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Software is eating the food world

Mike Elgan | Jan. 3, 2017
Put down that lab-grown meat burger and slimy Soylent shake. Silicon Valley has a better idea than freaky fake food.

This approach uses software to transform a junk food scenario -- pizza delivery -- into a quality-food scenario. Zume plans to expand beyond Silicon Valley and go national, then global in the years ahead.

Workplace junk food is also being disrupted in Silicon Valley.

The disruption of vending machines

Snack vending machines are everywhere. Here's how they work. A vending machine company makes a deal with a company that wants to provide snacks to employees. The vending company sends a person around every week or every few weeks to re-stock the machine with items bought at wholesale, collects the money (which is split with the business owner) and makes sure the machine is working properly.

Any food placed into an old-school vending machine must be durable. It has to survive for weeks at unpredictable temperatures, and also survive the drop when selected. That's why vending machine food tends to be non-fresh, unhealthy junk food.

With most vending machines, there are two or three items that are most popular and other items that might be selected as a second or third choice only after the favorite item runs out. The vending company has no idea.

Stocking vending machines is up to the driver, who sometimes stock them to get rid of stuff. For example, if certain items never sell in one location, the items might be moved to another machine in another location.

Vending machines are fast and convenient, but offer low-quality food at high prices. They also tend to offer snack foods, rather than meals -- chips, candy bars, cookies and maybe snack cakes, nuts and gum. Because vending machines are so convenient, they encourage employees to eat snacks instead of meals.

Silicon Valley is starting to disrupt the vending machine industry. A San Rafael, Calif., startup called Byte Foods, wants to turn the industry on its head.

Byte "vends" out of "smart" refrigerators. Currently, the company is operating hundreds of these devices at workplaces, as well as hospitals, gyms and apartment complexes.

Each food item is tagged with an RFID chip, which the refrigerator can detect. You swipe a credit or debit card to open the fridge. When the door is closed, whatever is missing is charged to your card.

Byte Foods offers locally sourced foods. They sell beverages, sandwiches, burritos, soups and salads. The company focuses on premium, high-quality, often organic food you might find at a Whole Foods Market or similar stores, but at generally lower prices than the store sells them. (Suppliers include Mixt Greens, SF Soup Co, Blue Bottle, Rustic Bakery and others.)

The magic happens with the data they collect and what they do with that data, according to Lee Mokri, who founded the company with his wife Megan.


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