Food Of The Future: Folly Or Fact?

Nic Jooste, European Market

Originally printed in the February 2018 issue of Produce Business.

When I arrived in The Netherlands in 1993, my culinary memories were filled with the color and flavor of Cape Town, my birthplace. This beautiful city can only be described as a ‘melting pot of nationalities.’ Over centuries, our indigenous population was complemented by Portuguese seafarers, Italian prisoners of war, people from the Far East who were brought to South Africa as slaves, European winemakers, German farmers who settled in the 1680s, and the English, who briefly ruled over South Africa during the late 1800s.

From my early childhood it was completely normal for my family to start the day with an English breakfast, complemented with German-style ‘bratkartoffeln’ (potatoes and fried onions), and a French croissant. Lunch might be fish and chips from the Portuguese café. Dinner often was ‘bobotie,’ a fragrant and spicy meat dish with strong Asian origins.

My surprise was huge when I arrived in The Netherlands and was introduced to the Dutch culinary landscape. Breakfast was bread with cheese, lunch was bread with cheese, and dinner was as predictable as the weather was unpredictable, built around potatoes and one type of vegetable. A nondescript piece of meat sometimes appeared. The routine of eating was just as predictable: the potatoes and vegetable were squashed with a fork (‘prakken’ in Dutch), the meat was cut into small pieces, gravy was poured all over it, and within 30 minutes dinner (including dishwashing) was finished. How I missed the languid, drawn-out South African meals filled with lots of talking and socializing.

At that time, (1993-1996), the bulk of the fresh produce at Dutch retail stores was taken up by potatoes and traditional vegetables, such as carrots, cauliflower and broccoli. One had to search far and wide for a pineapple, mango or avocado. ‘Convenience’ in fresh produce did not exist.

So what has happened since 1993? Today, Dutch supermarkets are brimming with Mexican, Italian, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Asian, African and Turkish items. The fresh produce section is filled with convenience items, such as ready-made salads and meals, fresh juices, artisanal smoothies, tapenades and hummus. … The list is endless.

Obviously we can ascribe this partly to the fading away of borders within the European Union. A steady stream of expats moving into our small country brings an influx of new consumer demands. The ease of travel has resulted in the eating habits of Dutch citizens becoming a lot more adventurous. Holidays in Vietnam, Namibia, Peru and Iceland have ‘normalized’ the consumption of exotic dishes. The effect of the migration of people from other continents must not be underestimated. My new hometown has Abyssinian, Kazakhstani and Syrian restaurants.

The Dutch culinary landscape has changed completely in 25 years. But what about the future? What other changes and surprises can we expect in the world of food, specifically fresh produce?

Cool Fresh International’s recent research project (a thesis executed by Mathieu Hirdes, a student who was in the process of graduating in commercial economics) shows that if we thought that the past 20 years have brought a lot of changes, we will be blown away by those coming at us with the power of a runaway freight train.

This charge is being led by Generation Z — consumers born between the mid-1990s and 2000. They are somewhere between 17 and 21 and are unknowingly shaping “the future of food.” They have an expendable income of USD 44 billion, and they influence family spending to the tune of USD 600 billion. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Sustainability and healthy living are keys for them, yet their buying behavior is based on ‘I want it all and I want it now.’ Online ordering and instant delivery are making it possible for them to get instant gratification.

I see a picture of a fish taco, a pepperoni pizza, or a quinoa salad. I decide that I want it. I order it, and I am able to enjoy the meal within 30 minutes. All while swiping through thousands of pages of information on my smartphone at breakneck speed every day.
Until recently, people needed to move physically between countries in order for culinary habits to be transferred. Generation Z on the other hand effortlessly moves around in their digital world, visiting various countries daily, and forming new eating habits without EVER having been to a country. The world is indeed their oyster …

Whilst the sales of fresh produce at retail level is stagnant or declining, our research shows that Generation Z is probably consuming more fresh produce than any other generation. They just consume it as part of a new culinary landscape, supplied by an ever-changing logistics apparatus that caters to every whim. The supply chain is going after this hungrily: already we have gone from old-style pizza delivery scooters to personalized, hip delivery on environment-friendly bicycles. Next up: food delivery by drone. Laugh if you like, but it is on its way.

So where does this leave the ‘traditional’ importers and suppliers of fresh produce who are used to moving volumes, not thinking where our produce ends up? If we place all our eggs in the retail basket, we will wake up one day and realize with a shock that we have become irrelevant to the food chain at best, and maybe even obsolete at worst. Our position could be taken over by small-scale service providers who understand the need to move really fast, and that quality, innovation and creativity (and not quantity) will decide who gets the deal.

For this reason, Cool Fresh International is involved in the ‘Food For The Future’ project of the Rotterdam City Council. The Rotterdam Food Cluster is supported by more than 8,000 local businesses that are united to strengthen the position of the Dutch trendsetting food sector into being the most innovative and sustainable food region in the world. In May, we will host a 24-hour marathon brainstorming session for 150 ‘bright young minds’ that will identify challenges fresh produce companies face and create fitting solutions. Not by consultants in plush offices, but the target group (Generation Z) themselves. Watch this space.