The Future of Buying Food

Last month at the La Cocina Food + Entrepreneurship Conference I moderated a discussion on the Future of Buying Food. We gathered together a panel featuring reps from two models of online grocery shopping, the culinary director of a local good food market, a buyer and product scouter for Whole Foods, and a rancher. The conversation covered a range of topics, with quite a bit of focus on the online/brick and mortar divide. There were arguments for convenience, community, and education from both sides, each arguing that their particular business model was best suited to deliver the ideal customer experience. And while both sides certainly have valid points, by the end of it, I was left wondering why the general business model really even matters. As one audience member pointed out, many people – particularly customers of these higher end food purveyors – patronize many different establishments for many different reasons. Here in San Francisco they might visit Bi-Rite one day, Whole Foods another, the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, and order online via instacart, GoodEggs, Farmigo, or something else on another day. Despite what they might think, these different business models are not competing to be the one way that everyone does their grocery shopping in the future. Different stores suit different needs, different moods, different desired experiences. I find it just as absurd that everyone will do all of their grocery shopping online in the near future, as the claim that not everyone will do at least some grocery shopping online in the near future.

Now is the part where I address the proverbial elephant. Hello, elephant, thanks for joining us.

Right, that’s done. But honestly, there is a major issue here, and it’s that the businesses I’m talking about are only affordable to a certain small percentage of the population. There is, of course, an argument to be made that innovation needs to happen where there are more resources, more room for wiggling and experimenting, before applying it to the greater system, but the issue remains, at least for now, that the best food – and I don’t mean rare imported cheeses, or other luxury goods, but quality, wholesome food – food that is what we think it is – can only be accessed by a very limited number of people.

Kevin, the rancher on the panel, spent a good amount of time defending the prices on his (presumably) delicious and high quality meat. I only insert the presumably because I’ve never actually tasted it, but I will take his word for it. But Kevin also gives his pigs free range of a blackberry forest where they can forage and snack and trot about and roll around and live like the porcine 1%. Which is fantastic. And amazing. And certainly not cheap. I am not going to question his meat prices, because I know there are inputs and labor costs and other price driving factors that are not visible to the average consumer, and profit margins for agriculture are incredibly slim.

But in the end, we’re never going to feed the world on blackberry-foraging pigs. Yes, we should eat less meat, and yes we should pay more for it, but we need to find a middle ground that increases the quality of the meat – and everything else – that remains affordable to the majority of the population.

And that’s the system I wonder about, that’s the future that needs to be determined.

But how does a grocery store afford the increased costs that come with improved quality, and still keep their prices affordable? Does a tiered system make sense? Where a company offers premium, blackberry-fed pigs in their higher end store to help subsidize the pork that doesn’t come from a CAFO, but also probably doesn’t have the opportunity to forage for berries in its spare time? Pork that’s good enough – healthy, not environmentally harmful, humanely raised – but not the best?  Because in the end, none of this really matters if the raw product is tasteless, unhealthy, and/or harmful to the environment.

On the panel, I asked about responsibility – whose responsibility is it to ensure that good food is winding up in our stomachs? Is it the producer’s responsibility to raise good food, the purveyor’s responsibility to source and guarantee a quality product, or the consumer’s to demand it? Yes, in some respects it is not one group’s responsibility, it is the responsibility of the public to care about what they eat, the store to give them access to it, and the producer to, well, produce it. Why should a producer bother pursuing a more labor intensive and expensive product if the public isn’t clamoring for it? But, isn’t the producer the expert? Isn’t that why we have experts? They have the information on the past, the present, and the future of their industry. They know what they are putting into our food, and into our water, and into our atmosphere. How can we have an efficient food production system if we as consumers cannot blindly trust the source? That seems a bit outrageous – blind trust – but the fact is we have a segmented economy, and in order for it to work effectively, we have to assume that the party responsible for each aspect of it is doing the best that they can, and in the best interest of the greater population. Otherwise everyone would grow their own food, build their own cars, sew their own clothing.

But that’s not the future of buying food. Nor is sometimes ordering online and sometimes going to the store. That’s just the present of buying food. We need human interaction and conscious decision making just as much as we need convenience. The only thing that needs to change is the quality of what we buy, not where we buy it. And so what we need is not more ways to buy food, but the opportunity to buy better food from the businesses that are already selling it.

So maybe I was wrong earlier. Maybe the burden isn’t on the producers, but actually on the purveyors. It’s on the purveyors to develop a model that is not offering a new gimmick or feature to differentiate themselves – to be more convenient, or more local, or more educational, or more expensive, or less expensive, or more specific, or more general – but instead, to develop a model that lets them source real food, good food, at affordable prices.

Stay tuned as I try and figure that one out.

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2 comments

  1. I’ve figured it out. Chipotle. Sorry I had to. But here you have an economically successful, highly convenient, conscientious, scalable (to a certain extent) and delicious/high quality food. All of those factors obviously not being absolute but I think relatively true compared to the food supplier/purveyor/consumer landscape it exists in. Ok- hope that’s not too obnoxious, but I do think their model has some larger food lessons buried in it.

  2. Chipotle does have a good model – I’ve never denied that! But I’m talking about grocery stores here – do you propose that everyone just eats at Chipotle for every meal every day (which I guess doesn’t sound too terrible to you..). Not to mention their current price structure is certainly inaccessible to many.

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