Now Available: Food Routes

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. 


Grocery Stores: The IoT of Food

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.”

For a deep dive into grocery store technology, read Joseph Turow’s book, “The Aisles Have Eyes.”

Markets Go It Alone

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

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.

Hidden Cameras

Battery-operated, wireless camera mounted underneath grocery shelvesTrax, 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.

Trending: Grocery Stores, Meet Smart Kitchens

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?