The Fancy Food Show in Las Vegas notwithstanding, a sleepy week in the food production world gave leading voices the opportunity to discuss the industry’s evolving strategies:

  • Employers ramped up tech in the workforce.
  • CPG brands changed up flavors as foodservice regained some footing.
  • Unions and regulators stepped up for workers.

“Physical menus aren’t just back. They have more personality than ever.”

Priya Krishna, Tanya Sichynsky and Umi Syam (The New York Times)

Tech This Out!

From the checkout aisle to cheese yields, artificial intelligence (AI) continues to capture headlines and drive discussion. But good-old-fashioned, non-intelligent robots still command attention too.

  • Supermarket News described an AI-based system for self-checkout designed to reduce shrink. “The new tech uses computer vision to detect whether shoppers deliberately fail to scan an item, accidentally add an item without scanning, use false barcodes, or scan only one of several items.” The system can also guess shopper age to streamline the carding process for alcohol purchases.
  • Technology company Ever.Ag’s descriptively named program Cheese Yield Optimization uses AI at the plant level to optimize production while “supporting the dairy industry’s move towards more sustainable and profitable practices” (Supermarket Perimeter).
  • A study conducted by Avery Dennison (yes, the labelmakers) found that Generation Z shoppers are likely to switch their preference to stores with self-checkout options (Progressive Grocer). Those Gen Z shoppers never make eye contact either.
  • Nation’s Restaurant News’ Tech Tracker suggested that AI tech is taking on a more conversational approach. Think enhanced drive-thru tech and chatty robot bartenders.
  • Barn Owl Precision Agriculture won the American Farm Bureau Federation’s prestigious Ag Innovation Challenge. The company makes robots that plant crops, control weeds and collect soil samples.

Our Takeaway: As the food production workforce becomes more complicated (see below) and tenuous, the industry will continue to seek solutions less reliant on fully human labor.

Never a Dull Moment

Food and beverage trends never stop evolving. Pizza may stay popular forever, but toppings create endless opportunities for innovation. Here’s what industry insiders say is going on at retail and foodservice channels:

  • The Specialty Food Association (SFA) identified snacks, sustainability, breakfast and peaches as top trends at its annual Winter Fancy Foods Show on January 21 to 23.
  • Food Business News’ take on the Fancy Food Show captured SFA VP Denise Purcell’s optimism: “Consumers have more retail channels in which to purchase specialty foods, foodservice is rebounding, and makers are innovating with sourcing, ingredients and promotion.”
  • Foodservice Director covered a study conducted by Sodexo and Harris Interactive that found “a gap between aspirations and behaviors” around sustainability claims. “Americans prioritize price first, then taste.”
  • A Pizza Hut study concluded that pizza consumption is here to stay, and flagged peppers as the hottest trend in toppings. Another interesting finding: “More people in New Mexico prefer deep dish than in Illinois (21%, compared to 17%).
  • The National Milk Producers Federation celebrated a 6.7% growth in lactose-free milk sales in 2023. The rising popularity  — and plummeting almond milk sales — mean the digestively accommodating milk product is now the leading alternative.
  • Heather Haddon and Patrick Thomas of The Wall Street Journal highlighted chicken as the trending ingredient on restaurant menus.
  • Meanwhile, The New York Times food team reviewed physical menus, finding that bright colors and small fonts are rising in popularity. Why can’t “readability” be trendy?
  • Doubling down on a foodservice renaissance, The Hustle on January 25 proclaimed, “After a tough few years for the industry, restaurants might finally be catching a break.”

Proletariat Pressures

Intensity around worker pay and unionization continued to ramp up across the food, beverage and agriculture industries.

  • The Supreme Court is getting involved in the fight over unionizing at Starbucks | NPR
  • What grocers need to know about labor rules: webinar key takeaways | National Grocers Association
  • Grubhub agrees to pay $3.5 million in Massachusetts lawsuit over ‘unlawful’ pandemic-era fees | Nation’s Restaurant News
  • How we’re responding to Seattle’s new delivery laws | DoorDash
  • Trader Joe’s shuttered NYC wine store to snuff out union drive, workers say | CBS News
  • Union membership grew by 139,000 in 2023, thanks to worker wins | AFL-CIO
  • Walmart increases pay for store managers | NACS

Our Takeaway: With the broader labor market still tight, companies will have to fight harder to keep employees in food production. However, tables could turn under a less union-friendly U.S. president.

Worth Reading

Food Gets Inked

There are countless ways for brands to leave a lasting impression on customers and industry professionals. Eater covered how the growing popularity of flash tattoos at food pop-ups and industry events creates unique opportunities for enthusiasts to commemorate their brand affinities, personal stories and undying love for food. At least, for the few days of a trade convention.


Science Daily detailed how researchers have used DNA from 9,700 year-old chewing resin to identify different types of food consumed by humans throughout the Middle Stone Age. The findings highlighted nutrient-rich resources, including meat, trout and hazelnuts. In addition to unearthing similarities to our modern-day fare, the results indicated that maintaining dental hygiene back then was a challenge. No, we’re not surprised.

Livin’ la Vita Coco

Can you name the beverage brand created by two friends who overcame supply chain issues, fluctuating consumer trends and competition from industry giants to stake their claim in a $674 million product category? Did the headline give it away? Food Dive shared the inspiring 20-year history of Vita Coco and how the coconut water company has persevered through innovation, product development and new market penetration.

Feel-good Fettuccini

As though consumers need another reason to order pasta, Food & Wine reported how the staple of Italian cuisine may positively impact our state of mind. Findings from a study conducted by Italian researchers indicate that eating pasta generates positive emotions more effectively than music or sporting events. While only 40% of the participants categorized pasta as a comfort food, their physical and neurological responses to pasta consumption suggest that its beneficial effects may be underestimated — or underappreciated.

Artificially Illustrated
Couple enjoying fancy foods
This week, exhibitors at the Winter Fancy Food Show hope what happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas.
Credit: Midjourney illustration by Ryan Smith