On Friday, June 20th, the Mixing Bowl, in partnership with the FEED Collaborative, held a conference entitled, “Food IT: Soil to Fork.” The event featured an impressive collection of speakers and food and agriculture startups. I’ll be sharing my takeaways from the conference via a series of posts this summer.
Included in the day’s agenda were two fast pitch business plan competitions: one focused on food-related startups and the other on agriculture. The winner of the food competition was a hardware startup called Pantry. Pantry attracted attention throughout the conference thanks to the live demo of their sensor-driven smart vending machine, along with the delicious fresh-pressed juices they were giving out to bring their technology to life.
What Pantry sells is a smart vending machine solution which enables the easy vending of refrigerated items. In sum: it’s a refrigerated kiosk which can be stocked with any sort of food (or even non-food) item, particularly exciting given it makes the sale of healthier fresher foods easier than it is today. A customer unlocks the fridge via his or her credit card, takes as many items as desired, and the fridge tallies the cost using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to monitor the items leaving the fridge.
Benefits cited by the Pantry website include:
- The ability for a retailer or food service provider to sell food unattended, in any location, at any time of day
- Shorter lines for consumers, particularly vs. attendant-staffed cafeteria stations
- A streamlined, elegant, and user-friendly customer experience
Pantry Founder and CEO Art Tkachenko elaborates on the Pantry value proposition:
“For consumers, the experience is magical – they just swipe their credit card, pick up their item(s) off the shelf and they’re done with the transaction. For Pantry operators, we provide a level of analytics that they’ve never had access to before – especially for a vending machine. We tell them exactly what’s inside of every Pantry at any time and, moreover, we provide them with the ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ of every purchase. We want our customers to succeed so we’ve put a lot of effort into designing an actionable dashboard with this data.”
Overall, Pantry offers a great value proposition for retailers and food service providers. It could also promote innovation by lowering the barrier to entry for selling products directly to consumers, by providing food producers a distribution alternative to pricey brick & mortar locations. I also am a fan of any technology that makes the distribution and sale of fresh foods easier relative to the inherent advantages of shelf-stable, preservative-laden, traditional vending machine fare. This could be a valuable technology to increase access to healthy foods in food deserts.
However, what excites me most about Pantry is seeing RFID tags in action and envisioning their implications beyond retail vending: namely, smart refrigerator technology.
The potential for smart fridge technology
From the consumer angle, I see two meaningful and high-impact opportunities for smart fridges, both driven by an increased ability for the consumer to monitor and understand what is coming in and out of their refrigerators:
1) Data on food consumed: Over the years, I’ve been beckoned by the siren’s call of the quantified self – the idea that you could track massive amounts of personal data (your sleep, your exercise, your diet, your alcohol consumption, your mood, your day-to-day health) and run a giant regression to start to better understand what drives the day-to-day fluctuations in how you feel. A key input to that equation is food consumed, and to-date I haven’t found an accurate technology that makes tracking that input easy and passive. I once spent a summer manually recording everything I ate. It was exhausting and definitely not sustainable nor practicable for the average person, who I’d assume has far less interest in the topic than I do. I’ve always viewed the automated, passive collection of food consumption data as a holy grail of quantified self. Smart fridges don’t get you all the way there (since we consume plenty of food outside the home, and what goes in and out of fridge can be consumed by more than one person), but they would be a step closer to automated data collection. That excites me.
2) Data on food waste and spoilage: A topic that was addressed in a Mixing Bowl panel (and covered at length on this blog earlier this year) is food waste. As previously articulated, there is massive opportunity to improve our diets by eliminating the expense of wasted food and using the saved money to upgrade to more nutritious food. The average family of four throws away $1600 worth of food per year, which is a huge figure when compared to the estimated incremental cost to the same family of adopting a healthy diet: $2000 per year. One hypothesis for reducing the amount of food wasted is to increase consumer awareness of what’s actually being thrown out (and how much money could be saved). Smart fridges which utilize sensors to alert the consumer of food that’s soon-to-spoil and then tally the value of food which spoils could go a long way in increasing transparency around this issue and motivating behavior change.
Pantry is aware of this opportunity and helps food vendors monitor and avoid food waste. Though food waste at retail is substantially smaller than food waste by the end-consumer (~13% of total food waste vs. 55%, respectively), there still is an opportunity to reduce waste. Via RFID tags, Pantry monitors the age of each item it holds and alerts retailers once an item has passed its shelf life. These data could help vendors make better decisions around how much to produce, how to stock aging food, and how to quantify food waste.
For a more in-depth review of RFID technology to date, and the vision of the smart fridge, this article is a worthwhile read.
What’s next for Pantry
For now, Pantry is focused on selling their technology to food service providers, particularly within workplace and hospital cafeterias. Current customers include Stanford Hospital & Clinics, UCSF Medical Center, Lemnos Labs (hardware startup incubator, previously featured on this blog here and here), and cloud platform provider Akamai. Longer-term, Pantry also sees the promise of incorporating their technology into the home and consumer market.
Here is Tkachenko on Pantry’s near-term priorities:
“We’re currently working with cafeterias to augment their food programs – both in terms of staying open around the clock and in terms of placing Pantries in remote locations around campuses. With around 30,000 cafeterias around the US, we have our work cut out for us in this market. However, we recognize the broad appeal of cheap and efficient brick and mortal point of sale and will be looking for quality food partners to place a Pantry into either locations with no food options (like gyms or smaller offices without a cafeteria) or as a true grab n’ go kiosk within existing eateries.”
Congrats, Pantry team, on Friday’s business plan competition win! I’m looking forward to witnessing your future growth and development.