Axios What's Next

Newsletter branding image

Restaurants and food startups are exploring everything from generative AI to delivery tunnels to entice consumers, Jennifer reports today.

Today's newsletter is 1,064 words ... 4 minutes.

1 big thing: Restaurants' future tech

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Avocado bread. Pecan oil. Gene-edited salad 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.
Pecan oil, which is distinctly pecan-y (pecanesque? pequant?), is made in New Mexico and Texas. This bottle is from Worthington Farms of New Mexico. At right, a sandwich made with slices from the Avocado Bread Company of Denville, New Jersey. It has a guacamole tang to it. Photos: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios.
Pecan oil from Worthington Farms of New Mexico. 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?

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.

Share this story.

2. Airbnb hosts get EV charger discounts

An Airbnb listing with a Kia EV charging out front. Photo courtesy of Airbnb

Airbnb and electric vehicle infrastructure company ChargePoint are teaming up to give hosts discounts on charging tech.

Why it matters: As EVs slowly but steadily grow more popular, demand for charging is increasing in kind — and Airbnb hosts who offer it may get a leg up on their local rivals.

Driving the news: Airbnb hosts will get up to 36% off certain ChargePoint EV chargers and $100 off on installation, the companies announced today.

By the numbers: Searches using Airbnb's EV charging filter grew more than 80% from 2022 to 2023, per a company press release.

  • EV-friendly listings are also "booked for more nights and generate more income, on average."

Zoom in: Interest in EV-friendly listings is highest in California, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Washington and North Carolina, the company says — which jives with broader EV adoption trends.

Share this story.

3. Safest used cars for teens

The 2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback has abundant safety features that make it a good choice for novice drivers. Photo courtesy of Toyota

If your teenager needs a car this summer, a new report lists plenty of safe choices available at a decent price.

Why it matters: Young, inexperienced drivers are prone to mistakes, so the more safety technologies they have as a backstop, the better.

Driving the news: Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) identified 58 used models ranging from $5,800 to $19,900 that are suitable for young drivers.

  • All scored well in IIHS crash tests and earned strong marks from CR for braking, handling and reliability.
  • Their top recommendations also come standard with automatic emergency braking, which engages if the driver fails to react quickly enough.

Zoom in: The report's "Best Choices" include used models of the Toyota Corolla, Camry, Prius and RAV4.

  • The Honda Civic, Accord and CR-V are also recommended, along with the Hyundai Sonata and Tucson and the Kia Sportage.
  • Used models from Subaru, Mazda, Volvo and Nissan made the list as well.
  • Among domestic models, the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain and Ford Edge are recommended.

Caveat: Parents should be cautious about getting their teens an electric vehicle.

  • Although EVs are just as safe as gas-powered vehicles, their rapid acceleration is a concern, CR and IIHS warn.

Keep reading.

4. First impressions: Sonos Ace headphones

Sonos Ace headphones. Photo courtesy Sonos

Sonos' first headphones, the Sonos Ace, will go on sale June 5, the company revealed yesterday — and Axios was one of the first to try them.

Why it matters: The $449 headphones have been widely anticipated by audiophiles and investors alike, but join a crowded category dominated by Apple, Sony and Bose.

Zoom in: The Ace works out of the box with both Apple and Android devices — and can also connect to users' existing Sonos home audio systems.

  • Eight microphones provide for adjustable noise cancellation, while a hardwire connection allows for lossless audio.
  • They've got 30 hours of battery life, with a 3-minute fast charge option that gives enough juice for 3 hours of playback.

First impressions: The 11-ounce headphones felt light and comfortable.

  • During a living room scenario demo, it was easy to switch between the headphones and Sonos speakers connected to a TV by pressing a small button on the outside of the headphones.
  • Sound-wise the Ace provided a rich listening experience for both podcast dialogue and music.
  • The active noise cancellation was excellent.

Read the rest.

Big thanks to What's Next copy editor Amy Stern.

Was this email forwarded to you? Get your daily dose of What's Next by signing up here for our free newsletter.