soup etc.], but … think about disaster situations where hot food is needed.
I liked it for that reason. I thought the company had a missionary aspect. It’s a leading-edge technology for something that hasn’t been done before, but with applications where it could make a real difference in people’s lives. Black: So it’s the fact that all of these companies has a mission that drew you to them? Robb: The criteria are a great young entrepreneur or CEO, a sense of mission or purpose in the company’s work and a commitment to building a culture that’s good for the people at the company. They need to understand and appreciate those things.
I think I look for something that’s a forward movement into the future, right? So we’re creating something that doesn’t yet exist and that is going to help shape the world. Not just something that’s been around forever that’s just kind of trodding along, but something that’s going to open new opportunities and new growth.
Black: What parts of the supply chain do you feel really need the most attention in food?
Robb: I think number one is transparency. Number two, I’d say, is quality. I’d say quality and standards so that the transparency leads us somewhere, that it’s not just an obfuscation exercise.
[Adaptation] to the digital world is also important so that it’s easy for customers to access that information and to inform their choices, and this will also help companies to evolve faster. The last big thing is the food waste.
Black: OK. The questions everyone wants answered: What is going to happen with the Amazon purchase of Whole Foods? What can Amazon do, given their position, to take good food to the next level?
Robb: Well, I’d love to see them continue to reach the full potential of Whole Foods. Whole Foods was built to endure, to be around for hundreds of years. Built to make a permanent shift in the food landscape. I’d love to see Amazon continue to honor that and accelerate it into the future. That may be self-serving because I was there so many years and it’s so much a part of me, but I’d love to see that happen.
The second thing would be to propel a more nuanced conversation about food. This often is a conversation about “Is it cheap enough?” But the reason food is not “cheap enough” is there are so many tradeoffs in the production of the food that folks don’t always know what they’re getting.
So how do we more, I don’t know, more articulately, more intelligently, more holistically approach this question about cost and quality? In the end, there always is a set of choices for people. How do we make organic food, more natural food, less expensive, but not so cheap that it loses the reason for being? How do we make people more aware of the costs that in cheap food are really not being reflected, and the costs that are happening as a result of having it? So how do we raise the quality of the conversation about that?
Telegraphing the High Price of Cheap Food
Walter Robb argues that consumers need help to make more responsible choices about what they eat. But how?
One idea: True Cost Accounting, an emerging method that tries to pin precise dollar figures on the social, environmental and public-health consequences of food production. It’s a way to price a steak to include the costs of raising and slaughtering the animal as well as, say, the cleanup costs of associated water pollution.
How to account for these “externalities” is tricky. In 2016, some 600 economists, farmers, policy makers and advocates gathered in San Francisco to discuss new ways to categorize, quantify and monetize the food system’s externalities – and, equally important, how to message it to consumers. “We need to provide the context behind stories without overwhelming our audiences with complexity,” said the Consumers Union’s Urvashi Rangan. “You give the bad news, but you also have to give people a message that empowers them and puts them in the driver’s seat.”
Black: What about all the drones and robots we hear about? Will there even be grocery stores?
Robb: Absolutely, because the need and desire for human connection is ever-present. What’s exciting about robotics is that they are already being used extensively in distribution and in physical stores as a partner to team members, doing things like checking store conditions and out-of-stocks. In Wake Fern, a grocery chain out of the southeast, you’ll see robots going up and down the aisles doing their work, increasing the productivity of the human workers. It’s already part of the grocery store. But there’s a tendency to overstate the high-tech narrative right now — that everything will be replaced.
Black: What will grocery stores of the future look like?
Robb: The world is tilting toward fresh and artisan and the true craft of food production. Soon, we’ll see [stores] in different forms and sizes. I think the big stores are in trouble; people don’t want to shop at them anymore. The whole way people get food is changing. We have so many options for food, whether it’s a meal kit, pickup or eating out. You don’t have to go to the store all the time. The grocery store is just one option. There will always be a market, but even more, it has to serve as the town square.
More broadly, the grocery store of the future will have no boundaries to it. Even though it’s a physical store, it will reach all the way into your home and even walk around with you. Imagine a Whole Foods refrigerator. You set it up on an app, pull it up on your phone, order what you want and have it there when you get home. There are also virtual reality technologies, like one from a company called Spacee, that allow you to project images of the store onto, say, a wall and enable delivery from that image.
Black: So much of this is about convenience and more personalized food. What needs to be done to create a better food system?
Robb: We need a true north. I believe in the quality of food and the transparency and the access of good-quality food, and an inclusive food system for workers and eaters. I don’t know if everyone would agree with that.
Customers are pushing hard for transparency and more information, more choices. But there are different sets of customers who can afford different things, and they are supported by commodity suppliers. These two [food systems are] running in parallel. They have different value systems.
History suggests from our experience at Whole Foods that change is possible. There are setbacks, of course. The current White House shelved a rule around animal welfare for organic that was in the works for three years. It’s two steps forward, one step back.
But directionally we aren’t going to go back. It’s a combination of things, over time, that will lead to change. But if there’s one thing we need to keep working on, it is these gaps of access and availability. We produce enough food, but it’s not finding its way to the people who need it. I would hope that the north star is an ever-increasing availability and accessibility of food that nurtures and sustains our bodies and our communities and our country. That’s what I’m going to keep working on.
Transcending Seasons: Following the Global Cold Chain
Prior to the late 19th century, families around the country ate only what they could grow or what nearby farmers had to offer. For people who lived where winters were frigid, that meant a limited winter diet consisting of food preserved in a root cellar. But that all changed when refrigerated rail cars enabled cross-country shipping of meats and produce from faraway farms. Access to a wider variety of foods year round changed the American diet permanently.
In 1927, the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published the first of their two classic studies of modernization in a midwestern community they called “Middletown.” Among the topics considered by the citizens of what was actually Muncie, Indiana, were recent changes to their diet. “In 1890 we had meat three times a day,” explained a Muncie grocery store owner. “Breakfast, pork chops or steak with fried potatoes, buckwheat cakes, and hot bread; lunch, a hot roast and potatoes; supper, same roast cold.” This would have been impossible even a decade earlier because the mass production of beef had only just become technologically viable.
What made the mass production of beef possible? Refrigerated rail cars, thanks to Gustavus Swift’s efforts in the 1880s. By 1890, steers and pigs slaughtered in Chicago stockyards arrived in cities and towns across the country, chilled by ice for the entire route.
“Steaks, roasts, macaroni, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, coleslaw, fried apples and stewed tomatoes.” This is how a Muncie housewife described her family’s “winter diet” to the Lynds before refrigeration arrived there during the late 1920s. No strawberries. No eggs. The winter diet was nothing but bland winter fare. Before fruits and vegetables were protected by similarly refrigerated rail cars, producers faced substantial spoilage and could never ship in winter because delays caused by freezing weather could doom whole shipments. (While some spoilage happened during warm months, too, ventilated rail cars allowed cooling breezes, mitigating damage.)
Consumers in Muncie faced what was known as “spring sickness” because they lacked access to the vitamins they needed for months on end every year. By contrast, with the advent of refrigeration, perishable produce could arrive from California all year or be kept in cold storage for winter use when those fruits or vegetables had been grown nearby.
The year-round availability of meats and green vegetables that we now take for granted requires an infrastructure. The turn of the 20th century brought the inception of this infrastructure, which changed the American diet forever.
“Everything from eggs to apples (apart from canned, pickled or dried versions) would be seasonally unavailable without cold storage.”
