Is the kitchen dead?
The investment bank UBS recently released a report on the ‘mega-trend’ of online food ordering. The title of the 82-page report is a not-too-subtle hint at their prediction of the eventual outcome. The report is called “Is the Kitchen Dead?”
The bank estimates that the food delivery sales market could increase from $35bn today to $365bn by 2030. That’s a compound annual growth rate of more than 20%. You can see why an investment bank is excited by that. It’s all down to a convergence of the on-demand and sharing economy with “time-starved and asset-light consumers”. A perfect storm which, according to the report, means it’s possible that “by 2030 most meals currently cooked at home are instead ordered online and delivered from either restaurants or central kitchens.”
That’s the objective for many food delivery companies: that every meal we eat is delivered to us. Food delivery companies aren’t food businesses: they are transport businesses. And it’s the disruption of technology on the transport sector that first enabled food delivery to become cheaper. Add to that the cheap labour market, ‘dark kitchens’ (that make restaurant food only for delivery); and, pretty soon, robot chefs and drone delivery … and the costs get lower and lower.
According to the report, this is “the first stage of industrialising meal production and delivery.” Delivery of restaurant-quality food becomes so cheap that, to use the UBS phrase, “Home cooking could evaporate.”
Is that possible? Will we all only ever eat food prepared and delivered by someone — or more likely, something — else? Well, technology makes it possible for sure: removing the ‘friction’ of creativity and creation with a low-cost and convenient alternative. And a whole meal ordered on your phone, cooked by a robot and delivered by a drone does sound like a cartoon-version of the future.
The thing is: people don’t make decisions based only on cost and convenience.
Even as the cost of food delivery gets lower and lower, people will still choose to cook. There’s a reason (well, actually there are a few) why cooking is a fundamental behaviour in every community on the planet. Its origins lie in the practical need to make food more digestible. But its value stretches way beyond that: providing connection to each other and our world.
In its celebration of the ‘mega trend’ of online food delivery, the report ignores another emerging trend. Using the term coined by the economist Carlota Perez, it’s the ‘smart green lifestyle’: the potential trigger to secure sustainable, inclusive economic growth. This includes the aspiration for good health, the move towards organic and locally-sourced fresh foods, the adoption of environmentally-friendly lifestyles, and for the ‘anti-mass production’ sentiment, particularly evident in food production and consumption.
Home cooking is the behaviour that connects all of these. It means we can make our own choices and we can choose to have a positive impact on our health, on the local economy, on the environment. It puts us in control. It’s an essential part of the food production ecosystem of the future.
The UBS report acknowledges that there are some “uncertainties” that may prevent their prediction of the future from coming true: from smart appliances to cooking apps to health crises such as obesity.
These aren’t uncertainties; these are realities. And this is where the immediate potential disruption by technology on the food sector truly lies: helping with the parts of the cooking process that are time-consuming like buying ingredients and food prep or difficult like developing the skills and confidence to cook.
There is of course a much bigger role for technology in the transformation of our food systems that are broken, unsustainable for both people and planet. But even our own everyday choices about what to eat and what to cook can have a positive impact.
The kitchen’s not dead. It’s evolving. And we need to do everything we can to help it live and flourish for the benefit of our — and the planet’s — collective health.