“Part of what artists are doing is taking things that seem chaotic and organizing them through their own perspective… There’s flavors. Some things taste like s***, literally, because they are s***. Other things taste like salt. Other things are sweet. It’s chaotic. What do chefs do? They organize that. They present it to us in a way that — not only makes sense but — is desirable and lets us know about who the chef is as a person by how they chose to organize these things, what their sensibilities are.”
— Seth Rogan (21st Century Philosopher)
By now, you should know that I like to draw inspiration from world-altering ideas in literature, history, philosophy, culture, and beyond. One idea that has captivated us is the idea of the 19th-century salon.
Salons were gatherings targeted to amuse and inspire, educate, and entertain. This is a lost art worth reviving. To join one of our salons is to meet new people, discover new ideas, and have the best of times (here’s a recap of a Future Commerce Salon from Q4 2022).
To date, we’ve hosted nine Salons around the U.S. In our most recent, the conversation revolved around Archetypes, AI/ChatGPT, and human connections. The six-hour-long evening was loaded with interesting stories, conversations, a nine-course meal, and eleven wines (capped with a 2005 Chateau Lynch Bages Grand Cru Classé).
Back in our agency days, Phillip and I learned the value of sitting down with a customer over dinner. Our mentor, Mike Savino, taught us that breaking bread with someone builds the kind of relationship that can survive bumps and bruises along the way. Extravagant meals require intentionality and planning, and building our community is worth the effort.
Breaking bread reveals our true nature. It can bind people together — or it can tease out that which repels them. You find out very quickly if you want to be connected to people who are on the other side of the table.
Eating and drinking together provides the setting for the deepest possible connections between people. I’ve seen this to be true in my personal life as well, as influenced by the dinner parties of my family.
This is the best of consumption at work. Expanding, partnering, or experimenting with food and beverage is a wide-open opportunity for brands and retailers to deepen and improve their connection to customers, even if dining is not core to that brand.
Consumption is Life
Historically, I’ve never been a fan of the terms “consumption” and consumer. I found these terms to be somewhat gross. It may seem strange that I’m now extolling the virtues of consumption. “People are more than consumers. Consuming is not at the heart of commerce.”
How wrong I was.
I relent: consumption is necessary for every transaction. Humans must consume to live.
Our most essential parts of being human require consumption. Humans are, by nature, consumers. Water is the most important ingredient for life. People die without eating food. Materials are necessary to build homes and make clothing.
This might be an uncomfortable truth — we must consume to live. And it’s often very satisfying to consume. All living things participate in consumption. The creation-consumption cycle is native to our world.
Consumption is the fulfillment of transactions. A transaction is a farce without consumption. Consumption is the moment of truth of the balance of a transaction. Consumption is necessary for the identity transfer of commerce to be complete.
Both overconsumption and underconsumption are unhealthy. Consuming the wrong things is not good. But “consumer” is no longer a dirty word for me. When the right things are consumed at the right time, in the right way, in the right amount, it’s quite beautiful, or “joyous” as FC friend Dave Stickland of Popsmith put it.
Consuming is living, and — more specifically — eating and drinking are living. To go a step further, coming together with other people to eat and drink has the potential to be the best part of living.
No wonder the category has a huge TAM (total addressable market) and is receiving so much attention.
Spending on food is massive; with eating out and at home, food budgets increased to a total of $2.12 trillion in 2021.
With spending like this, it makes sense that Food & Beverage (F&B) has been tied at the hip with modern retail. We’ve seen a history of marrying categories with F&B. The drug store became a soda fountain. The hardware store became a symbol of free popcorn for young children (I can still smell it). The mall became a food court. We’ve seen the addition of non-consumable products to primarily food retail in supermarkets like Kroger’s Fred Meyer. We’ve seen the addition of food to traditionally non-consumable product retailers like Walmart, Amazon, and Target. Concepts like Costco have always incorporated F&B among their other products. Department stores like Nordstrom have added restaurants.
And yet, even with all this history, the growth in CPG continues to explode, making food and beverage more central to the eCommerce conversation.
Beverage is growing, and I’ll drink to that
Beverage, in particular, has seen traction for several new entrants: Prime, Olipop, Liquid Death, and Ghia, which are standouts — though they represent a small segment of a category that is expanding geometrically.
Pét-nat wine and aperitifs have picked up major traction among younger and new drinkers. CPG food has also seen numerous entrants, from influencer-led brands like MrBeast’s Feastables to chef and research-driven brands like Starday Foods. Whole influencer identities have launched with significant ties to food & bev such as Nate Rosen’s Express Checkout and Andrea Hernandaz’s Snaxshot.
With all this delicious action going on you might ask yourself, “why wouldn’t I get in on this?!’. The answer: it’s not easy to do well.
