Full-on flavor

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Future is the overarching theme of this issue. When I think about what’s in store for retail, my mind is drawn to future technology that will shape our industry, forward-thinking designs that will change the shape of apparel and how the look and feel of stores is likely to morph in the years to come.

That might explain why I was so drawn to a session entitled “The Future of Food (and Flavor)” held at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in late October. Food and flavor will transform in the months and years to come, but how?

Blue Hill chef and co-owner Dan Barber says flavor is the future, and he’s on a quest to change people’s thinking about producing and eating healthy food. Barber, who is also the cofounder of a new seed company called Row 7, described what he called “the fallacy of flavor” that exists today. He explained that produce and grain breeders focus on key tenets such as uniformity, ease of growth and water absorption. Conspicuously absent: nutrients and flavor.

Barber used butternut squash to drive home the point. He noted that 80 percent of the squash market is made up of butternut squash — yet he asserts that “it’s 75 percent water, and it doesn’t taste good.” (Full disclosure — I’ve always been a fan of butternut squash; I like it roasted with some seasonings and served as a side, over a salad or pureed into a soup.) Still, the more he shared about a new squash he developed with a breeder and seed specialist, the more intrigued I became.

Named “Robin’s Koginut” squash, the new variety is about 6 inches in diameter and thus a 15 to 20 percent smaller yield than a traditional butternut squash, yet is reported to leapfrog the familiar variety when it comes to flavor and nutrition.

Barber’s mission dovetailed with that of Sweetgreen co-founder Nic Jammet, who joined him on the Fast Company panel. “We want to make [healthy]food just as craveable as processed food. That comes down to flavor,” Jammet said, noting that he and the Sweetgreen team are inspired by Barber’s work.

Jammet believes peoples’ attitudes are changing from feeling as though they need to eat healthy food to wanting to eat it because it’s both good for you and it tastes great. “Ten years ago, it was cool for people to walk down the street with fast food,” recalls Jammet. “Today, that’s changed.” He maintains that flavor is the compelling factor — on a par with health and nutrition.

It goes a long way toward explaining why Sweetgreen (which first worked with Barber back in 2014) ordered 100,000 Robin’s Koginut squash seeds before Row 7 even launched and planted them at six farms across the country. On November 1, the Koginut Squash Bowl by Dan Barber debuted on the Sweetgreen menu. The two men hope by introducing it to the mass market, they can ensure flavor doesn’t only sit in high-end restaurants but instead becomes an everyday pleasure. And Jammet hopes to create as much hype and excitement around the new squash “drop” as Adidas and Nike do when they launch a new sneaker.

If the future of food is flavorful, nutritious and accessible — I’m in.

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