As refrigerated transportation became the norm, a new type of food chain was born — the cold chain. While a food chain requires no special technologies to store and transport foods of all kinds, cold chains require some form of refrigeration every step of the way because spoilage is ongoing. If one link in the chain fails, the product becomes inedible. What was true about cold chains during the early 20th century remains true today.
A “cold chain” is a modern refrigerating engineering term that refers to the path of perishable foods from the point of production to the point of consumption. Unlike regular food chains, cold chains require refrigeration along the entire path to prevent spoilage.
COLD CHAINS AND THE AMERICAN DIET
Technology has always had a tremendous effect on what people eat. Some technologies have made it possible to overcome distance by making cold chains longer, while others have made it economical to get better-tasting perishables by making cold chains shorter. As cold chains (and the transportation systems associated with them) have improved, the perishable food we eat has become fresher as delivery has become faster. Cold chains even let consumers defy seasons, allowing us access to fruits and vegetables that the people of Muncie seldom saw at any time of year.
With so many cold chains for so many different foods now available, it seems much more accurate to describe our perishable-food provisioning system as an intricate cold web. The refrigerated strands of that web crisscross not just America but the whole world. Their size, their speed and, most importantly, their efficiency have an enormous impact on what we eat because they help determine how much every kind of perishable food costs, or whether that food is available at all.
EATING FARAWAY FOOD: MAKING THE COLD CHAIN LONGER
Meat was just about the most expensive food you could buy during the late 19th century. As such, it was the perfect guinea pig for testing cold chain technology — success would bring the greatest financial benefit to the pioneers. Meat producers tapped into a huge market of consumers who wanted to add more meat to their diets as both a status symbol and because of the superior nourishment meat provided, compared to their earlier diets. When technology brought down the price of meat, consumers responded quickly.
After the cold chain for meat came similar protections for fruits and vegetables, starting in the 1890s. Fast refrigerator cars full of produce grown in California could get melons or lettuce to the East Coast for consumption in about a week. Iceberg lettuce was bred specifically during this period because it could hold up to refrigeration better than the alternatives. Refrigerated shipping and cold storage made these products common all year round and ended “spring sickness” forever.
In his 2006 book “The Walmart Effect,” journalist Charles Fishman describes how lengthening the cold chain for salmon — all the way to South America — brought down the price so much that Americans can now eat that once-uncommon fish on a regular basis. While Atlantic Salmon are not native to Chile, they are now being farmed there and flown to the United States in huge quantities. As a result, writes Fishman, “[S]almon farming has transformed the economy of southern Chile, ushering in an industrial revolution that has turned thousands of Chileans from subsistence farmers and fishermen into hourly paid salmon processing-plant workers.”
Fishman stresses the importance of deboning machinery to making shipping cheap salmon economical — but that’s just because the low costs of refrigerating fish and transporting the product by air are so entrenched that they can be easily taken for granted. Thanks to advances in the cold chain that have made it possible to market fish of all kinds worldwide, Chilean salmon arrives in the continental United States faster than salmon from Alaska. Walmart has paid for preserving and marketing much of that Chilean salmon once it arrives.
Long cold chains for fish do not have to involve airplanes. Refrigerated packing crates and gigantic barges have made shipping costs so cheap that fish caught off Norway can be efficiently shipped to China for processing (taking advantage of low labor costs) and then shipped again across the Pacific to America for consumption. Cold chain shipping — by air or sea — has played a particularly important role in fish farming of all kinds, making it possible to market large amounts of fish produced in what would otherwise be isolated locations. In fact, whether there will still be enough fish in the seas to satisfy this new demand has become an open question.
HARVESTING, STORING AND PROCESSING: MAKING THE COLD CHAIN SHORTER
Orange juice is a good example of how cold chains can be physically shortened to preserve a fresher taste. “Fresh-frozen” orange juice from concentrate dates from 1952. Not-from-concentrate orange juice dates from the 1990s. Ironically, this apparently “fresh” product can be stored for up to a year before the necessary processing occurs. Once taken out of storage and pumped with flavor enhancements, fresh juice has a shorter shelf life than juice concentrate — one to two weeks. Since it bears a much closer resemblance to fresh-squeezed it can fetch a higher price than the frozen juice concentrate sold in cans.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the local food movement has revived somewhat the idea of shorter cold chains. But it may be a moot argument. Consider the pros and cons:
One reason people were supposed to buy more local food is that the energy expended on refrigeration contributes significantly to the warming of the planet. Yet, as Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimzo have explained, one study found that “transporting a large volume of broccoli in a refrigerated container that had been moved around on a boat, a railroad car, and a truck to a distribution point required a lot less energy than a few thousand consumers bringing the same volume of broccoli back to their homes.”
Food miles have lately fallen out of favor as a unit of analysis because they oversimplify the environmental costs of eating perishable foods. Besides the efficiency of transport, another problem with food miles is that the energy expended to keep perishable food fresh also keeps that food from ending up in a landfill where it would give off the deadly greenhouse gas methane as it rots — a scenario in which the costs of refrigeration are less than the costs of spoilage. Similarly, the refrigeration costs associated with eating local beef may be lower, but what about the greenhouse gasses expended to raise the cow in the first place?
SPECIALIZING AND PERSONALIZING: MAKING THE COLD CHAIN FASTER
Nonetheless, some refrigerated indulgences should give any environmentally minded person pause. For example, the highly endangered bluefin tuna is an Atlantic and Mediterranean fish, yet it is regularly shipped as fast as possible to the Tsukiji fish market in Japan, where one specimen alone recently fetched $632,000. In this case, refrigeration has enabled the creation of a market that provides the perverse incentive to hunt a species to near extinction. Similarly, the Costa Di Mare restaurant inside the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas daily flies in fish caught and frozen in Italy’s coastal waters.
One way to move faster is to travel long distances at higher speeds; another is to eliminate steps along the way. The freezer packs inside ready-to-eat meal kits allow people to enjoy their “Beef Medallions & Brown Butter Caper Sauce” and “Thai Curry Chicken with Carrots & Bok Choy” in pre-measured portions without ever having to go to a grocery store. Blue Apron, the most prominent of these ready-to-eat meal companies, sends out millions of six-pound ice packs filled with sodium polyacrylate, a powder that when mixed with water melts much more slowly than water alone. This created both a personalized cold chain and an environmental disaster, due to excess packaging.
The historian Jenny Leigh Smith has described the practices of the Soviet ice cream industry in similar terms. Unable to afford the creation of an elaborate cold chain based on mechanical refrigeration, Soviet vendors during the 1950s and 1960s simply put dry ice in their insulated pushcarts and used that to keep their product cold as they sold it on the streets. It’s a good reminder that effective refrigeration technologies are not always expensive — they just have to meet the particular needs of the situation at any point in the cold chain.
Another way to make the cold chain move faster is by using refrigeration to speed natural processes that need to occur before perishable products are sold. When the food and science writer Nicola Twilley visited one of New York City’s four main banana distributors, he told her that the energy coming off just a single box of ripening bananas “could heat a small apartment.” The firm’s ripening room was designed to control output by blowing cold air through the boxes. The ripening of some fruit is accelerated, while in other cases it gets slowed down. It all depends upon matching supply with market demand. [Read our story, “How the Bodega Gets the Banana,” for more about the long journey of this ubiquitous tropical fruit.]
