2019 was an action-packed year in world of food tech. Among other things, we saw an explosion in new products that promise to change what we eat, rapid change in food delivery models, and something of a slow motion food robot uprising.
The consumer kitchen also saw significant change, even if things didn’t move as fast as some would hope. As we close out the year, I thought I’d take a look back at the past twelve months in the future kitchen.
It’s An Instant Pot and Air Fryer World and We’re Just Living In It
Here’s an experiment: Next time you’re making cocktail-party conversation, ask someone about their most recent cooking gadget purchase for the home. Chances are its either an Instant Pot or an air fryer.
The above chart shows why this should come as no surprise, as it plots consumer interest in Instant Pot and air fryer (as determined by Google searches) over the past five years. It also shows both the seasonality of that interest (both spike during the holidays) and shows air fryers starting to close the gap with Instant Pot.
Regardless of how the two products perform relative to one other, the big takeaway is that the Instant Pot/pressure cooker and air fryer represent the two breakaway categories in countertop cooking over the past few years, and that trend continued strong in 2019.
Why? Because both products give consumers lots of cooking power to create a variety of meals at a low entry point. Add in what are large and vibrant online recipe communities for both product categories, and you can see why both only became more popular in 2019.
Next-Gen Cooking Concepts See Mixed Results
Outside of pressure cookers and air fryers, 2019 was a decidedly mixed bag of results for countertop cooking concepts. June and Tovala both plugged along selling their second generation ovens, Suvie started shipping its four-chamber cooking robot and Brava’s “cook with light” oven tech sold to Middleby.
What does it all mean?
First, most of these product are fairly expensive, often coming in at $300 or above. That’s probably too high to convince enough consumers to take a chance on a new product in a new product category they don’t know much about.
Which brings us to our second point. While I don’t expect Thermomix to replicate their direct-sales force in North America, there’s a reason such such a fairly expensive product has succeeded in Europe: they’ve made consumer education and evangelism around their product core to the business model.
Finally, the market has yet to see a product with just the right mix of new technology and high-value user-focused features that supercharges consumer interest. That said, there are some new products like Anova’s steam oven or something like the Miele Dialog (I’m told most big appliance makers are working on a similar product) that could potentially capture the imagination of consumers.
Large Appliance-Makers Continue to Dabble in Innovation
So here’s what some of these appliance brands with resources actually did in 2019: Whirlpool came out of the gate fast with a lineup of new smart cooking appliances at CES 2019, including a pretty cool modular smart oven concept in the SmartOven+. Electrolux launched a new Drop-powered blender and partnered with Smarter to add machine vision and connected commerce features to its smart fridge camera platform. Turkish appliance giant Arcelik debuted a combo cooking and washing concept under the Grundig brand.
Overall though, it wasn’t a big year for appliance-makers on the innovation front. Many of us waited for these companies to launch some of their more promising technologies, like Miele’s Dialog or BSH Appliances Pai interface, but neither effort seemed to move forward much, at least in any public way, in 2019.
A Sputtering Consumer Sous Vide Market
It was a bad year for those who make sous vide gear. In mid-year we learned that ChefSteps, maker of the Joule sous vide circulator, would be laying off a significant amount of the team after they ran into money problems. And, just a little over a week ago, one of the first consumer sous vide startups Nomiku announced it would be shutting its doors.
Why did consumer sous vide market lose steam? In large part because sous vide cooking is just too slow as an everyday or multiple-time-per-week cooking method. Some, like Nomiku, wanted to position the sous vide as a replacement for the microwave, but it wasn’t nearly convenient enough and required too many steps for culinary average joes trained by push-button cooking of the microwave. The reality is over time many sous vide circulators ended up stuck in the kitchen drawer.
Software Powers The Meal
At Smart Kitchen Summit 2017, Jon Jenkins said we will all someday “eat software” as it becomes more important in how we create food in the kitchen. Evidence of this was everywhere in 2019 as companies rolled out new software features to do things like cook plant-based meat to companies like Thermomix and Instant Brands betting big on software for the future.
