Check out this fascinating article in the May 12 issue of The New Yorker, “The End of Food” by Lizzie Widdicombe. In it, she explores one guy’s attempts to hack food. Specifically, the article details the story of what happened after Rob Rhinehart who, after many years as an unsuccessful app entrepreneur, decided to look at food as an engineering problem. Some of this was spurred by necessity, as he and several other friends were down to their last VC dollars and living off ramen and the McDonald’s dollar menu. Widdicome writes:
“You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” he said. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re “mostly water.” He began to think that food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive. “It just seemed like a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile,” he told me.
After coming up with the mixture that is now called Soylent—it supposedly tastes like Cream of Wheat or Metamucil—Rhinehart did what any open-source inspired entrepreneur would do: He posted his formula on the internet and let a larger community tinker with it. The short version: Thanks to lots of activity on sites like Reddit, he was able to raise over $100,000 in the first two hours of a Kickstarter campaign. The initial production was also funded by investments from venture capitalists including Y Combinator and Andreessen Horowitz.
An interesting point here is worth considering. Specifically:
“Most of people’s meals are forgotten,” [Rhinehart] told me. He imagines that, in the future, “we’ll see a separation between our meals for utility and function, and our meals for experience and socialization.” Soylent isn’t coming for our Sunday potlucks. It’s coming for our frozen quesadillas.
If you’re a QSR or a grocery brand, you should be factoring this into your scenario plans. Be honest: If your products are primarily in the ”meals for utility and function” category, Soylent or products like it could pose a problem for you. What happens to products that comprise these forgettable meals?
In NYC, it’s possible to spend at least $10/day on lunch. Factoring out two weeks of vacation, that’s $2,500 per year. Per person. Just on lunch. If, say, 50 million Americans decided Soylent was the way to go, that means there’s $1.25 billion less being spent on items like lunch meats, breads, salads, soups, Whoppers, pizza, etc.
Take it a step further. A family of four, according to USA Today, spends anywhere between $146-$289 each week on groceries. That’s roughly $600-$1,200 per month. Does Soylent cut those numbers in half?
What happens to your business if it does?
Playing the probabilities
Of course, you’d need to consider probabilities of various occurences. The likelihood that families will adopt Soylent is low, given that food for Western kids, generally speaking, needs to taste good. Unless your family’s a doomsday prepper, this suggests that significant adoption among families is probably low.
On the other hand, single adults might take to this product. The trick would be to figure out which segment and extrapolate, based on available data, the rate of adoption.
Another question: How to what extent would special meal occasions become 21st century markers of affluence or wealth?
Concerns about health and wellness have been on an upward trend over the last 40 years. Witness the rise of the organic food movement, “eat local” and the farm to table ethos. But that’s for a certain segment of the population. By and large, organic food remains expensive: There’s a reason Whole Foods is nicknamed “whole paycheck”. Widdicombe underscores this here:
But the farm-to-table ethos has essentially bypassed the working class, which is left, instead, to live with the fallout of the low-cost food industry—obesity, diabetes, and, ironically, malnutrition. . . Tim Gore, the head of food policy and climate change for Oxfam, has noted, “The main way that most people will experience climate change is through the impact on food: the food they eat, the price they pay for it, and the availability and choice that they have.”
And let’s not even talk about the poor. In a study released last year in the UK, Appetite for Change? Nutrition and the nation’s obesity crisis, Kantar Worldpanel reported that home cooked meals have declined most sharply among the poorest members of society. Price and pragmatism rule in recessionary times. While the study was confined to the UK, my sense is that the US would show similar results.
Some final considerations: What’s your future look like in a world where people reserve real, home-cooked meals for special occasions, experiences or other high-impact socializing? Is that a mark of affluence? Remember that Justin Timberlake movie, In Time, where the wealthy didn’t have to rush their meals, since they had all the time in the world?
Think about it. Soylent is shipping now.