I readily admit it: I am fascinated by new technology. Not necessarily by every gadget that appears on the increasingly electronic consumer scene, but by technology that promises new applications—new ways to do old things and new ways to do things we haven't done before.
Foodservice is not known as a technological hotbed in this regard. We are a mature industry, and the basic techniques for heating and serving food change slowly. In fact, many would argue that foodservice is almost negative about new technology. Equipment manufacturers are often reluctant to invest in it and we as an industry are slow to adopt it. We are also quick to point to the failures that inevitably accompany anything new as proof that a technology "simply won't work in our industry."
"How many of us would have predicted that RFID technology would find an alliance with induction cooking systems?"
Yet if you look back over the past few decades, think about how much different the food scene was when consumers did not have microwave ovens. When grocery stores had no barcode scanners. When there were no "cashless payments."
In general, technology is not discussed that widely or that well in foodservice business magazines, and that is one reason we are pleased to give it a more than casual look in this issue of FM. Executive features editor Mike Buzalka's article, which begins on page 46, explores five technologies that are having or will have a major impact on noncommercial foodservice as we practice it today.
Some of these, like electronic payment systems, are already taken for granted, even though their greatest promise still lies ahead. Others, like RFID (radio frequency identification) systems, are just beginning to find their way to commercial applications.
For example: how many among us would have predicted that RFID technology, best known for the basis of department store "security" tags, would find a natural alliance with induction cooking systems? One of the results, cooking pans with embedded intelligence and sensors that can control the amount of heat they receive, is fascinating, but likely only the beginning of where such integration will go. Consider the idea of RFID-embedded recipe cards that can be waved over matching equipment to automatically program it with cooking instructions: such a system is now available commercially in Japan.
Elsewhere in this issue you can learn about another kind of technology application in the story about Compass Group's plans to explore the potential of "Dream Steam Cuisine" meals in its various operations. "Convenience" steam cooking is an idea that seems (once it is successfully implemented) obvious on the surface. That apparent simplicity is misleading, however.
Like many technology applications, this one is undergirded by more science than at first meets the eye. It also shares another attribute: a certain element of market risk. Improved quality and convenience almost always come with some increase in cost, and the only way to discover if customers are willing to make that tradeoff is to bring new products to market and test them.
In discussions like this, I often recall a presentation I heard a few years ago at a meat industry conference. The speaker was encouraging the attendees, many of them producers, to develop new kinds of value-added protein products. His next comment showed a great deal of naîveté, however. He suggested that his audience should "follow the lead of the fresh produce industry," observing that "a few years ago, some bright fellow figured out that you could put salad in a plastic bag and created a whole new market out of the idea."
That comment ignored the reality, which is that it took the produce industry 40 years of R&D, risk-taking and many failures before high quality, fresh-cut products became a reality. The market risks were taken by pioneering companies like J.C. Brock, Mann Packing, Fresh Express and Ready Pac Produce, and individuals like Ted Taylor, Steve Kenfield, David Stiddolph and Bud Antle. Despite many failures, they refused to abandon the vision they had for the kind of fresh-cut products we take for granted today.
Perhaps that is what I like most about technology applications: they combine science and the experimental, scientific method with persistent, risk-taking vision. And when that combination comes to fruition, it can change the nature of a product line, a market and industry.