Alejandro Enamorado is the capital, innovation & engagement senior manager at food waste non-profit ReFED. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AgFunderNews.
The foodservice industry is ripe for implementing food waste solutions since there are meaningful enough volumes to provide scale for solutions that would otherwise be too expensive for small businesses.
ReFED estimates that the foodservice sector (including restaurants, cafeterias, and prepared food) generates more than 13 million tons of surplus food each year. Customers in foodservice settings expect a variety and quality of food to be available – and in the case of fast-food restaurants and other businesses with similar formats, customers expect it as soon as they place their order.
Difficulty in forecasting demand can lead to food going to waste, as currently point-of-sale and inventory software in foodservice settings does not track detailed consumption data for the back-of-house to know how much to prepare each day. This leads to overproduction, leaving businesses with surplus food on hand at the end of service.
There are multiple solutions currently addressing these problems. Foodservice has typically gravitated toward solutions that measure food waste – the likes of Leanpath, Winnow, Orbisk, Phood, and KITRO all weigh waste using varying amounts of hardware along with some level of input (manual or AI-enabled imaging) to identify the food being wasted.
A new option comes from Metafoodx, which is offering an AI-powered service for combating food waste in the foodservice industry by taking this type of data and providing recommendations for production. The Metafoodx platform includes a data analytics cloud and accompanying tracking devices that live inside the foodservice operation.
The system measures consumption by portion and by menu item using 3D AI cameras – called Food Sensor by Metafoodx – that perform the tasks of food layout tracking, menu item recognition, and real-time portion consumption. The cameras only passively watch over the food serving containers without privacy concerns, which is supplemented by a camera-scale combination to calibrate the density of a new food item. The same food sensors monitor food levels in serving containers and automatically generate refill alerts to the kitchen staff. The solution comes with an AI-powered cloud service that analyzes consumption trends to provide recommendations for production planning, price inflation, and menu preference trends.
The information can be used to predict how much more – or less – food needs to be made, as well as for menu planning. It also helps in preparation of just-in-time batches, reducing overproduction and increasing freshness. Within four weeks of implementation, the tool can tell a chef where to appropriately adjust their output and processes. This solution is built for mid- to large-sized foodservice operations such as universities, casinos, cruise lines, resorts, hotels, and corporate cafeterias. Citing their data from a small college, the company claims that implementing it can result in an ongoing return on investment of 10 times, with a payback period of less than a week.
Metafoodx recently raised a $3 million seed round from 421 Capital, DayDayCook, the GFM Food Tech Accelerator, and other venture funders, friends and family. New capital will go toward building out product features to allow for a kitchen environment to optimize their production planning using an evidence-based, consumption-data driven approach.
At the same time, the company plans to increase marketing efforts and expand its on-the-ground forces to start and support more pilots that are in their pipeline.
Since March 2023, Metafoodx has been in their trialing phase, running five active trials, one in contract, and 15+ university and corporate cafeterias in waiting. College dining operators have embraced Metafoodx’s solution with high expectations. One executive chef at Pomona College commented, “Using Metafoodx was a wake-up call for us and helped our restaurants to limit our overproduction and waste.” Another dining facility executive in a Silicon Valley university is counting on Metafoodx to help university foodservice achieve all sustainability goals on food waste.
There have been other fulsome solutions (e.g., inventory management, ordering, invoicing, etc.) that have targeted small-to-medium sized businesses. Most of the companies behind them haven’t directly focused on waste but rather prevent waste as an additional benefit. But importantly, there is a lot more opportunity for impact, as the largest portion of surplus food in foodservice settings – approximately 70% – comes from plate waste due to customers being overserved rather than from the actual operations of the business.
Metafoodx’s seed round speaks to the opportunity ahead of it, as it embarks on further partnerships, adding to their product roadmap based on what they have learned from current customers, and with hiring to help implement on the ground.