By the third quarter of 2015, $3.5 billion had been invested in food tech by venture capitalists. Technology to help the industry move along seamlessly has been gathering momentum for a while, but 2016 could be the year that small businesses start reaping the rewards.
A whole host of start-ups and entrepreneurs are creating apps and services to help businesses streamline their operations and innovate their supply chains. They're making sourcing easier and cheaper, production more efficient and opening up new marketplaces.
Making use of downtime
Meal preparation services, like Gousto and Hello Fresh, are packing and delivering ingredients to customers, who can order with the click of a button or swipe of a smartphone. Others like Deliverd are partnering with existing kitchens.
Instead of simply delivering food that has been chosen off the menu of a local restaurant or takeaway, Deliverd work with chefs to create dishes from the best ingredients, which are then delivered chilled, and can be eaten cold or reheated.
Co-founder Paul Rawlings recognised that pubs, restaurants and other establishments often experience quiet, morning trading periods. He wanted to tap into that and make of use skills available during the lull.
He says: "A kitchen needs every opportunity to pay for itself. Traditionally the primary avenues would be lunch and dinner, perhaps a breakfast service at the weekend. With Deliverd, food businesses can feed new and loyal customers outside of their dining space, without compromising a normal day's trade.
"Partnering with us also provides a kitchen with an extra revenue stream. And perhaps, more powerfully, a tangible marketing tool that can be used to forge relationships and increase the covers [number of seated customers] of its more traditional service."
Reducing the stress of ordering
Chefs who produce dishes to order don't necessarily have the luxury of having an efficient service when it comes to getting their hands on the ingredients they need.
Anx Patel, who has more than fifteen years in the retail industry, realised there was a need for a 24-hour ordering system to help make the process hassle-free for chefs, retailers and wholesalers. So he developed the app GoKart, which allows those in the food industry to order anytime and anywhere.
For chefs in particular, this can be liberating. After a long service, a chef has to deal with voicemails, faxes, text messages and sales people with paper order forms, says Patel. Despite having expertise in crafting great dishes, breakdowns in communications can lead to complications with suppliers, and even to some items being taken off the menu.
"It's been great to unshackle chefs, who can now spend more time on innovation... perhaps sourcing new produce or developing new dishes or ranges," he adds.
Growing what's out of season
"With the drastically changing food landscape, distributors need to meet the rising demand for local produce, but have no way of sourcing a product that is off season," says Caroline Katsiroubas from Freight Farms, a Boston-based company that believes the future of urban farming lies inside modified shipping containers.
A Freight Farms system uses hydroponics – there's no soil and crops get light from LEDs – and the climate conditions are controlled to ensure the perfect environment for a year-round harvest. A smartphone app also allows owners to monitor environmental conditions.
"Increasing their product offering allows distributors to expand their business, and reach new markets. Another option for them is to tap into the local network of freight farmers and source produce directly from them," says Katsiroubas. "Eliminating the cost of shipping produce thousands of miles is a top incentive. This significantly reduces their carbon footprint, and supports sustainability commitments and the local food economy."
Dealing with waste
Food being sent to landfills is "an unfortunate reality of the industry, caused by overproduction, unpredictable demand and misordering", according to Emily Malina, co-founder of Spoiler Alert, a web platform for businesses, farms and charities to connect in real-time and buy, sell or donate would be-wasted food.
She adds: "[It] ends up in the landfill because those that have it are disconnected from those who can do something about it."
By establishing a peer-to-peer network, businesses can save money and time that would be spent on disposing of waste correctly, and recipients can save money by getting their hands on valuable produce at a reduced price.