Keynote speaker: Mike Lee on innovation and the future of food

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Ahead of his opening keynote at the FCSI TAD 2022 conference, Mike Lee of Alpha Food Labs discusses what inspires his passion for innovation in foodservice and what he’ll be sharing with delegates

Mike Lee is the co-founder and CEO of Alpha Food Labs, a food innovation company that helps companies create strategies and products that are better for people, planet and palate. He is also the founder of The Future Market, a futurist food lab that explores what our food system could look like in the next 5 to 25 years. A frequent speaker on food innovation, he has worked with organizations such as CNBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Culinary Institute of America and The National Restaurant Association. He also serves on the board of advisors for the Partnership for a Healthier America.

How were you first introduced to the foodservice industry?

I grew up in a multi-generational restaurant family. My grandfather opened a Chinese-American restaurant in Detroit in the mid 1940s and ever since then my parents, aunts and uncles all ran multiple restaurants in that area.

My grandfather immigrated to the US from Hong Kong and decided to settle in Detroit as opposed to areas with more well-populated Chinatowns like San Francisco or New York City. He wanted to go where there was less competition and more opportunity to be different.

It worked and their restaurant thrived for over 40 years. His decision to go to the less obvious place was a powerful lesson in my life and it has colored the way I look at innovation throughout my career.

What inspired you to start Alpha Food Labs?

I’ve worked in innovation and product development nearly my whole career, both in and outside of food. While I was working in tech shortly after college, I loved what I was able to create during my day job but still had a passion to do something in food.

I founded an underground supper club in New York City where I would produce and cook dinner events for anywhere from eight to 300 people.

This was not catering, it was more of a creative outlet for my team and me to develop a narrative and a new experience in our pop-up dinners that one couldn’t typically find at a restaurant.

The creative freedom was incredible and I started to combine the skills I learned in my innovation job by day with the experimental stuff we were doing with the supper club by night. Those formative years are how I got started in food and because I was able to do it in such an unorthodox way, it’s influenced the way I think about problems.

What will you be sharing with delegates as part of The Future of Food session?

I will be talking a lot about the mindset of the 21st century eater and the fragmentation of food tribes. There are a lot of different points of view and needs that you never had before, such as gluten free, vegan and sustainable-conscious consumers. So, we’ll look at how that’s changing and how the food industry has to react to keep up with and cater to those tribes.

Additionally, we’ll explore the persistent trends and behaviors that are sticking around post-Covid. After about a year where most of the world traded away out-of-home dining for in-home dining during the pandemic, that experience stands to change how people look at their food choices for years to come.

Why is it important for foodservice to pay attention to consumer trends?

It’s important because competition is heating up so much. We now have never ending choices at our fingertips – you can just pull out your phone app and have access to hundreds of different options. It’s about being able to reach and attract customers, because it’s become a lot harder to win over the consumer.

What do you think are the biggest drivers behind the push for healthier food? We’re living in the days of companies like Farmers Fridge, which is essentially a series of vending machines that sell fresh salads in jars. It’s a signal that this idea and assumption that you can only get fresh food in certain places is being proved wrong and that technological innovation is changing what food is available where. Demand for that kind of food is growing and it shows that people are beginning to expect a level of high-quality food everywhere not just in high-quality restaurants.

How can foodservice consultants stay on top of the trends expected to shape the future of food?

There’s no one size fits all formula. With all the different points of view, there are so many different ways to slice it. While one tribe might favor health and sustainability, there is still room for more indulgent offerings.

Find a tribe you can resonate with and engineer your operations so you’re able to cater for that market and scale up as you get success. Changing the way that you look at things will help you to become more effective and efficient.

How can operators engage with customers to better understand their needs?

One of the techniques we use to try out new concepts and ideas is to conduct pop-ups. With restaurants, pop-ups are not always something that get headlines but they give you the opportunity to test out new things – finding ways to create temporary venues can be key.

How you gain insight from that depends on the relationship you have with the customer. If you have a loyal following you can have a more real-time conversation. If it’s a more transactional audience you might have to rely on more transactional feedback. The value is in opening up the conversation.

How can foodservice consultants help prepare their clients to adapt to evolving customer expectations?

We place a lot of emphasis on parallel case studies from outside the category we’re working in. For a mass audience casual set up, we still look at fine dining and try to dissect the value and find insight for the category we’re in.

That doesn’t mean you use the same strategy, but sometimes you have to realize the best ideas might come from somewhere else. We see ourselves as translators, translating concepts from other categories that might work well and adapting them. Otherwise you run the risk of recycling the same old stuff and never doing anything new.

How do you go about developing an innovative strategy that works for your customers?

It’s important to take that attitude of test and learn, and to be empathetic. Listening to customers is a huge principle. Especially when we work with established companies with a track record in one area, but who are trying to be innovative. That’s harder because you have to take an attitude of self-disruption before someone else does it for you.

Take the dairy industry, for example, they didn’t look hard enough at the whole plant-based movement and they didn’t think about how to disrupt themselves, so someone came along and did it for them. That’s a difficult thing to do as a company because the attitude can seep in that “this is how we’ve always done it, it works and it makes money”.

But maybe the things that got you where you are won’t be the things to take you forward. If you can be open to that and ask yourselves the uncomfortable questions, like “how would I put myself out of business?”, you get breakthrough. It’s uncomfortable work but necessary for companies to survive.