We are collectively obsessed with food these days. Since the launch of the Food Network in 1993, TV shows such as Iron Chef and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation have become immensely popular. Modernist Cuisine, a 52-pound masterpiece published in 2011, was deemed “the cookbook to end all cookbooks” and the term “foodie” entered the mainstream lexicon. We spend hours staring into the kitchens of others, and at HD renderings of exquisite meals. But, while Americans have become more familiar with the newest celebrity chefs and the hottest food trends (e.g. Cronuts! Liquid nitrogen ice cream!), we are also collectively spending less and less time in our own kitchens.
Several modern-day factors contribute to this trend. As current generations lead ever-busier lives, the choice to purchase ready-made, ready-to-eat food is often just the easier one. With the increased availability of restaurant delivery, fast food take-out, and processed foods, it has also become more difficult and confusing for Americans to learn to cook for themselves. Many recent VC investments in “Food Tech” further enable Americans, particularly young adults, to eat without having to cook. Bay Area companies such as Sprig, Munchery, and DoorDash have made it even easier to get on-demand ready-to-eat meals for a highly mobilized and urbanized population.
At the same time, VC’s have made numerous early investments in food-related consumer electronics. Visions of a connected kitchen aren’t themselves new — people have been imagining futuristic kitchens since the 1960's with The Jetsons. In 1967, even the CBS Evening News’ Walter Cronkite created a short video segment in a kitchen “from the year 2001” (obviously, to be equipped with a typewriter and/or punched computer recipe cards, along with 3D-printed flatware.)
Central Heating, Central Kitchen
Where, then, are our Honeywell Kitchen Computers? Walter Cronkite may be happy to find that its spirit is very well alive today — but reincarnated as a connected device hub and not a monolithic island taking up your entire kitchen. Several significant infrastructure improvements in the past decades have made this possible, most of which were not obvious to the futurists of the past.
- Cheap microcontrollers and sensors. Silicon prices have plunged over time, and what — in the 1960's — cost unimaginable sums, has become cheap enough to ingrain in all manner of objects (see: books, hats, shoes — all newly capable of running out of battery charge in 2015!) Connected Kitchen devices, as well as the mobile platform supporting them, are made possible by the availability of low-cost microcontrollers and sensors.
- Battery Energy Density: Even though today’s battery constraints remain a headache for hardware engineers, our current version of batteries did not even exist in the 1960's. It was not until the 1970's that lithium batteries were first proposed by S. M. Whittingham, while working for Exxon. Technologists in the 1960's could not imagine an appliance that wasn’t leashed to an A/C outlet, and consequently we now live in a world of mobile devices.
3. Wi-Fi Connectivity: We take ubiquitous connectivity for granted today, but even the first functional wireless internet networks didn’t emerge until 1971 (ALOHAnet). Even in the most recent decade, Wi-Fi connected consumer electronic devices have seen an unprecedented ramp.
These factors have converged to create the concept of wearable computing — no longer are devices bulky and tethered to wires. The emergence of wearable computing has dramatically changed the form factor of consumer electronics. In turn, your watch and your phone form a platform that serve as an information hub through which the rest of your devices may communicate.
The “Kitchen Computer” is instead a functional hub of diet choices and connected peripherals, synchronized to help guide you in your eating decisions and to remove the “pain” from understanding how food is prepared.
Although many of us have never acquired the ability to cook from scratch, the ritual of cooking remains appealing — a nerve hit on by the creators of Meld, a connected stove-top knob. With the Meld Knob, Clip, and mobile app, consumers can follow a minute-by-minute recipe guide that nearly eliminates rookie mistakes in the kitchen… but at that point, are consumers actually cooking, or just following “paint-by-numbers” directions?
Another product that provides this level of hand-holding is the Countertop by The Orange Chef. Their first offering is a connected scale that integrates with a consumer’s Vitamix and Crockpot, while providing the appropriate recipes for smoothies and slow-cooked meals (though do you really need a recipe for a smoothie!?) Most conspicuously, the Countertop also connects to the Jawbone UP in order to suggest the most nutritious post-workout snack.
Given how much we care about health today as a society, it seems from here that the future looks a lot like: your fitness tracker talking to your blender, your Wi-Fi scale talking to your fridge. As a recent Goldman Sachs report on Milllenials reveals, “wellness is a daily, active pursuit. [Millenials are] exercising more, eating smarter and smoking less than previous generations. […] Healthy doesn’t just mean ‘not sick’.” 24% of polled Millenials cite “eating right” as part of their definition.
The emerging consumer focus on holistic wellness will naturally move from the gym to encompass the kitchen. Fitness trackers and cooking appliances will be configured to share information with a centralized core “health” system.
Sous-vide is auto-tune for cooking
Laziness — the opposite of fitness — is ironically just as much of a driving factor for consumers. For many Millenials, the ability to forever skip learning to cook, in favor of on-demand meal delivery (e.g. Sprig, Munchery, DoorDash), has become a popular choice. For the more nostalgic eaters among us, simplified cooking and “almost a meal” ready-to-cook kits may fulfill the need to eat (e.g. PlateJoy, Blue Apron, Plated).
And for the most ambitious home cooks, there’s a litany of grocery delivery options (e.g. Google Express, Amazon Fresh, Instacart) to supply just-in-time ingredients to fill out your desire to eat, with as little thinking ahead or preparation as possible. Imagine a world where a recipe from your Meld app can seamlessly be ordered through Instacart, arriving to your doorstep in exactly the right proportions, timed perfectly for Wednesday night dinner.
In order to provide a differentiated and valuable user experience, connected appliances will have to integrate with on-demand food services, in addition to other software.
Will we ever live in fully-automated connected “Smart Homes”? If so, the Connected Kitchen is a good place to start. And while CES continues to provide amusement through novel refrigerators equipped with tablets and sound systems, new on-demand food services may soon render the refrigerator something of a leftover itself. The bottom line is that everyone still eats three times a day, as we always have, but we are now faced with more choice than ever when it comes to feeding ourselves. The market for “FoodTech” remains large and will continue to evolve by rewarding the startups and products that best understand the trade-offs between time, money, flavor, and ritual.
Want More? Check out our collection of connected kitchen devices on ProductHunt!