When food meets social: inside a foodie generation

New tools, new communities, new influences, new economies. While the food industry has never been so powerful, yet fragmented, new gastronomic landscapes are taking shape thanks to digital innovations. Curious about what’s cooking? Here’s a roundup à la carte.  

Gen Z is changing the food industry 

Compared to previous generations, Zs are much more health conscious and have developed a passion for cooking and creative dishes in such a way that, according to a semi-annual report published by Piper Sandler last spring, food has even become THE priority expense for this generation, which devotes 23% of its income to it.

Surprising? It shouldn’t be, according to David Portalatin, vice president of market research firm NPD. While food remains a vital need, young Zs have the particularity of being born "into the world of foodie culture," analyses the expert. "They have the potential to be, perhaps, the most influential generation we've ever seen in terms of food and consumer behavior," he says. Eased by the internet, these neo food addicts have developed an international culinary culture, sprinkled with different influences. The result: budding gourmets with a passion for colorful experiential cuisine and new flavors, determined to set their taste buds on fire by unleashing traditional recipes.

This evolution of tastes is also giving rise to new uses. While a third of Gen Z declares not to have any religion - according to a Pew Research report - and the uncertainties induced by the crisis tend to reinforce alternative spiritual practices. TikTok is seeing, for example, its communities grow around "Kitchen Witches." On the social network, these modern-day food witches are increasingly publishing recipes to "protect our minds" or "heal our souls," generating over 72 million views on the eponymous hashtag.

In this context - and even more so when magic comes into play ;) - it's not always easy for the legacy players in the food industry to satisfy the ferocious appetite of these new generations in terms of creativity. However, many DTC brands have seen the light and are exploring the field of possibilities. Functional food with probiotics or adaptogens, funnier, healthier, more original products... even the most basic ingredients are literally being transformed. Gone are the days of sipping coffee casually! From now on, it can be enjoyed as a martini, spread like jam or even take the form of a frozen capsule that dissolves in water. Even the classic espresso has been enhanced with a few drops of spicy sauce to spice up the Arabica, a gastronomic twist that is gradually infiltrating the entire sector.

EATertainment, please! 

You've always been told not to play with food? Well, today it's quite the opposite. Just as retailtainment injects life into retail, eatertainment adds a pinch of entertainment to the marketing and communication strategies of food labels and fast-foods to build customer loyalty and rapport. See for yourself: 

  • In Canada, Heinz ketchup, partnered with Waze and Burger King to reward users stuck in traffic jams - hence driving slowly - just like its slow-pouring condiment. 

  • KFC has just launched "The Great Bucket Hunt," an augmented reality mobile adventure game that allows fans of the brand to win food, sports equipment and culinary experiences.

  • Liquid Death, a canned water whose tagline is "murder your thirst," recently announced the launch of a 45-minute horror movie, selling tickets to access to a livestream and exclusive merchandising.

This same playful flavor also extends to loyalty programs. Far from the classic discounts and other free products, it is now about creating real brand experiences. For example, the Truly brand - which offers hard seltzer - has launched a program called "Truly Punch Your Summer" to win a year's worth of drinks. The initiative is based on a digital punch card. To receive a punch point, participants must take part in designated activities, such as a karaoke session or a visit to a new location. For each mission completed, with video or photo evidence, players receive a Truly goodie and are automatically entered into the Grand Prize draw where five winners will receive a gift card worth $1,000 towards a year's supply of Truly Punch. 

Associating a slice of fun to brand equity: this is the way to create an emotional attachment and generate particularly dynamic User Generated Content. But this quest for entertainment is not limited to food brands, since online food games are popping up like wildfire, surfing on the social, intergenerational and comforting bond that is specific to food.

  • In Nainai's Recipe, you learn to cook with your "grandmother" while chatting in a comfortable and relaxed environment. Emotions guaranteed. 

  • Venba is a narrative cooking game in which the player embodies an Indian mother who immigrated to Canada with her family in the 80s. Players get to cook various dishes and restore lost recipes, while exploring stories about the family. 

  • Nour is a "no-goal " game that allows the player to interactively explore the aesthetics of twenty or so "edible vignettes." A bowl of ramen, a meat grinder, a glass of boba tea, a toaster... Here, food comes to life. Special mention is needed for the lo-fi soundtrack that echoes the food videos on YouTube that often include ASMR. Never has the vision of a chocolate mixture swirling under a spatula been so hypnotic as in this example already viewed by five million people.

  • In Soup Pot, an upcoming game for Xbox Series X|S and PC, players will cook traditional Filipino recipes while livestreaming through an integrated social network called Cookbook, a fusion of genres that's quite unique.

  • "Discover, learn and master the art of homebrewing in the ultimate celebration of craft beer." Such is the promise of Brewmaster. "From perfecting authentic, chemistry-based brewing techniques to naming, bottling and labeling, hone your craft to become the ultimate brewmaster in the first-ever realistic beer brewing experience." Grab your (virtual) kegs!

