10 predictions for food tech and F&B after COVID-19 and why you should be excited for what’s to come
Perhaps no other industry will be as radically transformed by the coronavirus pandemic as food tech and F&B.
Airlines might be losing billions, but once the crisis is over, we can expect people to continue flying just as before.
The way we source and consume food, on the other hand, may just change beyond recognition.
A lot has been written about the immediate impact on the food and beverage industry and I am deeply saddened by the numerous stories of staff losing their jobs, and entrepreneurs losing their businesses — some way too close to home.
The changes we can expect in the long-term, however, are even more profound, and fortunately open as many new opportunities as they present risks to incumbents.
Below, I will share my take on where we might be headed in the aftermath of this crisis, both as consumers, and food entrepreneurs.
1. A shift towards plant-based diets
Vegan and vegetarian diets have been increasing in popularity for many years, and this trend is likely to be accelerated by the coronavirus crisis.
Some people will reconsider their diets directly, as a way to reduce their risk of future infections. Others will be nudged by higher-priced meat products, resulting from new regulations.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 75% of emerging infectious diseases originate in animals.
Most immediately, countries around the world will ban the trade and consumption of wild animals — a common source of novel viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. China has already made this first step, and I expect other countries that still tolerate the practice to follow suit once the pandemic is over.
This crisis has also reminded people of past pandemics, such as the H1N1 swine influenza, originating through factory farming. I expect this practice too will attract increased scrutiny, at least in the developed world.
Finally, public messaging in most countries made very clear coronavirus poses an increased risk to those who are overweight, or have pre-existing conditions. This too is likely to shift people away from regular meat consumption, and towards healthier options in general.
In a survey by The Packer, roughly 14% of respondents said they’re buying more fresh produce to try and be healthier in case they are exposed to the coronavirus.
2. A greater focus on eating local
Yelp’s Coronavirus Impact Report shows many consumers want to source their food closer to its source, and the popularity of community-supported agriculture, farms, water stores, butchers, and fruits & veg stores has increased by a whopping 430%, 149%, 147%, 139%, and 123% respectively.
Simultaneously, as international borders shut down, and supply chains are disrupted, local governments and F&B businesses are forced to review their dependence on far-away producers, and look for local alternatives.
3. Young people cooking more often at home
Social distancing rules have forced us to spend more time in our homes, and our home kitchens.
People will remain as busy and as lazy as ever once the pandemic is over, so I don’t agree with predictions that home cooking will see a radical and lasting resurgence.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt millions of young people who have been eating out since the day they left high school will become more comfortable in the kitchen, and will have the tools and ingredients to whip something up when they next hear rumble in their stomach.
They might even sign up for Equal Parts, a D2C startup selling high-quality kitchenware bundled with a text-a-chef cooking coach.
A related trend I’ve observed are live video cookalongs hosted by both amateur cooks and professional chefs, as a way to spend quality time with their friends, and help them stay full through the pandemic.
I would be surprised if there isn’t an entrepreneur somewhere already working to turn this online cooking show model into a commercial venture.
4. Freeze on home food sale regulations
As the co-founder of Pona, a home-cooked food marketplace, I was excited to see governments around the world updating food safety regulations over the past several years to legalize micro-food entrepreneurship, and create new economic opportunities in the kitchen.
Most notable example of this trend was the passage of AB-626 in California (also known as the 2018 Homemade Food Operations Act), but similar legislation was in the works in other states, and across the world.
Unfortunately, I expect all progress to stop in this direction, at least for a few years. Governments at all levels are too busy with the impact of the coronavirus crisis on existing F&B businesses, and there’s too much uncertainty about consumer food safety expectations going forward.
On the bright side, just us individuals hit by the Great Recession in 2009 scrambled to list their spare rooms on Airbnb, both amateur cooks and professionals will try selling their culinary creations online as a result of this crisis, and the government is likely to shut their eyes to these small-scale operations.