TRANSCENDING SEASONALITY: MAKING THE COLD CHAIN SLOWER
When perishables are harvested in season but need to be distributed out of season, cold storage is required. The idea of cold storage dates to around the turn of the 20th century, when mechanical refrigeration was just becoming reliable enough for producers to entrust their livelihoods to these third parties along the cold chain. While new fast train lines could bring fresh-picked strawberries from Florida or melons from California to areas with harsher climates, the easiest way to defy seasonality was to store local produce in newly built refrigerated warehouses for perishable foods of all kinds.
The effects of these changes were noticeable immediately. “Twenty years ago,” explained a reporter for the New York Sun in 1894, “[p]ears which sell today two for five cents were 40 cents apiece, and black Hamburg grapes…were only to be had from hothouse growers and were worth $1 a pound. The luscious great cherries which were so plentiful a few weeks ago were unknown in our markets, prunes were known only as a dried fruit, and apricots and nectarines were rare enough to be but a tradition among the greater part of the people.” At that time, rare meant expensive, but not impossible to purchase for special occasions — for instance, buying oranges only at Christmastime.
Storage itself can be expensive even now because of the energy it requires, but it remains an essential component to using refrigeration to transcend seasonality. Everything from eggs to apples (apart from canned, pickled or dried versions) would be seasonally unavailable without cold storage.
The final link in the cold chain, the electric household refrigerator, is a kind of personal cold storage. When the first reliable, affordable, electric household refrigerator went on the market in 1927, it became an instant sensation. It meant that people no longer had to buy food quite so often as before. This was cold storage for your home. By 1960, there was a modern fridge in nearly every home in the country.
Refrigerators allow consumers to time their purchases far better than they would otherwise. In countries like France, where refrigerators are far smaller than they are in the United States, many consumers gladly visit local markets every day so that they can be assured the best flavor possible from their perishable products. By contrast, in the United States, grocery shopping only once a week is a common way to avoid the inconvenience of driving to the Walmart Supercenter and waiting in the checkout line more often. Stores like Costco, which sell huge packages of frozen goods, thrive on this American tendency to favor convenience over taste.
INCREASING FRESH ACCESS: MAKING THE COLD CHAIN MORE EFFICIENT
Future technological developments in our web of cold chains will likely occur in the parts that we don’t see. Bring the cost of storage and transport down, and producers can enter new markets or lower costs for consumers so that more people can afford to eat fresh. These changes will require increasing the scale of what travels through cold chains. Perishable products that are still too expensive for most consumers to buy regularly might become more accessible.
Dragon fruit (pitaya), for example, is well-known enough to be a flavor of VitaminWater, but just try buying an actual dragon fruit in the produce section at even a store like Whole Foods. Maybe it can be done in some places at certain times of the year, but it is far from easy. Grow the supply and cultivate the demand, and a cold chain could evolve to service it.
Apart from refrigeration itself, many important developments in cold chain history have involved improvements in transportation — airplanes or refrigerated containers for transoceanic shipping. With all the links in the chain fully refrigerated now, what might future technological improvements look like? Will your meal kits soon arrive via drone? That depends on whether it can be done efficiently and cost effectively. Improvements in the energy efficiency of refrigeration will also help increase the availability of foods to people at all economic levels if those savings are shared with consumers in a meaningful way.
Increased access to perishable foods of all kinds has been a sign of growth in our food provisioning system ever since the advent of ice refrigeration in the early 19th century. The web of cold chains this process has created stretches across the planet. Even countries that do not benefit from being the endpoint of a cold chain probably produce perishable products that could not be sold elsewhere without refrigeration technologies. While it is unlikely that the changes in diet promoted by future changes in technology can surprise middle-class Americans anymore, anything that can be done to bring the same food choices and relatively low prices to the rest of the world will benefit all of humanity.
Quick History of Consumer Ice
In the early 19th century, ice took long journeys across the globe. Cut from lakes around Boston and packed onto ships, it might be sold as far away as India. Today, anyone can get all the ice they need on demand at local convenience stores. The Ice Factory, developed in 1992, was the first of a new breed of automatic ice machines. It manufactures ice on demand and even bags it for you automatically. This eliminates both delivery and storage costs. It allows people to stock up on ice when they need it for parties and barbecues, yet still use their home freezers for their day-to-day needs the rest of the year. Prior to the Ice Factory, one ice manufacturing plant could pack enough bags to satisfy demand within a 100-mile radius.
Modern Times Cold Calling?
Expensive “smart” refrigerators, like the Internet of Things in general, are really just a way to convince consumers that they need to replace appliances that work perfectly well as-is with new ones hooked up to the World Wide Web so that they can impress their friends with how modern their home is. At this moment in time, the benefits of owning a networked refrigerator do not justify its cost. If you can send email from your computer or your phone, you have no need to send it from your fridge. Refrigerators have certainly gotten bigger since 1960. However, they don’t keep food any fresher.
Make Way for Public Markets?
While farmers’ markets are become more common attractions, public markets like Pike Place or the Pittsburgh Public Market are still fairly hard to come by in urban areas.
At a gathering I attended a few years ago in downtown Austin, the breakfast fare said it all. Organic yogurt, locally produced honey, and fresh breakfast tacos broke from the usual offerings of croissants and Danish pastries. This crowd was invested in their food — emotionally and economically — as farmers, chefs, city planners, food activists, non-profits and individuals gathered to learn about the possibility of bringing a public food market to Austin. Like many urban areas across the country, Austin has farmers markets but no public market — yet. Why is that?
The answer requires a brief tour of public market history and our relationship with food. The relationship has always been contentious, as cities all over the world have historically been defined by their food markets and yet have moved their markets farther and farther away. Struggles over land values, sanitation and urban design have left most public food markets out in the hinterlands. And now city dwellers want them back.
“Struggles over land values, sanitation and urban design have left most public food markets out in the hinterlands. And now city dwellers want them back.”
Why? You’ve probably noticed a farmers market or two in your city, selling food from local producers and feeding a growing desire to meet those who produce our food, shake their rough hands and hear their stories.
Since the 1970s, environmentalists and the organic movement have been advocating for food to rejoin our urban landscapes, both to keep local businesses in business and to build stronger connections between producers and consumers. Some argue that the presence of farmers markets in a city adds to the social fabric, sense of community and aesthetics of the urban experience.
Why? You’ve probably noticed a farmers market or two in your city, selling food from local producers and feeding a growing desire to meet those who produce our food, shake their rough hands and hear their stories.
Since the 1970s, environmentalists and the organic movement have been advocating for food to rejoin our urban landscapes, both to keep local businesses in business and to build stronger connections between producers and consumers. Some argue that the presence of farmers markets in a city adds to the social fabric, sense of community and aesthetics of the urban experience.
Great, you say. In a digital, industrialized world, we all need more humanity.
But today’s desire to bring food back to our urban landscape runs counter to the ejection of large public food markets that began in earnest during the mid-19th century when cities began to modernize. City dwellers wanted to leave behind their rough, tough rural lives. What’s more, food production was viewed as a threat to sanitation, a serious problem in the 19th century, when diseases like cholera rolled through urban landscapes. By the 20th century many cities saw their public markets as occupiers of space that could be developed to create more revenue, provide more sanitation and improve vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
A few of these public markets refused to budge, but now they seem to be on their way out, too. Smithfield meat market in London and Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo are both big historic markets that are in the crosshairs of developers and urban improvement programs. Both define their neighborhoods, have historic roots and contribute to the social and economic fabric of their host cities.
London’s Smithfield meat market opened in 1868, and Tsukiji, began its evolution as the world’s largest fish market in 1935. In Smithfield’s case, the City of London owns the land occupied by the market, and the market has come under attack several times during the past few decades because of increasing congestion around the market and the anomaly of the occupation of prime, centrally located space as a place for a wholesale meat market. The history of London’s meat market has been contentious for most of its 800-year history, so this battle for its place in London’s landscape is familiar.
Some of Smithfield’s buildings have been deteriorating while the neighborhood has been modernizing and becoming a trendy area for new restaurants and businesses. Plans for a real estate company to redevelop the market were accepted and then scrapped, and now it looks as though the western buildings are to be renovated and become home to the Museum of London.
In Tokyo, the fish market, Tsukiji, has become a tourist attraction, a trend fed by the announcement of its removal nearly two decades ago. The announcement met opposition at first but then gradually gained support, even of the union associated with the market in spite of those who objected the loss of the neighborhood’s culture and history. Costs for the removal have risen but the decision to build a new market outside of the center of Tokyo will most likely stick. The arrival of the Olympic games and the need for the world’s largest fish market to conform to global sanitation requirements are important to Japan’s overall economic and diplomatic status.
In Austin, though, it looks like we’re ready to bring our food back to the city. The St. Elmo Public Market is slated to open in South Austin within a matter of months. This new experiment sits within changing tides of urban development as food markets come and go and attitudes change about how we view food, the countryside, and our public spaces. Are the battles over Smithfield and Tsukiji relevant to cities such as Austin? Or is Austin exceptional in some way that could allow it to break new ground for those who want a closer relationship with their food?
The Pan in Choripàn
Most food in Argentina comes from somewhere else, at least in its earliest forms. Like wheat.
Sure, there’s asado, a ubiquitous dish on Argentinian menus that is mostly a mound of barbequed meat. But in Argentina, the mishmash of culinary traditions reflects a long history of immigrants who left very little of anything that can be called truly Argentinian.
The view that the Argentinian national cuisine is actually a mix of British, Italian and French food can be galling to some cultural purists. The Scots made significant cultural contributions, such as the introduction of football. The British brought tea to Argentina while the native plants added the local flavor of yerba mate. And the British sailed to the Falkland Islands and the Argentinian mainland during the 19th century, hauling their sheep and cattle along as they established ranches (estancias) that survive today, even if only as useful buildings for a remote resort.
Estancia Christina, where our family spent the Christmas holidays a few years ago, is one such compound, located in Los Glaciares National Park. Visitors can wander through a museum on the ranch that exhibits shearing and branding equipment hauled to the estancia by John Percival Masters in the early 1900s. He and his family had almost 30,000 sheep and shipped wool to Buenos Aires on railroads built by British engineers. Asado was made possible by decades of cattle, sheep and pig importations during those years of British ranching.
Football fans consume thousands of choripàns at their local stadiums, but still, Argentina is known for its football championships, not for its bread. So choripàn bread, closely resembling French baguettes in taste and flavor, brings Argentina and France together — if not for the duration of a rowdy football match, at least for the time it takes to consume a chorizo sandwich.
Wheat flour, used to make chorizo sandwiches, came from wheat brought by the Spaniards to South America during the sixteenth century. The bread in Argentina is almost exclusively white, a lingering imprint left by Europeans who saw white bread as the signature of upper class cuisine. That January, at the Central Market outside Buenos Aires, dozens of customers waited in line to buy freshly baked French baguettes priced at one kilo of baguettes for seven pesos. (The Argentinian government had set bread prices at ten pesos per kilo, so wonder the line for one kilo of bread at seven pesos wound around and around the bakery stall that day.)
Argentina got serious about growing wheat after the new nation (established in 1852) built a School of Agronomy in 1875. Soon Argentina exported grain for the first time and began to industrialize the country’s grain production system. Bad weather and crop failures in the early 1900s combined with a lack of demand for grains, a commodity not considered important to those waging World War I. When the war was over, the economic depression ended, and workers began to demand protection from those who appeared to profit by the resurgence of grain production.
When I was there, the wheat market was in turmoil as Kirchner’s government restricted wheat exports, causing wheat farmers to lower production and in some cases move their fields into the more lucrative production of soybeans, which have no limits even though sales are taxed at 35 percent. Since farmers want to reap the benefits from the more liberal policies, they are depleting the soil with the nutrient-hungry soybeans.
The wheat farmers who remain in their fields soldier on, producing grain for choripàn bread. One mill outside Buenos Aires, Melino Chacabuco, receives shipments of grain around the clock. Chacabuco is a sleepy, semi-industrial town of just over 35,000 inhabitants located on the Saluda River, now the Laguna Rocha. The presence of a river must have been the attraction for building a mill, a winding conduit for grain to the mills. Tall smoke stacks, grain storage silos, and cylindrical billboards advertise Chacabuco both as a town and as a mill.
I visited the mill, driving three hours to Chacabuco on a long, flat highway through dusty agricultural towns. At the mill, a long queue of bright red trucks transferred grain from their bellies into the metal grates built into the flooring of the mill delivery courtyard. To show how all these shipments of grain become the refined, enriched white flour used in choripàn sandwich bread, two employees met me in the mill conference room. With a display more suited to a foreign dignitary, production manager Juan Rafael Errasti and food engineer Gabriela Benavidez sat at a long wooden conference table, slide projector perched at one end, American and Argentinian flags flanking each other, and a basket of sweet, sticky, shiny Argentinian pastries slowly circumnavigating the table.
Rafael and Gabriela explained how their mill made flour—oh, and pet food, a byproduct of milling flour. Molino Chacabuco S.A. was founded by Crespo & Rodriguez, a firm in the early 1900s. Don Tomás Crespo and Don Jose Maria Rodríguez acquired the milling equipment in Chacabuco in 1918.
Inside the old Chacabuco Mill, Rafael and Gabriel talked about their jobs. Rafael revealed that his recent promotion to manager made him uncomfortable. Trained as a mechanical engineer, he confessed that he knows how milling equipment works, not people. He’s tall with silver hair, and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt to keep cool in on that mid-summer day. The warm, damp air smelled of ground flour.
“A simple loaf of bread is not easy to make, and not all grains of wheat are created equal.”
Gabriela appeared to thrive in her job as a food scientist, a position she’d had for the last twenty-nine years. Slowly stirring her tea as she emptied a series of sugar packets into her cup, she explained how flour continues to hold her interest. A simple loaf of bread, she said, is not easy to make. Not all grains of wheat are created equal, according to Gabriela, who described all the variances that can occur and all the adaptations and challenges that arise as a result of differences caused by different growing practices and weather changes. Adding to the complexities of her flour world, she said she believes that bakers today are not as skilled as in the past, sometimes blundering through the making of bread inconsistently, often tossing in ingredients without regard for precision or, she suggested, any concern for quality. As a result, Gabriela is in constant contact with her customers, advising and sometimes training them so they can create a stable, consistent loaf. After all, she wants them to stay in business, and it’s the flour that will get a bad rap if a customer feels the bread doesn’t taste good.
“It’s the flour that will get a bad rap if a customer feels the bread doesn’t taste good.”
