By Dana McCauley, CXO, Canadian Food Innovation Network
Changes in the way we work can sometimes happen so quickly that they become standard practice seemingly overnight – just consider how fast consumers and restaurants embraced online apps during the pandemic, forever changing how food is delivered. Other changes, such as those involving new technology and Internet-connected innovations, have had much slower adoption rates in the foodservice world, but have the potential to be just as transformative.
The Canadian Food Innovation Network (CFIN) is a not-for-profit organization with a mandate to help grow Canada’s economy by helping to accelerate innovation in the food industry through connections, collaborations and investments across Canada’s food ecosystem. CFIN has a unique opportunity to see what’s bubbling up in the food sector as a whole because of information shared by our Innovation Advisory Council and our members. We translate this insight into funding programs and services that help food businesses and their partners bring innovative ideas to life, prioritizing smart product and process development, and safe, agile and sustainable food-supply chains.
Here are some trends we see on the horizon for foodservice in Canada and the world:
Robotics and Automation
Foodservice operators in Canada and around the world continue to face many challenges. Labour shortages, supply-chain disruptions, climate change, higher raw material costs and rapidly changing consumer demands around food safety, transparency and delivery are just some of the issues shifting the food landscape. Much of these challenges can be addressed by digitizing and automating processes. While the food industry has been slower than other sectors to automate, food chains are already making incremental investments in elements of Industry 4.0 in order to create more transparent, agile and competitive operations. In the coming years, automation is expected in any area of foodservice with repetitive tasks or where consistency and food safety is crucial, such as in healthcare. At the same time, Internet of Things (IoT) and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology embedded with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, including robots, will begin appearing in kitchens of all sizes.
Robots won’t look like the ones you see in sci-fi movies. Instead, robotic systems in foodservice will do tasks that are repetitive but necessary, such as mis en place or dangerous or dirty, such as waste disposal. You’ll also see collaborative robotic systems which are designed to work alongside employees, who are then free to perform more skilled duties.
Over the next decade, the costs of implementing automatic systems and robotics will continue to fall, while performance and consistency increases. “Food is the last great frontier of automation,” says Kristian Tazbazian, co-founder and COO of Oakville, Ont.-based Gastronomous Technologies, Canada’s leading food automation start-up. “The way that QSR food is prepared is much like a mini factory – you have to do the same steps in the most timely, efficient and reliable manner possible. But so many things have changed, [such as] the market, input costs, but the equipment and the way they’re cooking the food has not. Back-of-house, front-of-house, commissaries, high throughput, low throughput – it is all applicable for robotics and automation.”
Gastronomous is designing a network of connected, automated cooking equipment, which tie together to create a fully autonomous commercial kitchen. Today, the Gastronomous team is working with some of North America’s largest restaurant brands to solve their deepest problems in terms of labour, consistency, food waste and energy usage.
Other innovations changing QSR over the next decade are automated foodservice kiosks that are much more than vending machines. Quick-service kiosks designed to cook and dispense a wide range of hot and cold food choices like salad, pizza and cooked noodles, are already appearing on university campuses offering customized meals prepared in minutes. With a low carbon footprint and minimal labour needs, expect to see these kiosks pop up in locations such as malls, sports events and in other public spots where traditional staffed QSR units would be too costly to operate.
The effects of climate change, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have pushed food prices to new highs, straining already tight foodservice margins. Cellular agriculture may alleviate some of these sore points in the coming years, while creating new foodservice opportunities and markets (think “cegan” or non-animal synthetic alternatives). Cellular agriculture – also known as engineering biology, synthetic biology or cell-cultivated products – is the production of food and textile products without using animals or land. Cell cultures harvested from animals, plants or micro-organisms are grown in the lab through tissue engineering or precision fermentation to produce cultivated proteins such as chicken, beef and seafood; fermented products like dairy, eggs, honey and chocolate; and ingredients for hybrid foods such as proteins, enzymes, flavour molecules, vitamins, pigments and fats.
