For overhauling the QSR experience with tech and service. While other quick-service players like Starbucks roll out prepay and preorder technology, bakery-cafe chain Panera is going above that to reshape how diners interact with its cafes. Panera 2.0, launched in 2014 and currently being rolled out across its 1,800 U.S. restaurants, includes innovations in the company's tech, cafe layout, and even staffing. To-go users can place a mobile order up to five days in advance and pick up food from a separate shelf in the restaurant, skipping the line. Dine-in users can choose to have their food brought to the table after ordering or order straight from the table—Panera staff locate them using RFID technology. In-store ordering kiosks that connect to Apple Pay and the MyPanera loyalty program allow for more accurate customization and the ability for the restaurant to save user favorites, meaning fewer Panera employees are behind the counter taking orders and more are providing service (and upselling) on the floor. The chain is testing small-order delivery for orders over $5 for a larger rollout this year.
For using big data to make better "alternative" ingredients the norm. Within 10 months of debuting in grocery stores, Hampton Creek’s eggless condiment Just Mayo became Whole Foods’s top-selling mayo brand in 2014. Now the experts of the plant-based have 60 percent penetration in U.S. grocery stores in deals with Safeway, Dollar Tree, Kroger, Costco, Target, and Walmart, selling their mayo and new Just Cookies products. With Bill Gates and Asian magnate Li Ka-shing as backers, and another $90M in Series C funding from December, the better-food pioneer is actually a big data company that scans plant species, groups them into cultivars, and plays matchmaker with their functionalities to develop healthier foods that use less land and water. Data whiz Dan Zigmond (formerly of YouTube and Google Maps) recently signed on to lead the Hampton data team in its new 90,000-square-foot San Francisco labs. And CEO Josh Tetrick says sugars, trans fats and artificial dyes might be next on the Hampton hit list: The company has plans for pasta, a scrambled egg substitute, and a rollout in Chinese grocery stores this spring.
For taking the guesswork out of farming. Today, most farming in the U.S. is done on farms with 1,100 acres of cropland or more—which leaves a lot of room for human error. Since its launch in 2013, Chicago-based data analytics company 640 Labs has been helping to reduce farm waste and mistakes, from pinpointing the amount of time farm equipment idles in the field to alerting a farmer that he forgot to plant a plot of land. The 640 Drive plugs directly into the CAN bus of tractors and combines and feeds data to the cloud for analysis by 640 Labs, allowing farmers to make better decisions about their land. "We’re turning tractors into rolling sensors in the field," says cofounder Corbett Kull. The company has quadrupled its reach among farmers since last spring.
For changing up America's heritage spirit—for the better. When he cofounded Corsair Distillery, author, winemaker, and brewer Darek Bell was looking to breathe innovation into an industry thirsty for it. Four years later, his distillery outside Nashville has seen its revenues quintupled and is bent on disrupting what Bell calls the "monoculture" of traditional whiskeys. Bell’s team creates whiskeys made from grains like quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth, as well as "hopped" whiskeys distilled from refined mashes that would normally be brewed into a craft beer. And Corsair’s American nod to the Scottish heritage of smoked peat whiskeys is done with smoked native woods like hickory, mesquite, and white oak. Starting this year, the distillery will use wood and grains harvested on Bell’s 300-acre Nashville farm, malting the grains at an on-site facility and making Corsair a true grain-to-glass distillery.
For capitalizing on our collective addiction to porn. Food porn, that is. Tastemade is a network of foodies that lets users explore grub from around the world through a mix of original content and user-submitted videos. Tastemade’s YouTube channel boasts more than 350,000 subscribers, and its network (including the app that lets users create their own short video experiences) reaches 18 million people a month. The network positions itself as a "category-defining" food and lifestyle brand fit to compete with legacy brands from cable TV. In 2014, the network raised $25M from investors, some of it from Scripps Networks Interactive (Food Network’s parent company). Its popular webcasts "Thirsty For…" and "The Perennial Plate" garnered the young company two 2014 James Beard Awards.
For keeping cool in the white-hot delivery race. The founders of West Coast food delivery service Munchery decided early on that the best way to shave off delivery minutes and scale up was to deliver food chilled. "It gives the customer not only massive variety, but the kind of convenience that they can just heat it up on their own time," says cofounder Conrad Chu. That variety means up to 75 menu items prepared by a rotating cast of local chefs every day, including fresh fish. In 2014 alone, the startup garnered $28 million in Series B funding (investors include Jon Favreau and Chef Roy Choi), launched in Seattle, and kicked off Munchery Plus—a membership program that provides free delivery for $40 a year. And the company’s recent partnership with Jawbone UP allows the app to seamlessly transmit nutritional info about Munchery meals to the wearable.
For taking the ick out of eating insects. As food producers scramble to feed the projected 9 billion people who will share the planet by 2050, many are turning to the six-legged creatures, including crickets, which require 20 percent less resources to produce than beef. Brooklyn-based Exo sells 90 percent of its cricket-flour protein bars direct to consumers, opening up higher margins and the opportunity to identify early adopters online (so far that’s tech, Paleo nutrition, and CrossFit enthusiasts). While other entomophagy companies focus on snacks like cookies and chips, co-CEO Gabi Lewis says protein bars are a natural entry point for an alternative protein. "I’m trying to change as few behaviors as possible. We’re already asking [eaters] to get their protein from a different source," Lewis says. "To also ask them to get their protein from a cookie or a chip is trying to change their behavior a second time." Starting this year, Exo will be offered on JetBlue flights from New York to L.A.
For putting lots of great food ideas in the oven. Servy calls itself the "anti-Yelp" because it isn’t a scrum of opinions; rather, it’s a review app that permits posts only from chefs, trained hospitality workers, notable foodies, and others with worthwhile opinions. MunchQuick delivers chef-prepared lunches in Washington, D.C., and for every order placed, a meal is sent to a local food bank. Greenease connects users to nearby retailers and cafes that buy from local or sustainable farms. All of these companies—and more—are part of the first class of Food-X, the first startup accelerator focused entirely on food-related companies. In exchange for 8% equity, the program provides startups with $50,000 and mentor sessions from the likes of Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry's) and Dorothy Hamilton of the James Beard Foundation.
For efficiently turning food scraps into fertilizer. To combat the appalling rates of food waste in the United States (the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates 40 percent of food in the U.S. is thrown away), two ex-Microsofters have developed a machine to both keep track of food waste and turn it into nutrient-rich fertilizer. The WISErg Harvester, developed by Larry LeSueur and Jose Lugo for use in the food service industry, garnered $7.75 million in funding in 2014, allowing the Washington-based company to expand into California — home to 10 percent of the nation’s grocery stores. Food scraps are loaded into the Harvester, which collects information about the waste to help grocery stores better stock shelves in the future. Then the machine grinds the scraps to form a nutrient-rich liquid that’s collected by WISErg and refined offsite into fertilizer for local farms.
For putting the power of accurate nutrition info in our hands. Plenty of prototypes exist out there to put nutrition and allergy scanners into the hands of consumers, but Israeli company Consumer Physics is the first to bring that power to market with its SCiO, which begins shipping this summer. The keychain-size device—which sells for $249 and uses Near Infrared spectroscopy to evaluate chemical makeups of food, medicine, and more—sends data like ingredients, ripeness and calories to a smartphone app via Bluetooth. By shrinking the cost and size of a previously prohibitive technology, the SCiO frees users from depending on the labels devised by food and drug companies. The company reached its $200,000 goal on Kickstarter in fewer than 24 hours last spring and went on to raise 14 times that.