Gabriela reports to Rafael, who towered over her with his wiry six-feet. Her hair is short and dark brown, drawn back over her face by her reading glasses. Wearing a white lab coat with the company logo on one side, she conveyed the competence of a scientist, betrayed in some moments by an occasional twinkle and smile. During our tour through the factory, we caught each other’s attention when we approached a large area where the highly polished wooden floor begged for a tango dancer or two. Spontaneously, we both mimicked the motions of tango dancing, sliding across the floor for a few minutes undetected by the oblivious males in our group.
Rafael and Gabriela led us into the factory, a collection of buildings adjoining their offices. Winding our way in between the tall silos of grain awaiting the capacious maw inside the largest of the buildings, we began our trek up and down the five floors of 1950s style milling equipment.
The mill was impeccable. The machinery was either emitting soft grinding sounds or energetically quivering and rumbling as flour coursed throughout the different factory floors. Every machine seemed to be either grinding or sifting. In a quiet room shut off from these sounds and vibrations, Raphael and Gabriela presented a series of trays, each with tiny piles of ground grains in various stages of milling. Trays appeared and were whisked away in a performance designed by a team of millers who displayed the same sort of geekiness that you find in a chemistry lab. Gabriela and Raphael showed, with their small piles illustrating the progressive stages of milling, how the grains became 00 or 000 flour, two specifications indicating fineness. (The Argentinians use the Italian system for grading flour according to fineness. The more zeros, the finer the grind.)
And the reveal of small piles of flour didn’t end in the small room filled with flour samples. On each floor, Raphael and Gabriela went from machine to machine, pulling out samples of flour to demonstrate how many times the wheat grains passed through the mill, up and down, back and forth, streaming through Plexiglas tubes, rustling and shaking their way toward some degree of 000s.
The floors, supported by the old columns from the mill’s early years, gleamed. While the columns appeared of recent vintage, the capitols were the old cast iron ones, black and decorative. Great care had been taken by someone in charge of the mill’s history to patch only small areas of the flooring in an effort to keep as much of the early 19th century underfoot. In spite of the effort to keep the mill’s past intact, modern milling practices and the use of computers to manage every step of the process were evident at every turn. One turn took us to a room where bags of additives awaited someone who would measure out desired amounts of niacin and riboflavin to create “enriched” flour. (Seems like the flour industry spends its time stripping off the outer shell of a grain, removing protein and nutrients and then replacing nutrients through the “enrichment” process. Must be a reason for this, and it might have something to do with the cultural preference for white bread, like the bread used in choripàn.)
“No man qualifies as a statesman who is entirely ignorant on the problems of wheat.”
Wheat is one of those crops brought to South America by the same Europeans that Niall Ferguson lauds in his book, Empire. Ferguson argues that the colonizers during the 19th century added to the conquered countries, adding such commodities such as grain, railroads, and cattle. Whether you agreed with Ferguson or not, you see the effects of foreign cultures in every choripàn. Argentinian wheat makes a significant contribution to the global economy and governments are wary of any shortage or disruption to the wheat supply chain. As Socrates said in one of his discussions with Plato, “No man qualifies as a statesman who is entirely ignorant on the problems of wheat.”
And Argentina has been having its wheat problems. How the choripàn will fare is unclear. But just ask any Argentinian if whole wheat or any bread other than that white wheat bread would be worthy of their chorizo, and you’ll get a grimace and denial all in one motion.
“Ask any Argentinian if any other bread would be worthy of their chorizo, and you’ll get a grimace and denial all in one motion.”
On the way back from the mill, I passed through several highway tollbooths where police officers waved cars through, allowing them to pass without paying any toll. My guide explained that the government passed a law making it illegal for tollbooths to detain drivers for longer than three minutes during peak traffic hours. This seemed to indicate that the government was alarmed that such delays could incite riots or other forms of social unrest. If a few minutes delay at the tollbooth could cause such a reaction, imagine what might ensue if choripàn bread became prohibitively expensive or even unavailable due to a wheat shortage. Beware any government that goes too far, threatening all those football fans with the loss of their beloved choripàn.
Ernesto’s Choripán Stand
Pedro and his son, Ernesto, have sold choripán sandwiches in Buenos Aires every day for seven years.
Pedro Molina’s white teeth reflect the Argentinian sun, making a steady gaze into his eyes almost unbearable. For some reason, his smile reveals only his lower teeth, gleaming and even. Sitting in Buenos Aires under one of the umbrellas that shade the tables surrounding his stand, Pedro speaks with a low, soft voice as he describes his life as a vendor of choripán, a combination of chorizo and pan (bread), the two main ingredients of the classic Argentinian sandwich. Pedro flashes his smile throughout our conversation, revealing that row of bright white teeth every time.
“This is a man who shows up for work for reasons other than grilling sausages.”
His bright red and yellow choripán stand, a parilla or grill, bears his son’s name, Ernesto. They have worked side by side, day after day, for at least seven years. Families, hungover teens and grandmothers who are walking along the broad sidewalk that borders the Buenos Aires Ecological Reserve along the Rio de la Plata buy their Argentinian chorizo sandwiches here.
Pedro describes his family in San Juan province, a rocky section of Argentina located along the western border with Chile. They raised pigs that sometimes wandered through the house. Since he was six years old, Pedro worked alongside his father, fattening their pigs so they could make sausage, and he grew up grilling chorizo. His father was an artisan of sorts, fabricating leather harnesses for horses. He was also an owner of a fruit business and came from a family that produced a long line of cooks. Before setting up his choripán stand, Pedro did just about everything “except being a thief.” He sold cars, fruit, and vegetables, and he worked in a family-run leather store. Seven years ago, those memories sparked his interest in starting a sandwich stand selling choripán.
Now, in his mid-60s, Pedro reflects upon the many jobs that came before his beloved choripán stand. He speaks earnestly about the importance of work to a sense of wellbeing. And he has strong opinions about work, an activity that he says “dignifies the human soul,” expressing what he describes as man’s innate character of active love. This is a man who shows up for work for reasons other than grilling sausages.
Pedro glances back and forth between my notebook, where I’m furiously writing, and his son, who is frantically setting up the stall for the day’s business. Pedro compliments Ernesto’s mastery of the grill, but he is ambivalent about any plan to have his son take over the business. Raising both hands to the sky, he reveals those white teeth, smiles and sighs as he says that fate will determine what his son does in the future. Perhaps Pedro holds the hope of a family succession plan, but all indications that day were that he is content to leave the decision up to Ernesto, who at this moment is grilling up a mountain of fresh chorizo for the day’s lunch rush.
But Pedro has no desire to hand over his business just yet. He wants to continue to work, and judging from his late arrival to our interview, he’s in the thick of day-to-day operations of his choripán stand. He was an hour late for our meeting, a large man arriving in a small car, hurriedly unloading a plastic bag of pork chorizo that had been stored in his home refrigerator after that week’s heat wave caused a power outage in the city.
Pedro is getting impatient with all the questions about how his business worked and wanted to know why we hadn’t talked more about the choripán sandwiches he sells to his customers. Most of his customers are tourists who don’t buy the choripán but instead consume dozens of hamburgers and other pork and beef sandwiches such as bandiolas, spicy meat sandwiches made of pork or chicken. He sells about forty choripáns a day, and more on weekends. But Pedro is genuinely disappointed that we hadn’t spent most of our interview talking about his choripán sandwiches.
Unable to deflect his invitation, I ask how he makes choripán. With those blazing white teeth on display, he invites me to sidle up alongside Ernesto as his son cooks a chorizo sausage, slicing it open so that it cooks evenly and flat against the hot grill. The smell of sausage and spices fills the small space inside the stand, making it nearly impossible to suppress the desire for a bite of the grilled chorizo. When the sausage is glazed with its own grease, Ernesto gingerly lays it inside a sandwich roll that is similar in taste and texture to a French baguette.
