What’s Cooking in the Kitchen of the Future Melanie Zanoza Bartelme | December 2015, Volume 69, No.12

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Convenience and Control in the Kitchen
According to Consumer Trends 2015 data from market research firm Mintel, Chicago, “smart devices—from watches to ceiling fans—appeal to consumers because they save time and money, as well as promise convenience and control … what’s changing is that this ever-growing Internet of Things is no longer the domain of start-ups—major players are now embracing the trend and raising consumer confidence in it.” The report finds that 40% of consumers would like to buy technology products that easily connect to products they already have, with 59% of U.S. consumers showing interest in using apps or websites to control their home (Mintel 2015). And according to Euromonitor International, 10% of consumers are willing to pay more for appliances with connected functionality (Euromonitor 2015).

“As the ever-evolving Internet of Things continues to experience widespread adoption, one of the areas in the smart home that is expected to see the greatest change over the next decade is, indeed, the kitchen,” says Pavel Marceux, technology, communications, and media specialist with Euromonitor International. “According to a recent trade report, the result of this burgeoning technology will make way for a US$10.1 billion smart kitchen market by 2020. The study found that out of all connected kitchen appliances, many consumers favor fridges that will allow them to monitor food inventory with their smartphone.” Indeed, 14% of U.S. consumers say they would pay more for a refrigerator with a built-in computer to keep inventory, suggest recipes, and perform other tasks (Mintel 2015).

Keurig-enabled GE fridgeThe Port Washington, N.Y.–based NPD Group writes in its Kitchen Audit that nearly a quarter of consumers already own coffee pod machines like Keurig (NPD 2014), and GE Appliances, Louisville, Ky., even released a fridge with a Keurig built right into the door. Beginning now and stretching into the future, consumers will grow to expect this level of convenience from all of their kitchen appliances. Technologies from several companies already allow consumers to control parts of their kitchen from anywhere via their mobile devices: GE’s Wi-Fi-enabled Brillion technology lets consumers preheat their ovens while they’re pulling into the garage and alerts them when the timer is going off.

Programmable appliances like these, which are also available from appliance makers such as Wolf, enable consumers to begin their cooking and walk away, giving them the freedom to get dinner going while also letting them take advantage of this new free time to relax or accomplish other tasks. The company’s M series ovens offer 10 cooking modes via an LCD touchscreen control panel. In addition, “The new Gourmet mode includes a menu of preset options that help guide users through the cooking process of commonly prepared foods, including temperature and rack placement, eliminating any guesswork,” says Doug Swank, Wolf’s vice-president of design engineering. Consumers can also multitask as they cook: Whirlpool, Benton Harbor, Mich., designed a cook space that also includes a touchscreen display, letting users browse the Internet for recipes, instructional videos, or new emails while they prepare their meals.

Consumers can also take advantage of the technology in their kitchens to shop for groceries: Amazon’s Dash Buttons already allow consumers to easily and remotely reorder staples of such products as Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Larabars, and Instacart promises grocery deliveries in just an hour; according to Mintel, 18% of U.S. adults who shop online weekly use an automatic reorder service from retailers for regular shipments of items that they replenish frequently, and 35% of U.S. adults are doing more of their shopping on the Internet than before (Mintel 2015).

This convenience will also be found in the kitchens of tomorrow, quite likely facilitated through the refrigerator, where technology may allow the appliances to actively monitor their contents and reorder when it senses supplies are running low, at least according to researchers from the University of Central Lancashire and Ocado; they also envision a fridge that uses nanoarticulated technology to move products that are near their expiration dates closer to the front (Daily Mail 2010). In GE’s Home of 2025 project, smart appliances will perform inventory management and automatically place orders for food, and refrigeration units outside the front door will enable these deliveries to stay cold until consumers come home.

As more and more consumers eventually adopt these technologies, the way they shop will likely change. Even now, shoppers are doing more small-basket shops every day rather than planning a whole week’s meals, says Melissa Abbott, vice-president, Hartman Retainer Services, for The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. Manufacturers that make their products easily available online and in more convenient locations will enjoy brand loyalty from busy consumers, and manufacturers should consider alternative ways to promote their brands apart from in-store marketing, which some of these consumers might never even see.

“We are a nation that cooks with an index finger,” writes Kim Severson in The New York Times, and just like now, many consumers will still turn to the microwave over the next decade—even if the way that the technology inside the microwave changes. “To create this one-button food,” Severson adds, “appliance makers and food manufacturers have to work together” to drive designs, as well as the nature of the food itself (Severson 2010); according to Abbott, whose group studies how consumers interact with their kitchens, people are still using their microwaves. They’re just turning to foods from brands they consider “healthier,” like Evol, Lyfe Kitchen, and so on, that don’t use preservatives.

To ensure their foods’ place in the microwaves of tomorrow, manufacturers may wish to identify ways to create more frozen and packaged foods that consumers won’t feel bad about microwaving, either as the whole meal or as a side that can accompany something they’ve created from scratch. Companies might also want to focus on taking advantage of packaging opportunities to make cooking microwavable foods safer and easier.

TrueCookPlus technology, which is already available in some microwaves, includes codes that allow consumers to microwave foods more accurately; by inputting just a few numbers, consumers can take the guesswork out of cooking direction ranges and ensure that their food is cooked to a safe temperature and tastes the best that it can. In addition, packaging that uses thermochromatic ink, such as the “hot” indicator found on Hungry Jack microwavable syrup bottles, lets users know when the syrup is heated, says Claire Koelsch Sand, president of packaging consulting firm Packaging Technology and Research and an adjunct professor at Michigan State University. There is also a need for other indicators that could communicate foods’ doneness, she adds; possible applications include cook-in-the-bag meals and vegetables. Extending these kinds of technology into a range of food types could continue to make microwave cooking even more simple for consumers.

In the future, the microwave might not be a microwave exactly per se. There are a range of appliances in the works that will be capable of heating food quickly and conveniently—while offering other benefits. For example, Freescale’s Sage solid-state radio frequency oven would use radio frequency (RF) emitters instead of the magnetrons in microwaves; could control the cycles, locations, and levels of cooking energy; and may even be able to detect doneness. It would also include a convection heating element, eliminating the need for packaging tools such as the susceptor technology that is currently used in the crisping sleeves that brown Hot Pockets and microwave pizzas (Perlow 2015).