If you are interested in the evolution of this space, I recommend you follow The COOK Alliance, a non-profit fighting for the legalization of home restaurants across the United States.
5. Relaxed OR more stringent food safety rules
Given the zoonotic origins of this pandemic, we will inevitably see shifts in food safety standards and regulations. The exact nature of those will depend heavily on each particular country.
In developing countries, as well as developed states where the pandemic was portrayed as a food safety crisis, we are likely to see more stringent food safety regulations, not just in relation to the consumption of wildlife, but across the board.
Among consumers who said they are changing their fresh produce purchasing, 50% said they are concerned about people touching the produce on display, according to a survey by The Packer.
In developed countries focused on economic recovery, and where public messaging was not as tightly connected to food, regulations will be streamlined to help small F&B businesses weather the crisis — often on a permanent basis.
6. Mass adoption of cashless payments
On March 3rd, the World Health Organization issued an alert advising consumers to avoid cash and switch to contactless payments to deter transmission of the novel coronavirus.
Cities encouraged restaurants to only accept NFC or QR ewallet contactless payments, delivery apps have disabled the option to pay COD (Cash on Delivery), and Russia went as far as limiting cash withdrawals from ATMs that recycle bills from other customers.
These measures did not go equally well across the world, as some countries just did not have the right infrastructure in place to switch to a cashless world overnight. Nevertheless, millions were forced if not to fall in love with contactless payments, then at least try them out for the first time.
7. Proliferation of cashierless stores
Cashierless stores use a combination of sensors, cameras, and deep learning to allow customers to shop and leave without waiting in line… or interacting with another human.
The idea was all the rage some two years ago, but after initial tests by Amazon, 7-Eleven, and several companies in East Asia, the hype died down and most of us continued to shop in last-century supermarkets.
This is about to change due to the immediate need for supermarkets to operate during social distancing orders without endangering their staff, and in the aftermath, as consumers are likely to remain cautious of human contact long after the crisis.
Amazon already announced it’ll be offering its cashierless technology Just Walk Out to other retailers, and I expect other major players in both F&B and big tech will scramble to enter this space.
8. The Golden Age of food delivery
Last but not the least, we’re about to enter the true Golden Age of online groceries and ready-to-eat food delivery.
Millions of people who were skeptical in the past have installed food and supermarket delivery apps during this crisis, and unlike home cooking, I expect most to stick to this new habit.
On the supply side, tens of thousands of merchants who were holding out up till now were forced to list their businesses on established food delivery platforms.
For consumers, this means greater variety, more competition and experimentation, as well as faster and cheaper delivery going forward.
Furthermore, with many establishments sadly forced out of business, I expect an acceleration in the cloud kitchen model, as more experienced food entrepreneurs choose to focus their next venture entirely on delivery.
9. Digitization of brick-and-mortar F&B
A side-effect of the scramble to join delivery platforms, insure sufficient supply of ingredients, and streamline operations, is a rapid digitization of restaurants, and even individual street sellers.
Small F&B businesses are partnering with online ingredient suppliers for the first time, digitizing their inventory systems, implementing cashless payments and digital POS, and even automating manual tasks as they’re forced to downsize during the crisis.
Beyond the direct positive impact of these changes on businesses and consumers, I’m particularly excited for the opportunities enabled by this new infrastructure.
I’ve seen countless promising food tech ideas fail because of the technical backwardness among food and beverage SMEs. One can only imagine the explosion of both B2B and B2C startups in this space, now most merchants have digitized their operations.
10. Emergence of the next food tech unicorn
Many successful businesses grew out of radical shifts in our culture and the environment, and the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly lead to some of the greatest transformations of our generation.
If you are a food entrepreneur, or a professional in the food and beverage industry, I hope these predictions gave you some hope for the future, or even ideas for opportunities you could explore with your own business.
If you are a consumer, you might be getting sick and tired of eating delivery three times a day, but the future is bright, and you can expect to be spoiled by an abundance of healthy, delicious, reliable food coming out of innovative companies in the coming decade!