Sep 26, 2018

The Many Flavors of Food Entrepreneurialism

From Food Trucks to 3D Printing, Technology is Changing How and What We Eat
Adam Thierer Senior Research Fellow , Trace Mitchell Research Assistant

The oldest forms of innovation and entrepreneurialism involved food. Humans have long needed creativity to put their next meal on the table and, from the beginning of civilization, have sought more efficient and delicious ways to do so.

In recent decades, we have become very good at this once difficult and time-consuming task. Modern civilization has vastly reduced the rate of hunger throughout the world. A 2015 report conducted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations found that between 1990 and 2012, the number of undernourished individuals dropped from 18.6 percent of the world's population to 11.8 percent of the world's population. We were able to reduce the number of individuals suffering from undernourishment by over 180 million people, even as the world’s population increased by 1.79 billion people.

Innovation and entrepreneurship were crucial to this result. The development of more efficient farming technology, combined with new growing, distribution, and storage techniques, vastly expanded the volume and diversity of options available.  

But the challenge of feeding civilization—and feeding them more and better things—continues. Luckily, food entrepreneurialism has become a remarkably creative affair, with people and organizations constantly concocting new and interesting methods of preparing and delivering food to communities around the world.

Given the food entrepreneurialism movement’s dynamism, it can be difficult to track all of its developments. Food entrepreneurialism comes in many different flavors and understanding some of them can be helpful in analyzing this emerging field.

Historical Opposition to Food Innovation

Whenever people have experimented with new and better ways of breeding plants, critics have protested and claimed that it was a sin against God or the natural order. In his 2009 book, Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, Agricultural historian Noel Kingsbury documents how new food and plant innovations were frequently resisted when they first debuted. Similarly, Calestous Juma’s 2016 book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, recounts societal and governmental panics over food products—ranging from coffee many centuries ago to margarine in the 20th Century to contemporary concerns around genetically modified organisms.

Opposition to change can be expected any time new food innovations emerge. But Kingsbury and Juma’s histories also show that people eventually adapt, accept, and even expect these new (and once “dangerous”) food products.

Indeed, in recent decades the amount of food entrepreneurialism has been increasing at a rapid pace. From food trucks and home take-out businesses to 3D printed pizzas, entrepreneurs are constantly coming up with unique ways to help feed our growing population.

The “Cottage Food” Movement

The “cottage food” movement is composed of people who create and sell food products outside of the traditional restaurant or grocery store settings. Recently, thanks in part to developments within the sharing economy, there has been a surge in the number of entrepreneurs who prepare food at home and distribute it within their local communities. Companies like LaPiat and Meal Sharing provide an avenue for home chefs to create meals and sell them to others. Sometimes this is done through group dinners, where people can come together to enjoy a home-cooked meal, and other times through a home take-out model.

This provides a great source of revenue for individuals who are passionate about working with food but want to do so within the comfort of their home. One benefit of this model is the extremely low startup cost. Most of these entrepreneurs are able to get started using only equipment that they already own. It is also a useful option for people who have fewer alternatives to work outside of the home. Renee McGhee, a 59-year old grandmother of nine, used a food sharing website to sell homemade meals out of her house after breaking bones in both of her hands. She said, “It’s allowed me to have fun doing what I love, which is preparing meals for people.”

Regrettably, as the Institute for Justice noted in a recent report, there has been a growing attack on food freedom, with regulators seeking to impose complicated and costly permitting restrictions on many cottage food entrepreneurs. By raising the cost of running these mom-and-pop operations, regulators deny the public high-quality, hyper-local food alternatives. 

Restaurant Delivery Services

 A more prominent approach, also under the sharing economy umbrella, is restaurant delivery services. Apps like UberEats, DoorDash, and GrubHub allow users to find a local restaurant within a certain proximity, order food, and have it delivered right to their door. In addition to the obvious benefits of food delivery, it also creates a very useful alternative for people who are unable to leave their home because of prior obligations or health limitations. “All in all, whatever shape or form foodtech innovation takes,” says Sarah Finch, of Disruption, “it will be driven by consumer demand for cheaper prices, fast delivery, and high-quality food.”

Food delivery by drones could come next. Uber recently received approval from regulators to do trial deliveries in the San Diego area. This is part of the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program lead by the US Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration which partners with states and localities to experiment with the implementation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into their local airspace environments. The goal of this program is to develop a set of rules and best practices for integrating commercial drone use into different areas across the country. Unfortunately, regulatory policy for commercial drone operations in the US is moving quite slowly. The UAS pilot program is restricted to a very limited number of cases and the application process is long and complex. Meanwhile, drones are already delivering food in some parts of China.

Food Trucks

The food truck movement first took off in 2008 when Roy Choi, a famous Korean-American chef, began operating a Korean BBQ taco truck, Kogi, on the streets of Los Angeles. His idea quickly spread and non-traditional food trucks began popping up in a variety of different cities across the country. Between 2012 and 2017 the food truck industry grew at a rate of 7.3 percent per year. There are now over 4,000 food trucks operating within the United States.

Food trucks are a cheap and convenient way for consumers to get restaurant quality food without having to spend the time and money associated with sitting down at a restaurant. They allow chefs to bring their products directly to their customers and change locations depending on where they see a demand. Choi says that one of his favorite things about food trucks is the intimate experience he gets to have with his customers. “It's exhilarating! You're literally handing food to someone and you're seeing them maybe less than a foot away from you eating that food. So the feeling, the interactions, the ideas—they're instantaneous.”  

Sadly, some cities have imposed excessive restrictions on food trucks. For example, in 2016, Chicago prohibited food trucks from parking and serving customers within two hundred feet of any traditional restaurant. This restriction is blatantly anti-competitive and effectively meant that food truck operators could not serve anyone in Chicago’s famous Loop area, a prime lunchtime spot. This lead some food truck owners to end their service altogether.

3D-Printed Food

One of the most interesting and unique forms of food entrepreneurialism to emerge in recent years is the application of 3D printing technology to food preparation. For quite some time, 3D printed food was mainly focused around sugar heavy dishes and candies that provided little to no nutritional value. This all changed in 2014 when the company “Natural Machines” created the “Foodini,” a 3D printer that works with fresh ingredients without the need for additives.

As one of Natural Machines’ co-founders, Lynette Kucsma, explained “From day one we designed Foodini to work with food, and we've always designed it to work with fresh foods.” Another benefit: Foodini can produce crackers in as little as twenty seconds, and within five minutes, you can create your own personal pizza. While this technology is far from fully developed, it shows just how large an impact 3D printing could have on the future of food entrepreneurialism. Regulatory fights will undoubtedly erupt if these technologies end up providing serious competition to traditional food production techniques. Some hostility has already emerged regarding the societal and ethical implications of 3D printed food. It is only a matter of time before these precautionary concerns start to manifest themselves as calls for legislative or regulatory action.

Conclusion

So long as people want to try new and better culinary creations, food entrepreneurialism will prosper. With new technologies making it easier than ever for creative people to prepare and deliver food to us, we should expect even more food-related policy controversies to develop in coming years.

Lawmakers and regulators at all levels of government should strive to create a policy environment that values how “permissionless innovation” and bottom-up social entrepreneurialism can expand economic opportunity while also helping to diversify our diets. 

Photo credit: Elvert Barnes, Flickr

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