Selling food online is like playing on legendary mode
“Around you, on you, and in you. It's always easier to get someone to try ‘around you’. That's like aroma — something around you. It's less invasive, less intrusive, lower risk. Candles, for instance. But then ‘on you’ is a little bit more [risky]. Lotions, conditioner, shampoos, deodorant — are a little bit more personal, but you still might be willing to try something quicker than if you put it ‘in you’. This is where you're going to be very sensitive, especially of any kind of allergies or any kind of challenges with your diet. The barrier to ‘around you’ is much easier to crack, ‘on you’ is a little bit more challenging, and then ‘in you’ is the hardest to crack in terms of introducing a new brand with a whole new value proposition.”
— Jackson Jeyanayagam, Future Commerce Episode 175
Food is the “in you” category, making it the most challenging type of product. People can be hesitant to put new stuff into their body unless it’s a known type of product (something generic like coffee), it’s been recommended or picked up a reputation, or comes from a trusted brand that’s proved that they are a safe bet.
If the quality is low or not to the consumer’s taste, the odds of a second attempt are very unlikely.
Consumers are becoming more selective, as well. Gen Z is significantly more likely to pay attention to what they eat than previous generations. According to the International Food Information Council’s 2022 Food and Health Survey, “Nearly three in four Gen Zers followed a diet or eating pattern in the past year; they were also more likely to do so compared with older generations (72%, versus 51% of Gen X and 29% of Baby Boomers).”
In pre-COVID times, 60% of restaurants failed in the first year, and 80% failed in the first five years (I’ve seen a variety of numbers related to the “restaurant fail” rate, and none of them are good). We’ve seen many new entrants to the category cease operation such as Ugly, Good Wolf, Take Two, Haus, and many more.
It’s also crowded. There have been a lot of new foods and drinks that have launched in the market lately. It's easy for consumers to take a pass — especially if the products are not yummy.
Introducing a new food or bev play is incredibly risky right now.
But the benefits significantly outweigh the risks.
Food is “quantum" in nature
Food is loaded with potential outcomes, meanings, and values. To use my quantum metaphor — it has maximum “quantum potential”: its meaning, and therefore value, changes depending on when and how it’s observed and consumed.
When we eat and drink, something primal is happening — our bodies are being nourished. Daily replenishment is a satisfying rhythm that staves off negative feelings like “hanger,” upset stomach, or nervousness. Provided you don’t overeat, if you satisfy hunger or thirst there’s a level of satisfaction that descends on your body. And the food becomes you. You literally are what you eat. When experienced with other people, you are all transforming that same thing into yourselves.
But food goes beyond just satisfying our bodies. It clearly engages four of our senses, although when done with other people it engages all five — there are a lot of noises that come from the process of eating, not to mention the near-certainty of conversation spurred by the meal. It connects us to specific places, cultures, flora and fauna, time periods, and memories.
My brother-in-law, Simon is the Beverage Director and Sommelier at the Lakehouse, who we’ve collaborated with on multiple of our Salons. Simon is Scottish and remains very connected with his homeland. A couple of weeks ago we went over to his house to celebrate Burns Night, an evening dedicated to one of Scotland’s beloved poets, Robert Burns. Simon donned his kilt and recited “Address to Haggis” as we dug into haggis prepared by Simon’s friend, up-and-coming Seattle chef and butcher Kevin Smith from Beast and Cleaver (up for a 2023 James Beard award).
The evening bewitched everyone at the table, transporting us to the Scottish highlands. Those more deeply connected to Scotland were able to reminisce and share. Those who hadn’t were inspired and engaged their imaginations. Scotland was invoked through the food and the conversation that enveloped the food. The same food can be both nostalgic and exploratory, depending on the consumer.
Food is also unique because it can be incredible both up or down market — and it can even function as both “high” and “low” simultaneously.
The scene in Ratatouille where Anton Ego takes a bite of Remy’s Ratatouille and drops his pen always hits me. He’s transported back to a simple motherly, peasant comfort food while eating something highly elevated. Or similarly, in Sideways, when Miles drinks his 1961 Cheval Blanc with a fast-food burger. Sacrilege? Absolutely. But if you ever attempt this, you’ll never forget that meal. Also, the meaning of the whole experience of the 1961 Cheval Blanc would have morphed drastically had Miles enjoyed the wine with his friend, Jack, instead of drinking it in an isolating depression.
Haggis is now an ode to Scotland, but that wasn’t its original purpose. It was initially intended as a filling and tasty way to use up the less expensive meats. Now it’s iconic. Food is both ephemeral and lasting. It’s iterable. Recipes can be passed along or copied. Its meaning can change slowly over time, or very quickly between experiences. If you have a home-cooked meal or go to a boutique restaurant, it’s possible, maybe even likely, that you’ll not have that exact experience again. With CPG food and mass-chain dining, context is everything — and the meaning you ascribe to the food itself will change as the context around the food changes.
