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High-Tech Flavor It’s not an oxymoron—smart use of technology leads to better delivery of flavor

More than an automat, Eatsa in San Francisco maximizes the use of technology to make ordering a flavorful bowl of quinoa into an efficient and customized experience.
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A friend recently went to New York to visit her grown son, who wanted to know what she wanted for dinner. She asked: “Well, what good restaurants are nearby?” He shook his head: “No, I mean just tell me what food you’re in the mood for,” holding his phone at the ready—he had an app for which you type in anything from “spicy tuna roll” to “beef burrito” and a list of options for delivery pops up.

In today’s world of rapid-fire technological progress, a food craving can be fulfilled with a touch of a few buttons. “Technology, when applied well, does have an impact on the flavor experience,” says Ben Salisbury, founder and president of Salisbury Creative Group, a Dallas-based technology consulting firm to food and beverage companies.

We often think of flavor as something that comes from time and labor in the kitchen, patiently stirring or basting—not as a by-product of our speedy, data-driven world. But technology today is a means to greater knowledge, smarter production and more customized experiences.

On a literal level, technology can mean fancy equipment or automation that helps foodservice perform better, from combi ovens to touchpad menus. But technology as it’s defined today extends further: to software, social media and more. So, yes, technology in all its forms can lead to better flavor. Operators who understand how to use it to their advantage are able to deliver flavor more easily—and more effectively.

A Better Robot
We have entered the automation age, where robots are no longer sci-fi figures. “It’s a new era of person-less foodservice,” says Salisbury. One example that has gotten media attention for its futuristic approach is Eatsa in San Francisco (and now Los Angeles). Eatsa customers enter the clean, open space and never encounter a host, server or cook. They tap a computer tablet to place their order from a selection of quinoa bowls—all priced at $6.95—then wait for it to appear minutes later in a “cubby.” Two finger taps to open the cubby, and the chosen bowl awaits.

It’s today’s version of the automat, but the heightened use of technology makes it seamless and super-efficient. And the end-product is designed to maximize flavor and nutrition: Quinoa offers a protein-laden base for a multitude of toppings, ranging from the Smokehouse Salad, featuring BBQ portobello, to the No Worry Curry, which includes spaghetti squash and curried parsnip strips.

Another more playful example of automation is Sprinkles’ ATM cupcake dispenser. The bakery chain that’s credited with starting the cupcake craze with its first store in Beverly Hills, Calif., is now opening cupcake ATMs in cities across the country. Eager customers walk up to the cute, frosting-colored ATM, enter their selection on the touchscreen, swipe their credit card, then the screen shows a high-tech robotic arm grabbing their cupcake. A pink rotating door on the machine turns, and a tidy box with the Sprinkles cupcake inside sits at the ready. From chocolate marshmallow to gluten-free red velvet, the cupcakes are fresh and available 24 hours a day.

“Younger consumers want their food fast, fresh, local, low-cost, nutritious and delicious,” says Salisbury. “Technology rushes in to fill the need.”

Software Makes it Simple
Technology is now also defined by what computer science makes possible. Combine culinary ingredients with math algorithms, and you can calculate how flavor works. That’s the premise driving Senspire, a Northern California-based company whose Flavor Studio software offers the ability to do everything from developing recipes to analyzing nutrition labels to conducting taste-test surveys.

Senspire’s Founder and President Gregory Willis fused his background as a computer scientist with his experience as a fine-dining chef to answer a burning question: How can we use math to unlock the keys to creativity? He wanted to develop a tool to figure out why, for example, peanut butter and jelly are such a perfect pairing.

The resulting Flavor Studio software utilizes a vast database of recipes and ingredients to reveal patterns in flavor. “Anyone can use this technology and gain inspiration for recipes,” says Willis. Type in one or more ingredients—say “kohlrabi” and “duck”—and a list of other ingredients with weak to strong relationships with those ingredients will pop up. Add black trumpet mushrooms? Soy sauce? Alter the amounts? The algorithm shifts accordingly. “This can really speed up product development. You can add ingredients, select quantities or percentages of ingredients, change the preparation—and put your own creative spin on it,” says Willis.

The same technology enables users to generate nutrition labels—or calculate what changes need to be made in a recipe in order to meet certain nutrition-label requirements. With consumer demand for more transparency, operators and manufacturers now have better tools to reverse-engineer foods to meet those needs.

Further capabilities include ways to get feedback: You can test your recipes or formula, make use of survey options and other means of gathering taste-test input—then download all the responses as data.

“There is so much happening on the cutting edge,” says Willis. “Change is hard in the food industry. We need to overcome that inertia.”

Smart Data Sets
When it comes to understanding consumer tastes and behaviors, it’s all about data. “A lot of the actions taken by a customer are reflected in the guest check: It’s a collection of information,” explains Dave Bennett, CEO of Mirus Restaurant Solutions in Houston. “How did the customer choose to pair up alcohol with their entrée or appetizer or dessert consumption? Did they order the items together, or wait 20 minutes? There’s a wealth of information captured on the check.”

“Technology can really drive a business forward,” says Brenda Fried, president of Harbor Bay Consulting in Baltimore. Fried works with clients like Mirus to improve foodservice operators’ bottom line through smarter use of information. “Data can give you information about what combination of menu items is selling, and what that means.”

Bennett says operators can gain a more complete understanding of what works and what doesn’t by analyzing data, which is one of the methods Mirus uses to advise clients. When new menu items or new flavors are introduced, how do they perform? What is the incidence of a cocktail versus a beer versus wine served with an entrée? Are diners ordering three or four courses? What do frequent customers order? “If you’re going to have a menu item with goat cheese and apricots, how does that do in different regions of the country? That data is out there,” says Bennett.

“Data gives you a deeper understanding of 100 percent of your customers, and understanding the data affects how you engineer and promote the menu,” Bennett adds. “In the end, the customer is always right. The more you understand them, the more you’ll succeed.”

About The Author

Cindy Han

Cindy Han studied journalism and has worked mostly as a magazine writer and editor, covering topics from animal conservation to interactive desserts. She is also a producer for a public radio news program and is working on a documentary film. She has lived in some great food cities—from New York to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh—and now Portland, Maine. She loves simply being with her family, enjoying nature, art, travel and, of course, good eats. Given her Chinese heritage, Cindy’s favorite dishes are anchored in the classic Asian flavor trio of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar.