Lessons for the foodservice industry from SXSW 2016

Social media expert Karen Fewell of Digital Blonde Ltd was at South By South West (SXSW) 2016 in Austin, Texas, to discover the latest innovation in foodservice

Each year, Austin Texas is taken over by an incredible festival known as South By South West (SXSW). I always attend the ‘Interactive’ element of SXSW and have seen this side of the festival grow from just an afternoon of digital technology sessions, through to 1,200 events over five days, attracting approximately 30,000 attendees. Alongside this, my interest in emotional relationships with food has grown too and so I headed to Texas hungry for insights into food, human behaviour, technology and marketing.

When it comes to my own personal food experiences at SXSW, naturally, I enjoyed the barbeque Texas is so famous for and visited the vast array of food trucks Austin has to offer. I also tasted my first Frito Pie, which seemed to epitomise the saying ‘so wrong but so right’.

Food is analogue

One of my highlight brand activations at SXSW was a celebration of all things analogue put on by American Greetings, where paper crafts, vinyl and typewriters created a sense of nostalgia for visitors. The focus was how some of the best ideas start off with an analogue beginning. I could certainly see that this applied to the foodservice industry. There’s so much talk of how chefs, restaurants and foodservice professionals should use technology and digital to amplify what they do or get ahead in a competitive market – but there would be nothing to amplify without an analogue starting point.

Foodservice is analogue. It begins by creating something real. It reminded me of Simon Stenning, executive director at research company MCA who recently said at a panel event: “Foodservice and hospitality are analogue industries, cooking is making something real for people to consume and enjoy.”

Virtual reality and food

I love seeing what different food and drink brands have to show at SXSW. This year it felt like almost everyone had some element of virtual reality experience including McDonald’s and Budweiser. These virtual reality installations were certainly cool, immersive and new experiences but it was hard to see how they could enhance the real-life multisensory experience of eating good food. It left me feeling like the technology is exciting but the application within food and drink is wrong. Virtual reality is still in its infancy but I don’t think we’re anywhere close to working out how best to use it within foodservice and hospitality.

The food industry needs amazing entrepreneurs

President Barack Obama’s speech was a highlight for many people. In it he talked about how the government needs the SXSW audience and attendees. He talked about harnessing technology to make government better and the people sitting in front of him were the ones to help. As I listened I was struck by how much the food industry also needed the same thing if we’re ever going to solve some of the problems surrounding food. Whether it’s obesity, malnutrition or people starving in countries where food grows year round, as an industry there are just so many challenges we face. It’s going to take some serious visionaries, passionate entrepreneurs or amazing scientists to come up with solutions.

One person who is most definitely disrupting the way things are done in foodservice over in the US is Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur who has done away with tipping at his restaurant. His explanation of how trained chefs and kitchen staff end up being paid less than front of house staff, thanks to tipping was inspiring. Whilst this news has little to do with new technology or digital, it is something that could change an industry forever and that is what SXSW is all about.

This and other talks meant I left this year’s SXSW feeling more aware than ever of the need for visionaries who can bring about developments in the foodservice sector. SXSW panellist Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, summed it up on stage when he said: “There are so many opportunities for social good in food entrepreneurship. Not enough smart people who want to be makers are looking at the world of food. You can make money and do good at the same time.”

Food purchasing habits are changing

One cultural change I also learnt about at SXSW was how people in the US are now spending more in restaurants than they do on groceries. Research shows this trend has really accelerated in recent years. The study suggests a range of factors have contributed to this, everything from reduced petrol prices in the US to millennial behaviour and the decline in seeing eating out purely for special occasions. There’s also the trend for high quality take away food from fine dining restaurants that may play a part. Overall, it seems like good news for the foodservice industry with the public seeing the value in having great food cooked for them. Eating out really has earned a place in daily life.

When it comes to food we don’t think rationally

I’ve known for a while that our decisions tend to be made emotionally rather than rationally but at this year’s event I learnt that 95% of decisions are non-conscious. That means virtually all of our decisions are not the logical, rational, well-thought out choices we often think they are. This is something that clearly has huge implications for the foodservice industry and how we communicate with consumers. Every day we make around 200 decisions about food, so when it comes to food purchasing decisions, it’s likely that these are part of that unconscious 95%. This highlights a clear need for foodservice operators to connect emotionally with customers. Pricing, promotions or facts and figures are unlikely to have the deciding vote in a consumer’s mind.

Emotional decision-making is key for the issue of nutrition too. I’m convinced that our brains have a lot more to do with nutrition and eating well than our taste buds but it’s clear that education alone is not the answer. This was confirmed by Brian Wansink, professor and director at Cornell University whose research proved that information on fat content doesn’t necessarily lead to healthier eating behaviours.

Final thoughts

I’ll end with a question that one session got me thinking about: What if we could start over with food? What would we grow and produce, how would we sell and market it? In conclusion, my takeaways from SXSW 2016 are that if we are to solve some of the issues in the food industry as whole, we really need to change the way we do things.

Karen Fewell

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