  • A final example? In NYU Brew Crew, a cozy iOS game launching soon, you run a coffee shop, make drinks for your customers and develop quality relationships with each of them. 

Foodie communities are getting creative 

While players such as Tasty, Tastemade or Chefclub have been ruling the world of social media for several years now with their bite-sized videos of comfort food recipes and progressively diversifying (merchandising, VOD etc.) tomorrow they could be faced with a new kind of competition, one that is increasingly fragmented, and extremely creative. 

This past year, we've witnessed the rise of companies like Virtual Dining Concepts specializing in the creation of dark “people” restaurants. The American YouTuber MrBeast - with 64.3 million subscribers - used Virtual Dining Concepts to deploy some 300 ghost restaurants distributing his range of burgers overnight. Just a few hours after the launch, the application crashed due to the overload of orders. A juicy business with a potential revenue estimated at 300 million dollars. Impressive, right? However, this isn’t just about leveraging the communities of some macro influencers. Other variations exist and are on the rise, such as Shef, which has just raised $20 million. The concept? One of your neighbors, an amateur chef, cooks for you. Literally, micro-influence on a plate.

The acceleration of the Creator Economy is actively contributing to the rise of new food stars. Thanks to a wide range of dedicated services, such as FoodTryb, it has never been easier for food lovers who are successful on social networks to go pro and monetize their products and/or their audiences. In other words, it’s no longer about passively consuming content, but about empowering people to start and run their own businesses. 

Among the other community initiatives empowering creators, let's mention Food Supply, which intends to gather a devoted community of food addicts. Amongst the killer features:  a hotline to get personalized recommendations or a community recipe book where you "upvote," Reddit-style, people’s recipes submissions from YouTube, Instagram or TikTok.

Demi, in addition to helping creators monetize their culinary talents through their respective communities, offers emotional experiences such as the possibility to leave an interactive love letter to your favorite restaurant, bar, café or pastry shop. Also worth mentioning here are Delli and Stove, two other start-ups that attest to the effervescence of this sector. Food is love, food is life

And it doesn't stop there. Farmers, butchers, grocers... Many individuals and artisans in the food industry are feeding the ranks of influence, even more so since technology has reached a sufficient level of maturity to value the stories behind our food. Say hello to the food blockchain! Based on transparency, it allows users to recreate a direct link between producers and consumers, to generate trust and, in the process, to open the door to new forms of interactive storytelling. Farmer Connect, for example, is a Swiss start-up that aims to guarantee the traceability of agricultural products - coffee, tea, spices - and facilitate the connection between consumers and farmers. How do they achieve this? With their Farmer Connect software based on the IBM Blockchain Transparent Supply solution, and their Thank My Farmer web application. In practice, this solution makes it possible to trace the origin and quality of products, but also support farmers financially. An initiative that is far from being isolated, as shown by this example of the Kahawa brand, distributed within the Trader Joe’s chain.

In the long run, this storytelling could go even further: why not offer ongoing farmer livestreams? This is a successful model in China, after all. Imagine the ability to attend the harvest, to interact with the farmers... And why not immortalize these key moments with NFT? Considering the success of NBA Top Shop, which offers to collect the most important actions from NBA games, we could imagine a similar model in the food industry. Could we soon see NFTs around key moments on a farm or in the kitchens of star chefs?

Social Networks… Social Commerce?  

Until now, "food" and "social" have been closely associated with Instagram and even YouTube. Now, TikTok is leading the way with, among other things, its recipes, which were voted for by millennials in a recent survey of trends in the sector. Times are changing: no mention of Instagram or YouTube in this ranking... On the other hand, if you take a good look at the Google searches related to food on TikTok, they are at an all-time high compared to other social platforms. So, take a look at the image below, put together using the Mangools SEO tool. 

As early as 2016, "Instagram Cake" triggered about 3,000 monthly searches on Google, reaching almost 9,000 queries in May 2021. Over the same period, from 2016 to 2021, "Youtube Cake" follows roughly the same curve, peaking at 13,000 searches. Now, if we look at the same search with TikTok, it has been appearing in Google searches for only one year ... and exponentially, generating between seven to ten times more queries, with, depending on the month, up to 100,000 monthly searches! If you dig further, “TikTok Feta pasta” was searched for over 300,000 times in February 2021, and that’s without counting all the other long-tail keyword searches. 

Is TikTok the new boss of food social networks? In any case, Gen Z's favorite network has understood that it is necessary to build loyalty among its foodies and is working to offer them more dedicated services. An example of this? With the launch of TikTok Jump, mini-apps embedded in videos, users who follow accounts that post cooking videos can now save recipes directly into the Whisk app, a digital cookbook. It's likely that other food related features will follow as partnerships between the platform's influencers and restaurant owners are picking up steam. However, it should be noted that the network remains a generalist channel that will face fierce competition, especially from specialized players. The speed at which these vertical competitors are multiplying (the main players are listed below) is also illustrative: all these apps have been launched in the past 18 months.