On Art and Romanticism in food
Food and drink have become an art. In fact, the only art we ingest.
Food can be romanticized, as we’ve seen through “food porn” on social media and through the numerous cooking and restaurant-focused media available like Top Chef and Chef’s Table (while The Menu so perfectly cuts to the quick of our obsession).
And there is no food media so pornographic as the mukbang, an eating show, where the host consumes various quantities of food while interacting with the audience.
We theorize that short-form media “mukbangs” are our culture’s new form of vanitas: the oil paintings of the late 16th and 17th centuries that depicted inanimate luxuries and possessions. Like oil paintings, the collections of these vanities have changed how we see food and our understanding of the nature of consumption itself. One can collect an oil painting, but you consume short-form media.
However, unlike many other art forms, such as music and fashion, the gap in experience between romanticizing food and actually eating is gigantic. Looking at a picture of food isn’t even close to consuming it, let alone consuming it with other people.
In a world where everything’s on stage at all times, food and drinks are the last and greatest haven of an in-person requirement. This sets consumables apart from all other art forms.
It’s also unique because most of humanity is participatory in its creation. Not only can anyone cook — as Ratatouille puts it — most people must at some point. Everyone has some sense of their skill level, though I would argue that not many Americans understand if they’re actually talented. Everyone has some sense of what they like and has something they can create that they personally think is delicious.
Another special attribute? Often the ingredients are products unto themselves. The art form builds upon itself. It’s multi-layered. Bread is made of wheat that is inedible unto itself, but bread is an ingredient in many recipes. Dependencies compound. This also contributes to its quantum nature, because of the many hands and places that food can touch.
This brings a built-in weight when you come to create. There’s an inherent responsibility owed to the people who came before you in the chain to do right by what you make. Not to mention nature, food comes from the earth which must be properly handled and stewarded.
Food and drinks are also highly subjective, yet they remain a category where expertise is still recognized as a legitimate authority. We place a high value on wine and dining critics. There’s even still a hierarchy to which sources we consider the most authoritative, such as Michelin vs Bon Appetit or Wine Spectator vs Wine and Spirits.
Co-consumption (i.e. eating with other people) adds another “qubit” to the value equation. If the context is right, when consumed with other people, food and drinks can be at their best. Food and drinks are all of these things at once — they’re the most quantum of all products. They can make or break an experience.
Conclusion: The Sacraments of Commerce
“As entropy increases, the universe, and all closed systems in the universe, tend naturally to deteriorate and lose their distinctiveness, to move from the least to the most probable state, from a state of organization and differentiation in which distinctions and forms exist, to a state of chaos and sameness.
In Gibbs’ universe order is least probable, chaos most probable. But while the universe as a whole, if indeed there is a whole universe, tends to run down, there are local enclaves whose direction seems opposed to that of the universe at large and in which there is a limited and temporary tendency for organization to increase. Life finds its home in some of these enclaves.”
— Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings
Consumption is core to religious tenets. In the Catholic tradition, members consume the body of Christ in the Eucharist. In Islamic tradition, members deny themselves consumption in the practice of sawm during Ramadan. Cycles of fasting and feasting are central to most major religions in the world.
Therefore, we theorize that consumption itself is a Sacrament of Commerce — that is, techniques employed by brands modeled after religious rites. These rites can be discovered (or overtly employed) by a brand as communication of who they are and identification of in-group affiliation and identity.
Our thesis at Future Commerce is that commerce connects people. It’s a connective tissue that binds us all together, even if for a moment in a fleeting and serendipitous exchange of needs and desires. But the exchange of value — the purchase, is short-form engagement.
Consumption, and especially food and beverage, is, then, a unique avenue for human connection; it is long-form engagement. Something deeper happens when we ingest, and especially when we ingest together.
Commerce is a tool that can change the world. “Breaking bread” together is a powerful tool to enact change in the world around us — commerce enables it, and the human soul longs for it.
To feed your community is to nourish them. However deep that engagement, however small your brand or low-key the setting, sharing a meal with your customers creates a deeper level of trust and understanding.
A nourished community will:
- Solidify and/or expand their understanding of what your brand is about
- Bring people together to connect on a deeper level
- Engage in both emotion and intellect
- Feel happier and more satisfied
- Create lasting memories, connected to time and place
It’s no wonder brands are increasingly giving food and bev a religious-like treatment. Done right, they can create an experience set apart - a temporary enclave of order, enjoyment, and opportunity to thrive.