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Portland Design offers a “wake-up call” for foodservice consultants

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Meatballs, futurology and culinary psychology were the focus at an insightful morning of discussion on the future of F&B

The event, hosted on 1 June at Islington’s Everyman Screen on the Green in London, UK, was the latest in Portland Design’s “Wake Up Call” seminar series. “New Food Frontiers” was the theme; speakers took on a range of challenging topics, offering their views on how societal changes are impacting F&B and where the industry is heading.

New directions for F&B

Proceedings were kicked off by Portland Design’s managing director, Ibrahim Ibrahim. His warning of the move from “responsive to predictive business” for firms everywhere set the tone for the morning, coining the phrase “retail Darwinism” to encapsulate the all-or-nothing world faced by new startups in an increasingly competitive industry.

Following Ibrahim was Robert Colville, Financial Times and Telegraph columnist and editor of CapX. Colville’s new book, The Great Acceleration, contains a wealth of insight on how technological and cultural change is forcing the foodservice industry to evolve – as he summarised, “life is speeding up”.

Colville’s cautionary speech made for challenging listening from a foodservice perspective. His key message was “food is fuel”, noting the extent to which restless consumerism has made speed the new standard; “if you bet against convenience”, Colville warned, “you’ll lose”.

However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Colville pointed out that humans are “contradictory”, demanding speed in the week but slowing to a snail’s pace at weekends to craft elaborate meals and show off to friends and family.

This was a theme picked up by Tamira Snell, senior adviser at the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies. Although eating alone is on the rise, “eating as a ritual” is changing. Snell pointed out that, in addition to the explosion of restaurants and cafes, one in five American meals are now eaten in a car – creating a climate where demands for convenience and luxury must be carefully balanced. “Food”, said Snell, “has become a huge part of how we brand our social identities” – an approach to cuisine creating new demands but also new opportunities for foodservice professionals.

Following this, Kaave Pour’s speech provided a case study on how foodservice is evolving. As creative director of Space 10, IKEA’s innovation lab, Pour was ideally placed to explain how the intersection of art, design and technology is shaping the future of food.

As Pour explained, IKEA’s “new values” are shaping the company’s approach to food as well as the broader goal of guaranteeing sustainability. Space 10’s response was an inventive presentation of modern cuisine’s possible trajectory, working with chefs and designers to provide a new spin on an IKEA classic in the form of “tomorrow’s meatball”. The initiative provided an engaging visualisation of how food is changing through the medium of meat, with Pour demonstrating how foodservice evolution may alter the meatball of tomorrow both in terms of ingredients (with the rise of insects and algae as nutritious and sustainable substitutes) and processes (as powdered and 3D food takes hold in the industry).

Firms’ perspectives

Following a cake-laden networking interlude, the insight tsunami recommenced with a panel discussion on “The future of F&B” exploring the impact of change on some of the industry’s up and coming firms.

Panelists offered a range of perspectives on hard-hitting issues facing the F&B industry. The hostile atmosphere faced by F&B startups, and how best to navigate it, was one of the most pressing topics for a panel in which small businesses were well represented. Fiona Hamilton, global head of retail for international brands at BNP Paribas, pointed out that a culture of “instant gratification” is prompting unprecedented turnover as consumers consistently demand novelty.

David Abrahamovitch, co-founder of coffee vendor Grind, agreed that “responding to trends” was essential for businesses trying to stay afloat, but argued that consistency remains vital. Jonathan Phillips of Humpit Hummus concurred, using his firm as an example that you “don’t need to innovate if it’s working”. Industry competition, he said, means “dynamism coming out of small businesses” needs protecting and nurturing instead of being suppressed.

Linked to this was the need to insulate new firms against the pressures of spiraling property prices. Although Marie Hickey, director of commercial research at Savills, pointed out that the often prohibitive price of entry ensures retailers who make the cut retain their unique character, their was agreement across the board that more help was needed for small businesses.

Hickey noted that “the property industry is learning its lessons” as landlords have come to appreciate the cultural value of small-scale artisan producers, allowing them to gain ground on larger competitors who can pay higher rents. Jonathan Downey, founder of food popup network Street Feast, agreed, arguing “rents have got to drop” as part of cultural change providing entrepreneurs with “space to experiment”.

This consensus among fledgling producers around the need for a culture shift was a key theme of the morning’s discussion. For example, Rob Wilson, co-founder of Toast Ale, a microbrewery brewing beer using wasted bread offcuts, noted that millions of tonnes of bread are thrown away every year – the need to combat this wanton waste, he argued, “transcends” politics in these turbulent times.

Culinary psychology

The key note speech was delivered by Charles Spence, professor of psychology at Somerville College, Oxford, and author of “Gastrophysics: the new science of eating”. As noted from the outset of Spence’s presentation and in the first chapter of his book, “the pleasures of the table reside mainly in the mind, not in the mouth”.

Spence brought life to his thesis with a range of titillating examples gathered from a lifetime of research into the psychology behind food. Rebranding a “Patagonian Toothfish” as a “Chilean seabass” in one seafood restaurant he studied, for example, resulted in 200% uptake; more eccentric research included respondents declaring Chinese food tasted better when accompanied by one of Taylor Swift’s signature songs.

Spence’s research means he has worked closely with F&B professionals; his speech contained some fascinating insights for the future of foodservice. He predicts that technology will have a revolutionising effect, with “sonic seasoning” using auditory cues to intensify flavours and “technology of the table” making augmented reality dishes a growing possibility.

Ultimately flavor is “the most multisensory of our experiences” – as technology improves, opportunities to tap into this are increasing by making dining a more stimulating experience than ever before.

A morning of insights

In addition to being a fascinating event, the proceeds went to a good cause; The Felix Project, a London charity working with suppliers to reduce food waste, was one of the morning’s major beneficiaries.

With illuminating discussions on the direction of F&B, responses from firms on the frontline and expert advice from industry trailblazers, this was a valuable morning for F&B professionals. Foodservice consultants would do well to keep track of this insightful series of seminars from Portland in years to come.

Thomas Lawrence