However, a question arises: at a time when communities are nurturing strong bonds to help food creators better monetize their talents (see Demi, FoodTryb or Food Supply mentioned earlier), is the "traditional" social network model still relevant? Indeed, newcomers that are more about social commerce than social networks are on the rise. Their particularities? They start from the transaction and usage to add a social layer. Another strong point: instead of offering an always-on model that we generally consume endlessly and that feeds our mental load, these players target a specific moment of our day. In short, this category of players has the opportunity to drastically change the food landscape. 

You may have heard of Snackpass? This social commerce app that allows you to order ahead at restaurants has won over students on major college campuses, often boasting a 75 percent penetration rate amongst students within six months. While companies like GrubHub, UberEats, and DoorDash focused on making it easy to order food from anywhere, Snackpass set itself apart through its loyalty program. Indeed, orders placed via the app allow the user to earn rewards, but also allow them to offer those rewards to another friend in their network so that they can use them in the same restaurant. A viral loop is triggered, encouraging users to order dishes on the same platform to help each other earn rewards. In addition, the application has a social feed where it is possible to see the gifting activity in their network. This clever "social and viral flywheel" is the central element, the key to success. 

Could this model work in the grocery industry? Some players are already positioning themselves in their own way in this niche.

  • US startup Jupiter specializes in food delivery and meal planning. Last May, it announced the launch of its integrated social network. It features communities centered on food preferences - Keto, Paleo, Vegan, etc. - as well as features such as the ability to see what other people are cooking, or recipes selected by culinary influencers like Cilantro Parsley or Uncle Mitch Cooks.

  • Focusing more on direct sales than supermarket distribution, Tend connects farmers and consumers in the UK. The startup also intends to add a social layer to the transaction by offering livestreams from the farms, chefs' recipes and a group buying feature that is reminiscent of one of Pinduoduo's flagship features which is a hit in China. As a reminder: Pinduoduo recently surpassed Alibaba as the shopping site with the most customers and connects 12 million farmers with over 800 million users.

  • Dent Reality wants to redefine the supermarket shopping experience by bringing the benefits of online shopping to the physical store through augmented reality, helping users find the products they like and offering new shopping experiences. The startup is in its early stages, but we can easily imagine an upgraded version with a very gamified social mode. Will every food shopping trip eventually turn into a treasure hunt? That's one of the avenues being explored by Walmart, which in early July brought the "Hidden World of Waffles + Mochi" series to life with QR codes scattered around their supermarket, allowing young users to discover games, recipes and excerpts from the series.

Rethinking Business Models 

At a time when ghost stores are multiplying with the tempting promise of delivering everyday products in less than 10 minutes, certain traditional players in the retail and restaurant industry are playing on the ancestral social sense of belonging to reinvent their business model. We are thus witnessing four basic trends all based on the subscription model

  • "Amazon Primification": the users essentially pay to save time, which in itself is already a social plus. We are talking mainly about home delivery services such as BlueApron or Homechef.  

  • "Gain access": The user buys an "economic benefit," giving them access to preferential rates throughout the year. A model that was pioneered by Costco, but which has been widely digitized on Gen Z verticals: for example, snacks and adaptogens from Naturebox, organic and local products from Thrive Market or Kazidomi in France. 

  • "Private club": We are moving from the purchase of a simple "food" commodity to a privileged experience, such as access to private sessions with chefs at Table 22 or private tastings of great wines in the Vinovest deal club. 

  • "Invite only": Some players are taking the trend a step further by taking cues from SaaS applications and waiting lists to gain access to a beta. Move, for example, opens its access to a limited number of people on specific dates. Or Cometeer, which uses this launch strategy to give everyone access to the best coffee in the world. This is when food wants to be (supposedly) really social! 

Whatever the model used, the lever is indeed that of social belonging which allows users to have or experience something that non-members do not have the access to.  So, if the subscription model seems to be the golden goose for many actors, what about the much-decried subscription fatigue? No need to worry! According to Terry Nguyen from Vox, we are only at the beginning of this societal transformation where subscriptions can take on a community approach beyond the utilitarian and replenishment approach, and thus become true emotional purchases. 

As you can see, the opportunities surrounding food are like an all-you-can-eat buffet where existing and emerging players pick and choose to create original, ever finer combinations at the crossroads of communities, social networks and social commerce. 

We spend over 60 hours a year grocery shopping, and, quite frankly, it’s an experience that can be described as boring. So, now is the moment to take advantage of this "available shopping cart time" to bring in more social experiences. 

Now is the time to make restaurant discovery truly distinctive, triggering a viral loop beyond just photos and geolocation.  

Now is the time to empower food creators to unleash their creativity and build brands with their communities.   

If you also think that it’s an exciting space and you are currently building a food related social network or social commerce app, please do get in touch, I’d love to chat with you.


This article is co-written with Pascaline Bertaux.

Thanks to Thomas Owadenko, Patrick Kerven and Fawzi Itani for reading a draft version and providing helpful suggestions.