“The smell of sausage and spices fills the small space inside the stand, making it nearly impossible to suppress the desire for a bite of the grilled chorizo.”
Ernesto insists that the classic choripán, his preference, is just chorizo, chimichurri sauce and a combination of oil, vinegar, oregano, cumin, parsley, garlic, red pepper and fennel. He’s wild about oregano, but he provides a table for his customers that satisfies their desire for mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, tomato and other spicy sauces —all dismissed by Pedro with a brief wave of his hand as unnecessary embellishments for the humble, grilled chorizo nestled in the slightly warmed, soft white bun.
His life and the lives of those he works with mingle in the public park where his stand sits at the end of the paved, tree-lined walkway. The choripán stalls along the walkway are open twenty-four hours a day, every day. When we arrived at 10:00 a.m., all the stall owners were cleaning the grills, stocking new charcoal and taking deliveries of soft drinks, paper napkins, onions and meat. The choripán stalls are kept open with continual deliveries of supplies, people and customers.
“You can imagine a subculture of choripán stall workers whose families have grown up living in these buses, eating grilled meat, raising families, playing music, and cobbling together a work/life existence that keeps choripán coming night and day.”
Lined up along the curb near the stalls are several repainted, beat-up, old buses in all sizes and stages of dilapidation. Stall workers, still seemingly sleepwalking, wander in and out of the buses where they sleep, from time to time. You can imagine a subculture of choripán stall workers whose families have grown up living in these buses, eating grilled meat, raising families, playing music, somehow cobbling together a work/life existence that keeps choripán coming night and day.
Pedro wraps the freshly made choripán and hands it to me with this beefy but manicured hands. With his reading glasses swinging back and forth around his neck, he turns back to the grill, ready to greet the lunch crowd as they emerge from the neighboring high rises. Another day selling sandwiches, day after day, twenty-four-hours a day, all year, as in the past seven years, Pedro and his son, Ernesto, greet customers in the bright, hot, Argentinean sunshine.
Can Food Be Too Local?
While shooting your own dinner is the sine qua non of localness, you should be allowed to draw the line.
At Kelmscott Farm, I raised farm animals that met their death for the sake of high-end restaurants. On a recent weekend, I was shooting birds for sport, and yes, for food. But pulling the trigger put my meal just too close for comfort.
I joined a group of women who, judging from their gun bags and hunting attire, were experienced hunters. I, on the other hand, arrived on the first morning wearing blue jeans, a running jacket, and a fuzzy winter hat. My motivation for joining these women was to know more about the clamor to eat local food, to be close to food and to know its origins — and even the sometimes the unglamorous path that food takes to our plates.
Why does anyone hunt? Some hunt to eat. When we lived in Maine, our neighbors were grateful when deer season came, that dusky month or two that enabled them to kill enough deer to fill their freezers until the spring when their gardens took over as a source of food. Others hunt for sport. Some say they hunt to gain a sense of control over their circumstances, a connection with their food, an almost primal feeling of making and creating their own sustenance. George Orwell explains why he shot an animal in his 1936 essay, “Shooting an Elephant.” But he was commenting on British imperialism, and I am only musing about a weekend with women who shoot pheasants.
It’s not quite like making your own cheese, drying your own jerky or fermenting your own beer. Killing your own meat requires an ability to suffer the suffering of a living animal—in this case, a beautiful bird with sapphire- and amethyst-colored feathers, whose wings flapped, their soft sound veering overhead as it was flushed out of the dry grasses.
“It’s not quite like making your own cheese, drying your own jerky or fermenting your own beer.”
I was brilliant on the skeet range, carefully aiming the gun, peering down the muzzle and waiting intently for the speck of orange to fly up in the air or skitter across the ground. But in the field, I held back, fumbling, hesitating and hoping others would cover for me.
It appeared that I couldn’t bag a bird. But my eagle eyes enabled me to return to the lodge with one. I spied it in the grass and pointed it out to the pointer dogs, who then scooped it up and mangled it to death for my benefit, enabling a triumphant return to Austin with a cooler and a pheasant, which most thought I shot. Actually, I just pointed, and the pointers got the point.
While hunting for my next meal probably won’t be in my future, getting to know these women and learning how to load a shotgun was time well spent. And all those missed shots and spent bullets raised for me the possibility that you can be too close to your food, at least as defined by the length of your rifle.
January is just about the worst time to meet the owner of a bakery in Buenos Aires, or any business owner, for that matter.
Marcelo, the owner of La Sud América, a bakery in the Almagro neighborhood in Buenos Aires, was texting me with the news that he would be available for a brief meeting before he taking off for a holiday with his family. Like our summer months, Argentinian winters are prime vacation months for families with children out of school, which means that many businesses hang cerrado (closed) signs on their doors to indicate they are off for the holidays. So I was lucky to find to find a few minutes when Marcelo could show me around his small shop.
During the 19th century, Almagro was home to Italians and Basque families. As a haven for immigrants, the area also became home to the tango culture, built on the amalgamation of social customs and cultures.
Knowing that Marcelo would be anxious to escape the sweltering heat in the city, I located the shop and peered underneath the partially raised and profusely graffiti-covered metal door. He greeted me with a warm, Argentinian bear hug and led me to his office in back of the retail bakery shop. Marcelo wore flip-flops, baggy shorts, a black T-shirt, a silver necklace, and on one wrist, a huge sport watch with a yellow band and oversized, orange numerals. If his attire said anything, it said, “I’m not a baker today, just a guy wanting to be on a beach somewhere, looking cool.”
We moved beyond the retail shop, where wood and glass cases stood empty, worn labels revealing absent pastries and breads such as libritos and cremonas. A gleaming red paper cutter occupied an imposing position at the end of the counter to wrap purchases in white paper printed with the bakery’s decorative logo.
But the most impressive display in the small shop was the laminated article from Carghill News that had featured Marcelo and his bakery in 2007. There on the front page was Marcelo, holding a freshly baked loaf of bread in front of his old, brick oven. The antique oven is the main attraction of his small operation, built in the 1890s and one of the last remaining old brick ovens. (A famous bakery, L’Epi, located in Chacarita, has an oven built in 1919.) While boasting about its survival all these years, he complained about the annoyances that arose when bricks broke and he had to scour the city for hard-to-find replacements. Of course I wanted to see it, but for some reason Marcelo explained that it wasn’t available for viewing since the shop was closed. It didn’t make much sense to me, but who wants to push their luck when they have a shop owner who is technically on vacation offer to spend an afternoon explaining his business? Not me.
“Marcelo is an evangelist for the old way of baking bread.”
Marcelo is an evangelist for the old way of baking bread, and he makes much use of his brick oven. But despite the notoriety from the Carghill News, he’s not a big fan of Carghill flour. He reasoned that the company mixes grain from multiple growers and thus, in Marco’s opinion, the quality of the product varies from shipment to shipment, depending upon the mix from unknown sources. Instead, he buys from a smaller, Argentinian flour provider that purchases grains from a smaller and more familiar set of farmers.
