Will Turnage loves food. But he may love wielding data and technology to master cooking even more.
So for the last seven years, Turnage, senior vice president of technology for the R/GA advertising agency in New York, has been on a food app bender.
For one of Turnage’s early app projects, he looked close to home: to the dinner parties he and a friend, Mike Lee, founder of the supper club Studiofeast, enjoyed hosting. And the duo realized that planning one is difficult and time-consuming to manage. Everything from scaling recipes to accommodating guests’ food preferences to optimizing cooking steps to knowing when to start the apéritif was much more involved than a single busy person could handle on a Saturday afternoon.
That fact inspired Turnage and Lee to develop the algorithm behind the My Robotic Kitchen app, to make all of those planning decisions instantaneously. In 2012, Turnage and Lee threw a dinner party with the software and presented a demo of it at SXSW.
My Robotic Kitchen and Turnage’s other extracurricular food app projects have earned him the unofficial title of R/GA’s “food guy.” Now, Turnage consults on all of the food-related accounts, and not just in a technical capacity. “I had suddenly gained this reputation internally for a content area, and that cuts across all disciplines,” Turnage says.
Not only has his outside work opened a lot of doors for Turnage at R/GA over the years, but his work at R/GA has helped him broaden his food hobbies as well. While R/GA has a diverse set of clients, the agency has at least one finger in the food space, mentoring connected kitchen startups and co-sponsoring food and technology events. “It sort of creates this happy, symbiotic feedback loop,” he says.
When Turnage first started at R/GA almost 10 years ago (“That’s like four lifetimes in the tech world”), he worked on the technical side of the Nokia account, when Nokia’s feature phones ruled what would become the smartphone market. His food obsession drove his early knowledge of the mobile market.
“All people were doing was scanning pages of cookbooks and putting them on a website. It wasn’t interactive at all. At the same time, the mobile world was new, and I wanted to learn something about it,” Turnage says.
At the time, Turnage had been following the food writer Michael Ruhlman, a James Beard award winner who has appeared on the Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef television series, and knew that Ruhlman had recently published a new book. Turnage cold-called Ruhlman to see if he was interested in developing a companion mobile app for it. The pair ended up creating and releasing a couple of food apps together: Ratio and Baking Bread Basics.
Turnage talks about cooking apps like a human blender: Once you get him going, you have to wait for the right moment to release the button. As Turnage finishes telling me about an R/GA-sponsored hackathon with Food+Tech Connect to innovate in the meat industry, he mentions that he once created a sensor system for monitoring the meat-smoking process. When he showed it to a chef friend of his, the friend realized it would be perfect at managing the soy sauce fermentation process. New York’s Momofuku Lab ended up using Turnage’s system to monitor its soy sauces.
While Turnage and Lee were developing My Robotic Kitchen, there came a point when they realized the software couldn’t dissect and resynthesize the prose of several recipes’ directions simultaneously. The software worked well on a small level, accommodating a few recipes at a time. Perfecting it would have required Turnage and Lee to outsource or scale back their day jobs. Says Turnage: “We had to decide: Was this a business?”
Last year, Turnage put My Robotic Kitchen in his virtual archive and blogged about it—among other stalled food app projects–on Medium. Collectively, he learned that these apps’ business models weren’t strong enough to sustain them.
But Turnage doesn’t see these unfinished projects as failures. “I think it’s really important to make things to really succeed at that senior level, where you can work with creatives to help them understand how to build things.”
Turnage thrives at R/GA, and in the hours when he’s not there, developing his food apps is just one of this side projects. But now that he’s filed several of his ideas away, he has been making more room for other activities. He is an avid swimmer and a member of a synchronized swimming team. And yes, the team has a food-related name: they are the Brooklyn Peaches.