A Food Tech Disruptor’s Response To Panorama’s Takeaway Secrets Exposed

BBC Panorama’s episode ‘Takeaway Secrets Exposed’ aired earlier this week on Monday 14 January 2019, and I watched with mixed emotion. As a startup founder in the Food Tech sector, and more importantly as someone who struggles to know where I can eat out with multiple food intolerances this subject is both extremely topical and very personal.

I want to start with the blanket negative portrayal of tech ‘disruptors’ in the food industry and feel a strong need to defend myself. I’ve founded a Food Tech startup, and could be classed as a ‘market disruptor’. I’m looking to launch a new concept in the Food Service sector and yes, I have ambitious plans. Professor Andre Spicer, Centre for Responsible Enterprise  talks of the big Tech companies disrupting the food industry –

“Their aim is to go into an existing market, kill off the competition and take over the market.”

No. The aim is to grow a successful, scaleable business. Building something from nothing  takes hard graft and determination. There will be plenty of obstacles in the way that would kill off many a business, but entrepreneurship is about finding creative ways around those obstacles. A new idea requires tough conversations and creative thinking to push boundaries and challenge established behaviour that we’ve come to accept regardless of whether that behaviour is good or bad. If you’re first to market there will be plenty of others close behind eager to replicate your success. If you don’t act fast to clinch the lion share of the market you won’t survive for very long. It’s a gamble and you have to have nerves of steel.

To get that market share you have to build the brand and raise awareness of your product. You need a hefty marketing budget to spread the word, generate interest and grow your community on and off-line. What’s more, the reality of building a tech based product is expensive. You need to keep development in-house so that you can respond quickly to consumer demand for new features and bug fix any issues. A good team of developers is costly. It takes investment, serious investment.  And to secure that investment you have to show traction. You have to prove that you’re building something that people actually want, a product that they will use.

The programme makes mention of the ‘secret’ investor brochure talking of a future where home cooking will become a hobby and everyone will be dining out. I’m not sure why ‘secret‘ was made to sound so dirty. It’s not anything underhand, raising investment is hard, and venture capital funds expect high returns. You have to keep this in context, as an entrepreneur it’s all about selling the vision of what a future state might be with your product firmly established in the market place. It’s about engaging others to mobilise, get behind your product and forge key partnerships. You’re hardly likely to produce a brochure that says it’s a pretty shitty idea that no-one is going to be interested, in a limited market with hardly any growth potential. 

But when the reporting shifted focus onto certain business practices, I don’t think what followed is tied to being a ‘disruptive’.  Andre raises questions around the flouting of loopholes, where the disruptors take an attitude of “asking for forgiveness rather than permission”. We must be careful not to confuse entrepreneurial behaviour with unethical behaviour. Unethical behaviour is not acceptable under any circumstance.

Recent media coverage of the tragic deaths of young people with food allergies has brought working practices within the Food Service industry to the fore and rightly so. There is no excuse for poor hygiene and dangerous food allergen management. There is also no excuse for an app to not accept any responsibility. 

But this is where it gets tricky. Restaurant discovery apps are positioned between the end consumer and the restaurant, acting as a silent go-between. I want to share with you my own experience to date. The TreatOut app will be a middleman too so to speak, providing a system to ease communication of menu ingredients between the two parties. Discussions with certain regulatory bodies have suggested we may be considered a food broker as we are providing information on multiple food outlets from which an end consumer can choose where to eat. Insurance companies don’t agree, but the discussion always points to the risk of a serious allergic reaction and where the responsibility will fall if there is a legal case brought forward. I suspect the insurance companies may be the driver behind the flurry of ‘may contain’ signs that have sprung up of late across the various chain outlets. In the event of a claim against a small local takeaway versus a successful tech app, insurers believe the claimant will pursue  whomever has the most money in the bank. I know when the time comes for us to shop around for business insurance it’s going to be very hard to get. 

I’ve been following the fallout across social media #allergiesnotwelcome  caused by the appearance of the ‘may contain’ notices. We all know that allergens are handled in the kitchens and we all know that there can’t ever be a guarantee. We also know who the good guys are, the ones who go above and beyond to make us feel safe and welcome. What is of great concern is the growing fear that’s escalating on both sides from the diners and food service providers alike. I worry that we’re at the tipping point where the shutters could be pulled down completely, communication stops and people with specific dietary needs are turned away. But then what?

As an early stage startup, we’re bootstrapping which basically means we are running on money from our own pockets. We haven’t yet gone for funding. In order to get that funding I need to build the next phase of the app beyond proof of concept, but without a budget I can’t afford to pay a team of developers to do that for me. I’ve had to retrain and spent the past twelve months working as a software engineer in order to gain the necessary knowledge to build the required technology myself.

So let’s go back to the issue of responsibility. Of course, it’s obvious that as a menu discovery app, we won’t be handling food. But we will be passing on data. Having spent a year immersed in the heart of the tech community at Skills Matter my eyes have been opened on what responsibilities we have in the passing on of that data.

There are plenty of restaurant discovery apps out there but do we ever stop to think about where that data actually comes from? I’ve had numerous conversations where I’ve been advised to get something out quick and make the app look busy by ‘data scraping’. Data scraping is a method by which you automate processes to collect masses of data from across the web. It’s a popular method utilised by young startups to populate their own apps with data to make it look like they already have lots of customers, the traction that investors always want to see. But where is the integrity in the data? When was it last checked and who put it there in the first place? How often is it regulated, is it even regulated? Where does ownership of that data lie? How on earth can we expect end consumers to trust that data?

The industry is busy building tech that people use to make informed choices on a daily basis. Therefore, as technologists, we have a moral obligation to make sure that we are building technology using not only the right data, but using JUST data. By ‘just’ I mean as per the definition which is

data that is based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.

I’ve written at length about this here. It is not acceptable to simply deny any responsibility for the data we put forward because it’s supplied from elsewhere. What we can do is make sure the data is provided directly from the restaurants and with it a clear undertaking by the restaurants to verify the data on a regular basis and keep that data up to date.

I think the business models are a driving factor. Spin it on its head and instead of expecting a tidy commission from the restaurants, ask for a small customer subscription. It’s still income generated for what could be perceived as little effort but think about the implications in that shifting of finance. It places the power in the hands of the end consumer. The onus is to keep the customer happy, build trust. With dependence on the restaurants as the main source of revenue removed, we can have stricter controls on which outlets we partner with as that decision process will not be financially driven. It levels the playing field for smaller independents giving better support for local communities. The app is then people driven not corporate driven.

Something needs to change and change fast in the Food Service industry before more families are hit by tragedy. But why does it take death, and not just one but many deaths before legislation changes? What does that say about our society, what price is a person’s life? I sincerely hope the conversation keeps flowing and that we start to see progress. It is really hard trying to cope with food issues and so easy to develop a negative relationship with food. Everything we do revolves around food, it’s emotive, it’s social. Turning away food sensitive diners is not the answer. Full menu transparency is, and that’s the conversation I’m pushing forward.

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