Engineered plant proteins are already in the Canadian market, with precision fermented products expected to appear next, followed by cultured meat products within the next decade. Current Canadian regulations consider food produced through cellular agriculture as a novel food, and products are approved on a case-by-case basis.
Compared to conventional agriculture, cellular agriculture production is much less energy intensive, produces less greenhouse-gas emissions, and has a much lower overall carbon footprint. Canada is well positioned to become a leader in cellular agriculture. The 2021 report, Cellular Agriculture: Canada’s $12.5 Billion Opportunity in Food Innovation, from Ontario Genomics and the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley found that the international cellular agriculture market will reach US$100 billion by 2032. Canada’s food industry has the potential to take $12.5 billion of that market.
Inventory and Traceability
After several years of suffering from supply-chain disruptions, food companies are beginning to invest in Supply Chain 4.0 solutions designed to make their food chains more traceable, transparent, resilient and sustainable. In the coming years, look for technology that provides operators with real-time data analytics to help manage supply chain and inventory, allowing them to optimize the use of raw materials and energy, reduce waste and achieve higher margins. One example of this technology is Mississauga, Ont.-based Savormetrics’ hand-held AI-driven units for analyzing biochemical and biophysical factors to determine food quality. The unit is designed to help chefs manage inventory and prevent shrinkage by identifying foods that should be used for specials or turned into sauces before they pass their best before date. The technology can also be used to provide ingredient and marketing information.
“Our technology assesses the decay patterns and biochemical markers present in foods so that the best quality food gets used when it tastes and looks its best,” says Harjeet Bajaj, president and CEO of Savormetrics.
Diners became comfortable with online ordering during the pandemic, usually for delivery through an app, but increasingly at the table. Expect to see virtual menus appearing alongside continued use of ordering apps during in-house dining. In fact, a report released in May 2022 by Givex revealed that 68 per cent of Canadians are comfortable using technology to see the menu and order in a restaurant. Thirty-six per cent said that the ability to see menu items before ordering was the best part of online ordering, while 30 per cent cited the ability to customize your order. Finally, 27 per cent said they like being able to order through an app without having to call over a server. As a result, some restaurants are using virtual menus to take the pressure off staff, while keeping customers entertained while they wait. Caterers and event planners are also using virtual menus as a tool to show customers what the food dishes really look like.
The Metaverse virtual platform is going to be a big marketing opportunity for restaurants as more customers explore the platform and businesses figure out how to best position themselves. While people play games and access entertainment in the Metaverse through virtual reality headsets, they’ll be able to visit virtual restaurant chains, buy virtual food for their avatars and purchase real food for delivery from local ghost kitchens. McDonald’s has already established its virtual real estate in the Metaverse, but there’s room for everyone, with smaller chains like Montreal’s Famous Cosmos hoping to attract local customers.
NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens, are digital collectibles of art, audio, video other information that can be bought, traded or sold. They are traceable because they are based on blockchain technology, therefore, their value can be authenticated. While NFTs are becoming increasingly popular, they’re currently no better than a regular loyalty program, a crowd-sourcing platform or a good maître d’. But as NFTs become more prevalent, in real life and virtually on the Metaverse, they’ll offer additional opportunities for foodservice. For example, clubs may use them for exclusive patron access, and restaurants may ask customers to use NFTs to secure reservations, removing the risk of cancellations during busy periods.
“Technologies like machine vision, data, robotics and automation are advancing all aspects of the food industry,” says Joseph Lake, CEO of CFIN. “There are so many smart people in Canada who have great ideas for improving food through innovation, but we also know that entrepreneurs often struggle to find the partners, resources and funds they need to bring those ideas to market. CFIN is helping make those ideas a reality through innovation challenges, funding and mentorship opportunities, and through YODL, an interactive online platform designed to help food-and-beverage professionals from all sectors of the industry connect, learn, and grow their businesses.”