How the restaurant industry can adopt better technology for better food

The food industry is somewhat notorious for sticking to outmoded practices long after the rest of the business world has moved on. But many restaurants are ready for innovation in how they supply and prepare our food—as long as it is simple and intuitive.

Robert Pratta/Reuters/File
French chef Alain Lecossec prepares a dish in the kitchen of the teaching restaurant at the Institut Paul Bocuse, in a 19th century chateau, in Ecully near Lyon. A new app is promising major changes to the way restaurant owners and food suppliers work together.

Unless you work in a restaurant kitchen, or handle orders for a food wholesaler, chances are you have no idea how restaurants buy the ingredients that eventually make up the dishes on their menus. You could be forgiven for believing that the kinds of technological advances that have improved food industry in areas as varied as farm management to restaurant reservations have also made back-of-house kitchen supply efficient and effective. It has not—at least, not yet—and the lack of innovation is causing a huge drag on progress in the food system.

Ask any kitchen manager how they place their orders, and you’ll find they spend the end of each long workday hunching over uninspiring spreadsheets and leaving one droning voicemail after another for their vendors, who in turn spend the next morning listening to the droning over and over again while typing up the orders. Some vendors even take orders via fax. Sustainability descriptors, such as “organic” and “certified humane,” get reduced to text buried in a file, and as a result, what makes it to your plate often has a lot more to do with price than provenance.

“The whole process is just soul-crushing,” said Konstanin Zvereff, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based startup Improvonia. “There is no life in the ordering, no one is inspired—the gears just grind on and on.”

“At first we just saw how painful ordering was for restaurants and suppliers, and designed an app to make that whole process easier,” continued his business partner, Jag Bansal. “But once we built it, we recognized right away its potential for being a powerful tool for a more beautiful ordering experience, like walking down your supplier’s ‘grocery aisle’ and seeing everything in person.”

Suppliers simply upload their spreadsheets into the app, and Improvonia transforms the names and numbers into dynamic, online “pantries.” Labels and descriptions—the stories of food—that help buyers make smarter food purchases are back in a big way.

“Sales reps love the way the app lets them sell,” Zvereff said. “They don’t have to email or print out a blurry price sheet anymore. They actually get to highlight the features of the food, add notes and pictures, get restaurants thinking about what they’re buying.” With in-app communication, those representatives can connect consistently with restaurants about new products. While a great tool for big wholesalers, in-app messaging is also useful for small farmers trying to provide the kind of customer service expected in the age of Amazon.com—without needing a Silicon Valley budget.

The food industry is somewhat notorious for sticking to outmoded practices long after the rest of the business world has moved on. But technological innovations in the front of the house, where hosts tap reservations onto touchscreens and waiters wield iPads, show that many restaurants are ready for innovation—as long as it is simple and intuitive. Bansal and Zvereff admit that some chefs and suppliers were reluctant at first, but say that after a few minutes of experimentation, more than 95% of people given a demo jumped on board. Now, only a few months since its launch, more than 700 restaurants and dozens of suppliers are active on the app in D.C.; the team is expanding into New York and beyond early this year. Very soon, buyers and sellers in the food system nationwide may get a chance to see their ingredients in a whole new light. It’s as simple as deleting voicemails and downloading an app.

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