Friday night dinner with family in his mother’s kitchen is a cherished routine for Alon Chen, but not long ago the former Google executive began noticing an interesting pattern developing in the lead-up to each weekly gathering.
“Even though it’s the same dozen of us going, every week my mom used to go into the WhatsApp group and ask: What are the new dietary requirements?” said Chen. This observation served as the jumping-off point for the creation of Tastewise, an AI-powered platform that uses computer learning to predict food trends.
Chen and co-founder Eyal Gaon imagined that the questions ahead of his family’s Shabbat dinners were likely playing out at dinner tables around the world and, being the digital age, they figured there was some data out there they could test their theory against.
But after consulting with experts in the food industry, from executives at well-known restaurant chains to the owner of his local pizzeria, Chen realized there was a large gap between consumers who wished to keep up with the latest food trends and the companies whose jobs it was to be meeting those demands — for healthier or vegan food, for example.
“I learned the phenomenon of what I like to call the hyper-culinary consciousness is really disrupting the [food] industry,” he said during a phone interview with The Times of Israel. “But it has become extremely difficult for companies to keep their finger on that pulse.”
This gap, he said, is ultimately what gave rise to Tastewise, a website that aims to help food brands and restaurateurs or anyone interested in food trends to keep abreast of developments.
While there are many examples of food trend-spotting tools, be they paid or free (Instagram even has a section dedicated to scouring the latest foodie trends, with hashtags like #forkyeah or #foodstagram generating some of the more popular snaps), Tastewise is gearing up to set itself apart from the competition by offering an analysis that synthesizes data from social media, the largest data set of restaurant menus, and over a million online recipes.
“We created a platform that basically goes out there and analyzes billions of food data points, that gives us a good understanding of what are people eating and what will they be eating,” said Chen.
The AI technology is trained to read and register the changes made in over 150,000 restaurant menus in the US, and when it combines that information with real-life interactions on social media, it is able to, as Chen puts it, find “the next sriracha” — the ubiquitous hot sauce made from a paste of chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt.
So what is it?
It’s a condiment long popular in Israel called zhoug, made with hot peppers, garlic, cilantro and cumin seed, explained Chen, who himself is a self-described sriracha addict. He predicted this Yemeni paste might come to dethrone the iconic red rooster sauce, as the Tastewise platform tracked a 3.52% growth in restaurant penetration and a 129% increase in social media mentions in the past year.
“It’s sugar-free, made with 100% natural ingredients and it’s easy to make at home and it’s really a great fix for any clean diet,” said Chen, which led him to address another one of his platform’s abilities: spotting dietary trends in specific regions and highlighting missed opportunities.
For instance, the report published from the Tastewise findings for 2019 indicated there was a large unmet demand for hand-crafted, artisan food in San Antonio, Texas, that was valued to be worth $362 million. Having this data available, said Chen, would help not only entrepreneurs who want to open a new business, but also people who were seeking certain unavailable products.
Chen and partner Gaon will be offering full access to the Tastewise platform at a premium subscription service of $299 a month, but they say some of the data will be available for free.
Often, Chen pointed out, great technology is kept behind closed doors or is only affordable for large corporations.“We made sure that we go in a different direction and we’re going to make it affordable and free in some cases,” he said.
“This way, if you’re an entrepreneur dreaming of really making this beautiful experience, you can at least get a little bit of data to build out your business plans and maybe avoid a close-down after a couple of months.”
Other trends spotted by the Tastewise platform that they suspect will be big in 2019 include foods like ube, a purple yam that’s similar in taste to a sweet potato, but gives dishes — especially ice cream — an instantly Instagrammable look by treating it with pops of plum and violet. And restaurant hopping, which is, as the name suggests, the activity of going to different restaurants for each course of a meal, was picked up as being one of the hot trends to look out for in 2019.
The seed funding for Tastewise came from Israeli-American PICO Partners, a venture capital firm that invested an initial $1.5 million.