One has to take this with a grain of salt, since the Argentinian government is in the midst of issuing tariff regulations and subsidies on a rather irregular and unpredictable basis. The country has been one of the largest exporters of wheat in Latin America, but recent bad weather has lowered production so that the grain harvest available for export after filling orders from Argentinian mills has rapidly declined. Even domestic mills are anxious about having enough grain to keep busy. All of these factors muddy Marcelo’s rationale for moving from Carghill to an Argentinian mill. He did explain that the mill gave him a “good” price because it liked the idea that Marcelo used the antique oven.
Marcelo led me from his empty shop to his back office, a rat’s nest of papers, dirty cups and empty soda bottles, shrink-wrapped boxes of paper goods, files and random items such as old, broken headphones amidst computers and closed-circuit security screens. The place was a mess, but Marcelo wanted me to believe he was in control of the apparent chaos as he half answered questions, holding the remote control for the air conditioning system in one hand and his cell phone in the other. Both were in operation at the same time.
But his attempt to appear in command failed when he was unable to locate the original copy of the Carghill article. He stepped out of his office to place a telephone call to his mother, who apparently has a mental map of all contents of Marcelo’s office. From the hallway, I could overhear his plea for help, which was proceeded by a plaintive “Mommy?” This tough baker, who owned not only this shop but also two bar/cafes, had suddenly become someone’s little boy.
He found the file, but in his enthusiasm for producing useful items from his files, he also pressed two books into my hands, explaining that they were old classics of his trade with recipes for traditional breads. These books, from the 1950s and ’60s, were at one time loved by some baker, and their pages were bent and soiled with butter and grease. Nothing like an old book to seal a friendship for life.
Marcelo never stopped walking, talking, texting, and moving the temperature up and down in the room from the remote control. He comes from a family of bakers, his father and grandfather working in bakeries in Buenos Aires, and he was quick to rattle off all the ingredients of the bread used to make chopàni sandwiches: wheat flour, margarine, salt, yeast, sugar. But he wasn’t as quick to respond to my question about the quantity of sandwich buns he makes every day. For a quick moment he put down his cell phone, picked up a calculator, and pronounced that he bakes about 900 sandwich loaves each day during the weekend and 650 to 700 on a weekday. Wouldn’t you think he knew how many loaves he bakes by now?
“His enthusiasm for the job bubbles to the top of our conversation.”
Perhaps his training as a lawyer, which he completed alongside his twin brother, prepared him more for negotiating with the bakers union than tallying production output. He showed disdain for the bakers’ union, which, he gleefully reported, he has eliminated from his business. Marcelo also revealed that the most unpleasant part of this job is working with his forty employees, whom he described as a big family who regularly bring him forty personal problems. On the bright side, Marcelo shared how much he enjoys the hands-on process of baking bread. He said he wants to be in the thick of day-to-day operations, admitting that he is a perfectionist (and maybe a micromanager). His enthusiasm for his job bubbles to the top of our conversation as he describes how important it is for him to work hard so that he can maintain to his family’s good reputation in the bakery business.
I imagined he was anxious to head to the beach with his family, so we wrapped up our conversation, walking by the towers of bright metal bread pans and pastry sheets on the way out. I really did want to see the old oven, but Marcelo was resistant to the last, saying that it was not that interesting when it wasn’t baking, which sounded like cover for other reasons. We’ll never know.
Don’t Cry for Me…
The machines, technology, and gears in our supply chain matter, but so do the soft parts of the system’s underbelly — the human beings that make the thing work.
During a recent visit with a meat processor and a pig farmer in Argentina, two men told me disarming stories. Their stories seemed more suited to pass between intimate friends than between us, having only known each other for a few hours. While the stories revealed how chorizo is made, they were far more eloquent commentaries about these men’s lives than about sausage or animal husbandry.
While we’re exploring the food supply chain, we’re often confronting machines, technology, and the gears of the equipment that moves boxes from one place to another. These gears matter, but so do the soft parts of the system’s underbelly — the human beings that make the thing work. Like the humans that work at Frigorifico San Jose on Darwin Street, on the fringes of Buenos Aires. In one moment, you watch a large meat grinder mince and mix meat for the sausage stuffers. In the next moment, you watch your host’s eyes brim with tears.
“In one moment, you watch a large meat grinder mince and mix meat for the sausage stuffers. In the next moment, you watch your host’s eyes brim with tears.”
Ruben works at the pork processing plant housed in two buildings located in Lomas del Mirador. A rancher named Pablo Pelluse bought the land where the meat processors would set up their businesses in 1868. During the Argentinian Civil Wars, the area was caught in the regional battle and became known for its support of the Federalists against the Unitarios in Buenos Aires, who wanted a strong, centralized government. By the end of the century, the Federalists had lost, and Buenos Aires governed the unified areas around the city.
Lomas del Mirador’s history runs along the same grain as the meat business in Buenos Aires. By the end of the 19th century, meat slaughtering had left its mark on the area as railways moved meat processing farther away from the city. The meat processing companies that had existed in the area replaced slaughterhouses and tallow factories and provided employment to the surge of immigrants, many from Italy, coming to live in Buenos Aires province during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A soap factory, Jabon Federal, scooped up tallow to make bars of soap, joining other meat-related businesses and helping the town take on an appearance similar to other cities now known for their close association with the meat packing industry. Chicagos of the Argentinian meat industry, Villa Madero and Lomas del Mirador are historical artifacts of the old meat supply chain. The pork processing plant that I visited is one of the vestiges of the old meat processing neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.
Immigrants continue to occupy the area. Mario Klichinovich is the product manager and Ruben’s boss. Klichinovich is one family name you won’t find in Italy. Indications are that Mario’s family may have come from Austria after having fled Russia during the Jewish diaspora. Ruben is a food scientist by training and has spent 25 years working in the meatpacking business. He began working in food service through an internship while studying food “engineering,” the term used instead of food “science” in the U.S.
He led us to the chilled meat processing rooms to find a line of tables piled high with pig carcasses, mostly already cut into quarters and medium cuts. Workers hefted pig carcasses off the meat hooks inside a small truck that had been backed into the processing room. Occasional grunts revealed that this move took quite some physical effort.
Ruben’s team slices up a very small portion of Argentina’s pork production. Pig farmers have been increasing output by over 100 percent during the last decade, chasing a 60 percent increase in pork consumption. Exports of pork are also on the rise, in spite of Kirschner’s attempts to keep pork in Argentina.
His workers are bumping bags of pork, ham hocks, and trotters against each other, flashing sharp knives, and tossing offal into buckets beneath the tables. The working space is clean, constantly rinsed by water and cleaning fluids, but at some point Ruben will need more cutting tables and meat processors to deal with the increasing taste for Argentinian pork.
After watching the ad hoc choreography required to empty the small truck and prepare meat for processing, we wandered upstairs where the sausage takes shape. Workers in pristine whites, boots and hairnets, swung into action, sliding trays of cut-up pork meat into the jowls of the steel meat grinder. From out of a room containing buckets of spices come the seasonings that will be mixed into the ground pork, and steel tubs of ground pork become seasoned chorizo, some batches red, others not.
Meanwhile, on another stainless steel bench, workers slip the end of a pig intestine onto a sausage filler. A sausage stuffer opens the sausage casing, made in this case out of pig intestines, to enable the sausage meat to fill the tube created by the intestine. (I’ve tried to make sausage at home without a machine like this, and it’s a Laurel and Hardy experience however long you work at it.)