We also saw kitchen-centric software players like SideChef, Drop and Innit loaded up on more partnerships with appliance and food brands to better tie together the meal journey, while Samsung NEXT acquired a digital recipe and shopping commerce platform in Whisk.
In short, it’s fairly obvious that for a kitchen appliance brand to survive, it’s becoming table stakes to have something of an evolved software strategy.
Amazon Continues Its Push Into Kitchen
If there’s been one takeaway from watching Amazon over the past few years, it’s that they see the food and the kitchen as an important strategic battleground. This past year did nothing to dispel this belief as the company introduced their own smart oven and continued to file weird food-related patents. Amazon also pushed forward with new delivery concepts for the home that bring together the different parts of the Amazon portfolio (voice ordering, smart home, grocery and more).
Grocery Delivery Space Race
Amazon wasn’t the only one looking to connect the smart home to grocery delivery this year. Walmart also debuted a new in-fridge delivery service called InHome. Meanwhile both companies and big grocery conglomerates like Kroger continue to invest in robotics and home delivery.
The reason for this growing interest in innovative home delivery concepts is pretty simple: more and more consumers are shopping online for groceries. Big platform players like Amazon and Google see a massive new opportunity, while established grocery players are forced to innovate to play defense.
No One Has Recreated The Success of the Keurig Model (Yet)
While much of the early focus for new kitchen startups has been on copying the Keurig model of pairing a piece of kitchen hardware with a robust consumer consumables business, unfortunately none have really been able to emulate the model for food products. There’s been no shortage of cocktail making robots, coffee, 3D food printing, chai tea and others attracted the the concept of recurring revenue that food sales bring, but as we’ve seen it’s hard to emulate the pod model approach.
Some, like Tovala, look to have had some limited success on pairing cooking hardware with food delivery, while others like Brava, Nomiku and ChefSteps weren’t able to create sustainable models. Genie and Kitchenmate are making a go of it in the office environment, while Level couldn’t and had to shut its doors earlier this year.
I expect kitchen hardware entrepreneurs to try to continue to pair food sales with products, but I expect that it will be tough sailing unless the company land upon very compelling, easy-to-use solution that turnkeys the cooking solution.
Cooking Media: A Peloton For The Kitchen Emerges
Forget Buzzfeed Tasty quick-play cooking videos. In 2019, we saw the emergence of other players providing deeper, more personalized cooking guidance that emulates what Peloton or Mirror have done with home-fitness instruction. Food Network made the biggest splash with its Food Network Kitchen concept while others like FET Kitchen are creating their own hardware platforms.
For Buzzfeed’s part, they haven’t given up on Tasty quite yet. Instead, they partnered up with Amazon to push their recipes onto the Echo Show, complete with step-by-step guidance. The combo creates essentially what is a fairly quick and easy guided cooking product.
Food Waste Reduction Comes Into Focus — Everywhere But The Home
If any place is lacking in innovation when it comes to reducing the amount of food we throw away, it’s the consumer kitchen. Sure, some startups are trying to rethink how we approach cooking by helping us to work with the food we have, while others are rethinking the idea of food storage, but innovation in home food waste reduction is lacking when compared to what we are seeing in restaurants and CPG fronts. We hope this changes in 2020.
True Home Cooking Robots Remained A Futuristic Vision in 2019
While single-function taskers like the Rotimatic did significant volume and others like Suvie positioned itself as a “cooking robot” for the home, the reality is we saw no significant progress towards a true multifunction consumer cooking robot. Companies like Sony see the opportunity to create a true home cooking robot, but for now food robots remain primarily the domain of restaurants, grocery and delivery.
Bottom line: It was an exciting year in the connected kitchen and we expect 2020 to be even more exciting. Stay tuned next week for my outlook on what to expect!