The San Francisco Bay Area’s tech industry has yet to meet a human function that wasn’t in need of innovation, it seems, with loads of venture capital — enough, in some cases, to feed a small nation — going toward disrupting what we put in our mouths. As we look back on the decade, here are some of local food tech’s biggest hits and misses. (And, don’t worry, there’s a follow-up coming on delivery apps and meal services. Stay tuned!)
As the decade comes to a close, Eater San Francisco is taking a look back at some of the trends that defined the local food scene — for better, and for worse.
The race to make the best fake meat and dairy
When the decade began, “fake meat” — at least in the West — largely meant tofu hot dogs, gummy faux chicken, and “garden burger” patties made of compressed soy, gluten, or both. Beyond Meat, an LA-based company buoyed by a sizable investment by Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, entered the field early in the decade with the then-innovative message that by eschewing animal consumption, greenhouse gas issues can be reduced. SF-based Impossible Foods also entered the fray, and arguably stole the spotlight by making deals with fast food brands like Burger King and White Castle. Meanwhile, Hampton Creek — also an SF-based company — pushed hard on a replacement for mayonnaise and eggs. That company (which rebranded as “Just”) might make the entire fake race moot, as it’s currently awaiting USDA and FDA approval for a real but fake meat — cultured in a lab with biopsied animal cells — that just might end up ruling them all.
Just up the street from the Mission District’s Tartine Manufactory, there’s a mural-covered building with a door that reads “keep clear for Juicero deliveries.” These days, there’s always a car parked in front of that door, as Juicero, a venture capital funded juicer company that offered a $700 product that squeezed drinks from a bag, died back in 2017. The company had, somehow, managed to score $120 million in investments from brain trusts like Google Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and was felled when a Bloomberg reporter pointed out that squeezing the proprietary pulp packet with one’s hands got the same result as using the juicer.
Restaurants enslaved robots
People who prefer that their food be made by automatons are in luck in the Bay Area, as clean robots replaced filthy humanity at coffee shops, burger spots, pizza places, and more. Creator, a restaurant that offers fresh-ground burgers for $6, even merited the praise of SF Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho, saying that the bot’s food was “satisfying and affordable enough that I’d keep going back for lunch.” Even better, none of these restaurant employees feel remorse, or fear. And they absolutely will not stop, ever.
Soylent tried to replace food
Soylent founder Rob Reinhart launched his meal replacement out of a Tenderloin apartment, crowdfunding the company and eventually pulling in at least $72 million in venture capital. The slurry (a drink that Reinhart claimed provides all the nutrients a body needs) quickly became a favorite of tech company workers suffering from crippling decision fatigue when it came to the problem of choosing what to eat. Then there was a 2,800-word manifesto Reinhart penned as part of Soylent 2.0’s launch, a wave of illnesses reportedly brought on by the product, and Rhinehart’s abrupt ouster in 2017. The product is now available for purchase at 7-Eleven and Walmart, but its purchase numbers remain unknown.
A quinoa automat stumbled
Founded by a consortium that includes former Google exec David Friedberg, Eatsa launched in San Francisco in 2015 with promises of quinoa or rice dishes served sans staff. Instead, visitors to its Rincon Center storefront would swipe their cards at a touch screen, and a drawer would open with the order, just like the automats of yore. The so-called “future of restaurants” began to crumble in 2017, saying that overconfident growth required several closures. Its last locations, both in SF, closed last summer, leaving behind a reported $24,000 in unpaid rent.