Food is often a reflection of what’s happening in the world: whether it’s changes in climate, international trade, cultural shifts, generational preferences, or societal priorities, we’ll see it in food. In this sense, 2020 was no different. Most obviously, the restaurant industry has evolved unrecognizably, with huge shifts toward ghost kitchens, third-party delivery, and creative new ways to deliver food without human-to-human contact or even a restaurant front. Still, 100,000 restaurants permanently closed. The opportunity to rebuild after such a massive loss means we get to rethink what the service industry could look like; it’s clear that resilience follows equity, like better guarantees of job stability and health care. Meanwhile, the world of consumer-packaged goods, too, has qualitatively exploded, shape-shifting rapidly to meet consumer demands. We’ve seen big growth in categories like quick-scratch cooking, for the new market of everyday home cooks, and changes in snacking habits, like an enlargement of the refrigerated section for employees who no longer commute.

To keep a constant pulse on these changes in both CPG and foodtech, this year KitchenTown launched a new internal database: a constantly growing network of nearly 4,000 early-stage startups we keep an eye on. It helps us better connect them to resources, like funding and distribution opportunities, and it’s the same pipeline we use to match new startups to corporate partners. We use over 75 category tags to get a better sense of how the landscape is changing and have been particularly excited to see enormous growth and interest in the world of plant-based and alternative meat. The urgency of climate action weighs heavily on us, and we know food, agriculture, and especially animal agriculture have a big part to play. For this reason we devoted much of our focus in 2020 to this new world of meat: researching consumers, helping startups improve and scale up their products, and advising legacy companies on how to adapt.  

We see big potential in the world of “flexitarians,” a large group that’s not well understood and rarely addressed directly. Millions of us don’t identify as flexitarians but we eat less meat for health reasons, and because of our values. What is our experience? How do we navigate everyday eating decisions? In response, this year we launched Speakeasy: a program to field signals and make sense of trends at the human-level. Our team of journalists, food culture experts, and Stanford design leaders conducted deep ethnographic research to understand how consumers actually live, how they wish they lived, and what innovations could close the gap (we call it the “say-do” gap). We then convened a cohort of alternative protein companies and plant-interested legacy brands for a design sprint to make the research actionable and help realize the full potential of the category. Our work continues with many of the participating companies, doing new product ideation to meet these flexitarians’ needs. 

KitchenTown food scientist Nitika Dhamankar in the Lab

Our Innovation Lab, too, has been busy in the plant-based space. We were excited to work with Air Protein, a promising food tech company making protein from, well, air. Air Protein uses advanced fermentation to transform microbes and elements like CO2 into nutrient-rich protein matter. KitchenTown’s head of innovation, Nitika Dhamankar, and culinary director, Eric Minnich, helped transform that protein into foods like kebabs and fried chicken sandwiches. (Our work helped Air Protein to raise over $30 million dollars in their recently oversubscribed Series A funding round!) Our sensory duo also collaborated with Zero Egg to optimize the flavor and texture profile of their all-purpose egg, which is made without any animal inputs but just as able to fluff, bind, and scramble. And Lab client JADA Spices, known for their no-chicken chicken salt, debuted their new vegan chicken (also developed at KitchenTown) on Shark Tank to great success, including a quarter million investment from Shark Barbara Corcoran.

Jada Spices founders Khasha Touloei and Maynard Okereke in the Tank

This focus on climate-forward solutions is a deliberate goal of KitchenTown, and it’s how we’re continuing to build our team. This December, we were thrilled to announce Sarah Sha as our new Director of Strategy, who joins us after eight years of experience leading the Food Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future. As she describes, futures thinking is “not about predicting what will happen, but rather getting creative to envision what could happen, and then putting it into practice.” It’s a particularly crucial mindset for food systems, where short-termism so often encourages foods that harm rather than mitigate. Sarah will guide our team in prioritizing food innovations that lead us toward better health and greener planetary outcomes.

In this year’s sustainability work, we began to look higher upstream, expanding our focus to include agtech companies. The Good Food Makers accelerator, a collaborative project from KitchenTown and Barilla’s Blu1877, partners startups with teams across Barilla, and this year included startups working on regenerative agriculture and supply chain traceability. Smart Cloud Farming tracks carbon sequestration digitally, using remote sensing data to measure soil carbon; Connecting Food uses blockchain technology to show the end-to-end journey of a product, auditing every batch in real time and rerouting when not compliant to avoid food waste. During the 8-week program, Barilla piloted both companies’ technologies, resulting in valuable knowledge exchange and significant outcomes. 

The first cohort of Good Food Makers, at Barilla’s HQ in Parma, Italy (pre-COVID)

Typically, we get to showcase many of our startups to the local community. KitchenTown’s space in the San Francisco Bay Area includes a café, which used to sell member company products and fresh prepared food. It shut down in March during shelter-in-place, but we quickly pivoted to a curbside model, offering chef-made frozen meals from small businesses around the Bay. Six months in, we made the difficult decision to shut down the program to refocus our efforts on other sides of the business: namely, consulting, research and development, innovation services, and the startup launchpad.

Chef Eric Minnich prepares for Curbside’s opening

But this experiment in takeout operations introduced us to the broader chef community – a new audience for us, though very like our startup members in their entrepreneurial mindset. It’s a group hit particularly hard by the pandemic, so as a first step in catering to these needs, we hosted a virtual panel for chefs interested in exploring alternative business models. Speakers were well-versed in everything from ghost kitchens to neighborhood pickups to third-party delivery. Meanwhile, our café space continues to serve its purpose well, serving as a site for contactless startup pop-ups. Most recently, a robotics restaurant startup, EveryMeal, tested their Mediterranean grain bowls (developed by our culinary team) with a local KitchenTown audience.

We’d be remiss to conclude a 2020 wrap-up without talking about how inspired we’ve been by the small, unsung businesses working quietly every day, taking every precaution to keep their teams safe while continuing to produce without pause. We’re grateful, too, for KitchenTown friends and local communities, who have supported us as we continue to evolve internally. And to our own team: we’ve had several new staff members come on board in this tumultuous year; meeting each other (along with puppies, kids, and plants) over video call have been some of the brightest spots of the year.

Food systems are often understood as enormously complex and slow to change. But from our vantage point, we’ve seen that the reverse can also be true. While 2020 has forced countless shutdowns, closures, and 180-degree pivots, it’s primarily magnified and accelerated many trends that were already in motion. The increasing consumer demand for values-driven food has been matched by enthusiastic response from founders, farmers, and chefs, and we remain committed to their success. As plant-based and better-for-you companies continue to crop up daily, so too will we continue to celebrate and uplift them.