May 22, 2024 - Business

What's next for restaurants: Gene-edited salad greens, underground "delivery tubes"

Illustration of a pair of binoculars with a fork and knife on either side of the eye piece and a salad reflected in the glass

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Avocado bread. Pecan oil. Gene-edited salads greens. Stir-frying robots. Underground tunnels with railways that deliver your order across town.

  • From weird ingredients to far-out hospitality schemes, restaurants are looking at all kinds of ways to lure back inflation-weary consumers.

Why it matters: Social media and technology have upped the ante for what restaurateurs need to do to entice patrons — and recover from their pandemic-era swoon.

Driving the news: The National Restaurant Association's big annual show in Chicago this week offered glimpses of the directions that food service will take as TikTok, Instagram, robots, apps and AI disrupt the restaurant sector.

  • An "underground logistics" company called Pipedream Labs is building subterranean tunnels to deliver groceries and meals, starting in Austin.
  • PopMenu helps restaurants craft personalized offers to diners based on their past orders.
  • Tastry is building technology that uses AI to predict which wines you'll enjoy.

Futuristic trends for dining and restaurants include some far-out, interesting and potentially useful innovations.

  • A company called Pairwise is using CRISPR to create gene-edited salad — starting with better-tasting mustard greens.
  • Aerobanquets RMX is building what it calls "an immersive, multisensorial, multicourse meal in mixed reality."
  • Project Nourished is a VR gastronomy startup aiming to elicit the "therapeutic and utilitarian qualities of food, beverage and medicine."
  • An app called Foodini started by a mom in Australia could help people with allergies flag potentially problematic menu items.
At left, a bottle of pecan oil; at right a sandwich made with avocado bread.
Pecan oil from Worthington Farms of New Mexico, which tastes like the nut itself. At right, a sandwich made with slices from the Avocado Bread Company of Denville, N.J. It has a guacamole tang to it. Photos: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

Zoom in: New ingredients and preparations will pop up on the menus of the future as restaurateurs gamble on the next food crazes.

  • The Avocado Bread Company is riffing on avocado toast by baking guacamole spices into many types of bread.
  • Alternatives to seed oils — which have gotten a bad name for their inflammatory qualities — include pecan oil, which tastes pleasantly like the nut it features.
  • Are vegan, plant-based drumsticks more appealing if they come with sugar cane bones for crunch?
An array of vegan fried appetizer bites on individual trays.
Taste-testing at the National Restaurant Association Show: plant-based chicken drumsticks, shrimp, eggs and bacon from Beleaf. Photo: Jennifer A. Kingson for Axios

Case study: A company called Virtual Dining Concepts develops foods that are trending on social media, using delivery-only ghost kitchens.

  • Established by Robert Earl, the Planet Hollywood founder, the company is "scraping menu trends that are developed on TikTok," said Marcus Viscidi of Informa Connect, which puts on the National Restaurant Association show.
  • "So if a cool new pasta is launched by some influencer, you'll be able to taste that in 30-90 days," Viscidi said at a media breakfast.
  • The company's brands include the MrBeast Burger (after YouTuber extraordinaire MrBeast), Pardon My Cheesecake (after the eponymous podcast) and Buddy V's Cake Slice (from the "Cake Boss" reality star).

Yes, but: Jimmy Donaldson — a.k.a. MrBeast — sued Virtual Dining Concepts last year to get it to stop making hamburgers in his name, complaining about the quality.

Reality check: For now, a lot of restaurant innovation is happening at kiosks and drive-thrus.

  • Wendy's FreshAI uses generative AI to take orders at the drive-thru (with mixed results).
  • Full-service chains like P.F. Chang's and Buffalo Wild Wings have set up stand-alone "to go" stores.
  • Drones and sidewalk robots haven't quite proved ready for ubiquitous meal delivery (yet).

The bottom line: Dining out used to be all about food and ambience — now it's also about marketing, IT, logistics and immersive entertainment.

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