I felt like pizza the other day — not an uncommon occurrence for me. Back in the ancient BC days (before COVID), my wife and I would hoof it over to our favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant — a 12-minute walk (or four minute drive). But instead of going to that restaurant, I ordered a pizza on my “Best Food Trucks” app and picked it up from the food truck parked about a 10-minute drive away.
My experience isn’t unique. Things have changed in how food and beverage is discovered, purchased, delivered, prepared and consumed. The key to investing in the COVID and post-pandemic periods is to find startups whose business models embrace these emerging trends. Luckily, there are plenty of startups out there doing just that.
Change is taking place across the board. But it’s the discovery bucket that fascinates me the most. It’s a huge consumer trend that goes way beyond food. From houses to blouses, technology — like AI and machine learning — is changing how we discover what we love and what aligns best with our tastes and values.
While discovery is a problem we have as consumers, it’s a massive opportunity for businesses — especially the smaller and less known ones — to reach customers on a more personal and personalized level. A tiny startup called Jetson AI (a company in our First Stage Investor portfolio) is doing both. It’s developed technology to facilitate voice orders between customers and businesses via voice assistant tools like Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Customers can more easily and naturally explore a business’s menu or catalog of products. And because the technology enables the voice assistant to remember all previous conversations with the customer, it learns their likes and dislikes. Though small and just beginning to grow, Jetson has more than 10,000 restaurants in its system today.
There’s no segment of the food and beverage market where innovative approaches to discovery are making a bigger impact than in wine. It’s taken me decades of hit-and-miss drinking to discover my favorite wines! That’s why I’m a big fan of two First Stage Investor portfolio companies that remove a lot of that guesswork. They use AI to make it a lot easier for consumers to find the wine they love. Yahyn is one of those companies. The direct-to-consumer startup focuses on key taste variables. The more wine you buy, the better it’s able to hone in on the bottles you’d enjoy the most.
The other company is Winc — one of my favorites in the First Stage Investor portfolio. Winc is an innovative wine club company… but the kind of wine club you’ve probably never seen before. It collects data from its hundreds of thousands of customers and uses that data to make wines its customers love. It creates about 120 new wines a year. Since its launch in 2011, it has grown at an average annual compound rate of 92%. As a crowdfunder, I don’t have to choose between these two standouts. I like them both. And a $76.7 billion wine market that can’t go digital fast enough allows both companies to co-exist and thrive.
COVID has brought what would have been more distant future trends into the here and now. The digital infrastructure and technology that supports more personal and personalized approaches to online discovery will continue to advance post-COVID. Startups will be a big part of that. And they’ll bring exciting innovations to other aspects of the food and beverage industry as it pivots to a digital landscape. Smart early investors will have plenty more opportunities to invest in this rapidly evolving industry.