In recent years food has become a worldwide cultural obsession – mouthwatering dishes are posted on Instagram, fantastic birthday cakes are displayed on YouTube and star chefs appear on TV every evening. The numerous new lifestyle trends are gradually turning all of us into foodies. Our tastes and culinary preferences are also changing faster than ever before and more people are trying out new and different diets - whether for their health, fashion or conscience.
“Before every Friday night dinner my mother would ask in the family’s WhatsApp group, ‘what’s your fad of the week?’ And every week there’d be someone avoiding carbohydrates and another not touching beef,” says Alon Chen, co-founder and CEO of Tastewise.
“If my family in Holon changes its nutrition preferences weekly, how do the food companies deal with these changes?”
The startup Chen set up with Eyal Gaon connects the dots of this culinary story and turns them into graphs: Tastewise takes big data – information gathered from the web consisting of billions of pictures of food and drinks, recipes and menus – and creates mathematical models predicting consumer preferences.
The information gathered is enormous. For example, a little over 1 percent of restaurants in the United States serve dishes classified as Israeli. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s tens of thousands of restaurants – twice as many as two years ago. The most popular dishes consist of local classics like chopped salad, falafel and shakshuka, as well as a rather surprising dish – Creamy Couscous Mac & Cheese.
Based in the center of Tel Aviv, the company currently boasts more than 30 clients, including some of the world’s largest food manufacturers. They are changing the way they decide what products to make with the help of big data companies like Tastewise. For such companies, some of which sell a billion products a day, every decision is high stakes.
Chen and Gaon started the company some three years ago. They both learned to code independently, at a young age. Gaon was chief technology officer in in Tapuz, a website poplar in Israel during the early 2000s, what Chen calls “Israel’s first big data.” Chen joined Google in 2006 as head of the search quality in Hebrew and stayed there for nine years.
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“Very quickly I understood that I liked the business and marketing part better,” says Chen, who was later appointed vice CEO of marketing in Google Israel and built Google’s first advertising partners program.
Digesting big data
“Everyone here says they’re hungry all the time,” Chen says about his company’s employees. The firm has about 30 workers in Israel and two in the U.S., and is now moving into bigger offices.
“Until today only two employees have left,” says Chen proudly, noting that each candidate is carefully selected in six or seven interviews by various team members. “We have more than 10 open positions. Despite the difficulty in finding talent, we take into consideration that recruitment is always the most important decision we’ll make.”
Chen says it takes the large food companies eight to 12 months to come out with a new product. How does a company decide whether to produce spirulina corn flakes or chipotle chips?
“Once they had only market surveys, consumer surveys and focus groups to go by. This is a prolonged process based on a relatively small sample of a few hundred people. Tastewise uses billions of pieces of information obtained from tens of millions of people.”
The company analyses consumer behavior and trends, helping the food companies to understand where the consumer wind is blowing. The relevant people in each company can search the site for the solutions they seek for their products. For example, a company interested in producing a new fruit yogurt can search in the appropriate category according to a certain diet and nutrition requirements, choose a texture and find that the hottest trend in fruit today is passion fruit. It can also see how this is reflected in menus, recipes and on social networks.
“Consumers’ food needs are more complex today. They are aware of what’s good for them and deal with eating a lot. Accordingly, the field requires being more attentive to the client,” says Chen.
Apart from billions of pictures on the web, the company also analyses recipes and menus. “We analyze 100 million dishes from U.S. and U.K menus every week. It helps us to understand the dynamic aspect of food - what transfers from one menu to another, what chefs copy from each other and how they took one dish and made it into something else. Once an average restaurant’s menu was updated every six months. Now menus are updated once every three weeks. Consumers are looking for seasonal foods, for the dish of the day.”
Tastewise’s algorithm gathers millions of menus and examines which ones were shared on social media. That’s how it knows and keeps track of home-cooking trends. The companies use this information when offering new menus to clients.
The company has raised $7.5 million so far, among others from Pico Partners and the PeakBridge Fund that specializes in food-tech. Asked if the company is profitable already, Chen says: “we’re still building the innovative technology and investing in our system. But we’re recruiting clients faster than we expected.”
“On the basis of the data, we’re heading in a healthier direction,” he added.
It isn’t every day that a small almost unknown company from Tel Aviv receives a compliment from the CEO of a giant global company: “With partners for digital transformation like Tastewise, we’re able to provide innovation that surprises and pleases the consumers, creating more smiles with every bite and sip,” PepsiCo CEO Ramon Laguarta wrote on LinkedIn a few weeks ago.
It’s hard to overlook the cynicism of this comment, made by the head of a giant concern that produces leading brands like Pepsi, Doritos, Fritos and Cheetos. After all, these munchies and sweetened drinks cause indisputable damage to the consumers’ health.
However, with Tastewise, PepsiCo developed a new snack that has become a hit in Britain. It’s vegan, not fried and combines rice and seaweed. The company understood years ago that consumers would look for healthier products and since then has been working to manufacture them.
Another very successful product developed with Tastewise’s help is golden chicken with apricots, produced by Nestle’s prepared meals company Freshly.
Does Tastewise have a moral dilemma working with the food industry’s large concerns?
“A critical question we ask ourselves all the time is what we’re helping to produce in the world. One thing we do is reflect the human need, we don’t invent the need,” says Chen.
“We are very fortunate that consumers all over the world have changed their views and expect the food companies to make food that is better for one’s health, better for the environment and less abusive to animals. Regardless of what category we look at, that’s what the data says.”