The food industry and the tech world are getting friendlier. Food entrepreneurs are digging into technology, and food service companies are beginning to pitch and raise money like the startups they service. So it's only natural that an upcoming hackathon called Hack//Dining NYC will bring an open forum for food technologists in New York City this weekend, starting June 27.
The hackathon will focus primarily on creating hardware and software solutions to enhance the dining and food-service experience for customers and restaurants. Developers, designers, and food execs from Chipotle, the Google Food Team, and the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group as well as notable people like Wylie Dufresne, chef and owner of wd-50 and Adler, and Naveen Selvadurai, cofounder of Foursquare, will participate, among others. So what will they build?
Emerging software and hardware trends are helping create new services in the food industry: mobile apps for dietary preferences that tie into calorie counting and fitness tracking. And restaurants are starting to use technology like Dash to run their businesses more efficiently. The Hack//Dining hackathon aims to bring all of these ideas together and forge some new ones.
"I saw tech working in other industries and figured it would work in the food world, too," says Danielle Gould, CEO of the four-year-old event. Her posts ranged from market analyses to stories about business models and investment trends. Now, the site regularly publishes stories about innovators at the cross section of food and technology.
Hack//Dining is one of a series of hackathons the online publication Food+Tech Connect hosts to encourage crossover in the food and tech industries. An earlier hackathon in the series, Hack//Meat, took place in Silicon Valley last summer.
A typical issue in the food world is accessing nutritional information for common food products. The companies that have the most comprehensive databases usually charge users expensive fees to license the data or have rigid data structures, putting off many food startups. In response, a new crop of nutritional databases has sprung up, places like Klappo, FatSecret, Ingredient1, and Food Essentials.
Ingredient1 just launched in New York with its homespun database of nutritional info for around 18,000 unique ingredients. The founders, Taryn Fixel and Eris Stassi, had looked into purchasing data from established institutional databases but realized that those didn’t contain the type of data their customers needed. So over the course of a year, Fixel and Stassi forged direct relationships with producers to fabricate a custom database that categorizes products and ingredients by allergy information and dietary information, among other factors. Users of Ingredient1’s app can freely search this database to better inform their grocery lists.
"Being able to really build up the database first has given us a wider view on what the entire industry can really do to improve food transparency," says Stassi.
Several of these food-tech companies offer APIs that third parties can hack to create new products. Developers might use FatSecret’s API to create a diet tracking application or enhance their sites’ search capabilities. Food Essentials’ LabelAPI parses food label info into an accessible and searchable format, which you can test in its demo app. And as we have previously reported, DuckDuckGo uses Yummly’s recipe search API. Both Klappo’s and Ingredient1’s APIs are especially targeted toward users that follow special diets. Think paleo, gluten-free, and vegan.
"What’s so exciting about an API like this is that when you finally release all of this information and make it easily and affordably accessible, so many things can be built on top of it," says Fixel.
The company Ordr.in created an API that lets restaurants and developers create better applications for ordering food for delivery. The API was designed to provide a technical backbone for everything from getting restaurants on board to operational issues to payment processing so that the designer could concentrate her focus on her business and not get stuck in the technology. For developers that don’t need the whole API, Ordr.in has stand-alone modules available, among which are the Mustard and Tomato modules.
"We think that by putting e-commerce restaurants into an API, we can inspire a lot of the innovation that comes from other parts of tech into local commerce, especially restaurants," says Ordr.in founder and CEO David Bloom.
Web apps aren’t the only new technologies in the food world. Emerging sensor technology is making new products available that provide unique services to consumers. One business, The Orange Chef Co., created a personal device called the Prep Pad to educate its users on what exactly is in their food.
The Orange Chef Co.’s Prep Pad is mostly reminiscent of a digital scale except that it prints out nutritional information and meal suggestions on a nearby iPad. The user places a food item on the pad and indicates to the system what it is, either by typing it or speaking it out loud.
The Orange Chef Co. does not plan on stopping with the Prep Pad. "We’re also coming up with a solution to kind of make regular things smart," says Santiago Merea, CEO of The Orange Chef Co. "We’re very excited to kind of, like, bridge the gap between the physical world and the, you know, the software that will allow you to make better decisions while you’re cooking."
A food-tech product that won’t even deliver until next year, Vessyl, has already started to gather media attention. Co.Design reported on it earlier this month. Vessyl is a beautiful, hi-tech beverage container that helps users keep track of their fluid intake. It automatically syncs how much you drink on a daily basis with data from wearable pedometers into a mobile app.
A sensor in the container automatically understands what you have poured in, whether it’s beer, wine, water, or anything else. Then, the system prints out nutritional data on the side of the container. The user gets info in real time and can also check in with the dedicated app. The tech behind Vessyl started in a college biomedical computing lab.
"In my later years in college, different people were putting computers into glasses; some people were putting computers into wristbands," says Justin Lee, founder and CEO of Mark One, the company that created Vessyl. "I wanted to put a computer into one of the most ubiquitous objects to begin with the human race, you know, which is the beverage vessel."
Food+Tech Connect’s trajectory from a bare bones website to a business mirrors much of what is going on in the food world. "There’s been a huge explosion of startups in this space in the past few years," Gould says.
In a departure from the business of traditional eateries, food tech companies are now following the same incubation process as startups in other industries. Venture capital plays a big role in their development. Caviar, a direct competitor to the food delivery app GrubHub, raised $2 million in seed funding and just secured $13 million in Series A round funding a couple of months ago.
"In the early days, we were doing everything ourselves," says Jason Wang, CEO of Caviar. "Fast-forward to three months after we launched, in September of 2012, we became profitable. There was just five of us at the time and [we] quickly realized that this could become a really big business." The company grew from 15 to 70 people this year and will be in 15 markets by this fall.
Still, these new apps and gadgets aren’t yet mainstream in the restaurant world. For example, many restaurants still rely on legacy point-of-sale software but would benefit from upgrades.
"Adoption has been fairly slow," says Gould. "People are nervous."
Food+Tech Connect wants to pave the way for restaurants to make technology a bigger part of their operations. One part of its strategy to better prime the industry is its online classes. In July, Food+Tech Connect will offer an online class called "Building Your Restaurant Technology Strategy."
Among other companies, Klappo, Ingredient1, Ordr.in, and the Orange Chef Co. will be at Hack//Dining, educating participants about their hackable APIs and SDKs. Ordr.in's David Bloom says that keeping these APIs open could lead to so much more development in the food-tech space.
[Image: Restaurant via Markus Spiske]