Ruben’s workers were slipping the stuffer into casing with lightening speed, inching up the casing while extruding pork mean into the tube as the next worker spun of lengths of string, tying the filled casing in increments of six to seven inches. No doubt this skill took hours of practice. Imagine the mistakes during the training period: sausages half tied-off, flinging loose sausage meat across the room.
Making sausage without a casing machine is a Laurel and Hardy experience no matter how long you work at it.
Back down in the cutting room, we saw the process begin over again. Moving into his office, Ruben explained that he needed to make a few calls to chase down payments and orders before driving us out into the countryside to visit one of his pig farmers. Along one counter, colorful plastic binders spoke of Ruben’s attempt to bring order to the chaos in the next room.
In the car during the three-hour drive to the pig producer, I got a chance to know Ruben outside of his meat processor demeanor. I asked about his family.
He replied, “It’s a sad story.” His eyes filled with tears as he drove on the highway and recounted how his wife passed away a week after giving birth to his two-year old daughter. His job, he confessed, was the only thing that held him together, providing one constant despite the tumult within his own life. Without warning, we were talking about his deep loss, about his love for his daughter, about his fears for her future, his insecurities as her only provider.
Who are these people, working the pork processing supply chain? Working the loading dock, counting cases on a pallet? People like Ruben.
Curious About the Curiosities
Peter Lund Simmonds’ book was the first truly global account of food, and it reflected a fascination with all things foreign.
In 1859, The Curiosities of Food was published in London by Peter Lund Simmonds. At that time, Simmonds joined other Londoners such as George Dodd, author of The Food of London, in a quest to understand food at home and abroad. By then, 400 million people had been added to the British Empire, each nation bringing a food culture that seemed exotic to the ordinary Victorian. Simmonds’ book was the first truly global account of food, and it reflected a fascination with all things foreign.
Following in the tradition of Victorian publishers, the title continues: Or, The Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained From The Animal Kingdom. The book is rich with information, anecdotes, and literary allusions to all kinds of fleshy ingredients, from fish to horses.
Simmonds is conscious of the thin line between food that evokes nausea and food that indulges the most indulgent gastronome, yet some of the food he discusses is hard to stomach. Horsemeat, for example, may delight a Frenchman, but it will disgust a Briton, and his chapter about horsemeat reveals his dry British humor: “At Paris, where all eccentricities are found and even encouraged…horsemeat was all the rage.” Simmonds reflects upon his inclusion of the animal’s flesh in his book by wondering if Londoners would soon be requesting, “A piece o’ horse, my kingdom for a piece o’ horse.”
Even more amusing is his observation that horsemeat had been sold as other types of meat, such as venison, in restaurants. Unfortunately, this stomach-turning note presaged the 2013 discovery that beef sold at a Tesco’s supermarket in the UK had actually been processed with horsemeat. Simmonds laments the practice of disguising beef in any way, describing the then-popular technique of “blowing the meat,” inserting a tube into a piece of meat to blow air into the flesh. This caused the meat to appear “plump and glistening,” as Frederick Accum described in his book on the adulteration of food in the early 1800s.
The Curiosities of Food contains history, science, and literature. Simmonds includes Roman history on the same page as a description of contemporary food fads, such as the arrival of “condensed” eggs in London’s markets. Readers will not only consume history and poetry, they will learn about plant classifications and geography.
John Milton, quoted in The Curiosities of Food
…Of fish that with their fins, and shining scales,
Glide under the green wave, in sculls that oft Bank the mid sea: part single, or with mate,
Grazed the seaweed their pasture, and through groves
Of coral stray; or sporting with quick glance,
Show to the sun their waved coats dropt with gold.
He ends the book with a summation of the breadth and variety of foods eaten across the globe and invites us to join him in understanding the world better by exploring the food eaten by those who occupied foreign lands and ate unimaginable fare. “Who shall venture to determine what is good eating?” he asks, and it’s a good question during our era of food-related obsessions and value judgments.
Transporting Food Over Oceans
“The use of ships to transport food begins at least with Viking and Roman ships that transported oil and wine over the ocean.”
I have a smartphone app that tracks marine traffic, and there’s no end to the amusement I derive from locating in real time the ships near me in almost any port. I can see where the ship is registered, its origin, and its destination. Unfortunately, I cannot see into the cargo hold, and therein lies the intrigue.
The use of ships to transport food begins at least with Viking and Roman ships that transported oil and wine over the ocean. Today, new Panamax container ships slip through the expanded Panama Canal. The tradeoffs between speed and carrying capacity seem to be part of the long evolution of ocean transport, not unlike the evolution of land-based transportation technology.
Liner Service and Tramp Shipping
Basic tutorials on merchant shipping reveal at least two relevant categories of cargo ships: liner service and tramp shipping. Essentially, liners have regular routes and schedules, and tramp shipping is chartered and has irregular schedules. Liners are generally more expensive than tramp services, and so bulk cargos like grain and sugar often travel with the tramp services. What this all means is unclear to a novice, but at least it separates two basic classes according to the types of foods that travel on ships.
Picking Up Speed
The business of shipping food rode on the innovations in naval architecture and energy. Relying on wind to move food around the world had its limits, most of which were reached by the end of the 19th century. Steam slowly entered transoceanic trade, but the problem of lugging all that coal over long distances slowed progress. Still, some food movers benefitted from the transition from wind to steam. Two New England entrepreneurs established the Boston Fruit Company, which became the United Fruit Company in 1899.
In spite of the slow beginning of transoceanic shipping of food, by 1915 the United Fruit Company and others were sending food in the cargo holds around Cape Horn and through the Panama Canal. That period must have been the tipping point in terms of speed and shipping capacity…although using the term “tipping point” to talk about shipping may not be a good idea.
Food Preservation: It’s in the Can
Whether boxes, bags, or cans, food needs some sort of protection from the environment, and cans tell a story of multiple technologies, not all of which came together at the same time.
Nicholas Appert, a self-taught chemist who was a cook, chef, and confiseur in Paris experimented in his shop while the citizens of his city marched on Versailles over the price of bread. Times were tough if you were hungry and not the aristocracy.
Access to food was a concern for more than just the Parisians during the Revolution. When Napoleon began his sweep across Europe, he was aware that his army traveled on its stomach. So Napoleon challenged the citizens of France to come up with a way to make food last longer while the navy was at sea and his armies were assembling his empire. Appert responded with a way to sterilize food in glass bottles. His idea, he said, was a response to the general concern about over-consumption of sugar, which was used as a preservative. He saw his technique as a way to lessen the amount of sugar in preserved food. (Yes, that was in 1810. Our current concern about eating too much sugar apparently has a history of about 200 years.)
“When Napoleon began his sweep across Europe, he was aware that his army traveled on its stomach.”
Appert won the cash prize but not the patent. Almost at the moment he published his work, several British engineers and entrepreneurs scooped up the idea and received a patent, soon turning Appert’s invention from glass to tin.
Though Appert would die poor (no patent, no money), his discovery of sterilization as a way to preserve food was a foundational innovation. Cans and can production technologies followed as inventors experimented with heat, metal, and machinery to process food for longer durations before consumption. Of course, it wasn’t until 50 years after the can appeared that it became openable. The can opener didn’t arrive on the scene until 1866.
“Of course, it wasn’t until 50 years after the can appeared that it became openable.”
The idea of preserving food in tin cans attracted the attention of entrepreneurs in Britain and the U.S. during the Civil War. Like France, both sides of the American conflict wanted to feed their armies so they could remain in the field. Experiments for condensing food, like milk and soup, emerged as a way to package foo