I once participated in a think tank with Nestlé developing products alongside several James Beard Award-winning chefs, restauranters, food writers, and leaders in the culinary world. Nestlé held a couple of these every year and shared with us where they looked for trends to emerge in food and beverage. They said San Francisco is normally seven to ten years ahead on food and beverage trends, New York is about five years ahead, LA is about three years and Boston is about five years behind. I found this fascinating and upon a recent trip to San Francisco, I found it to be true.
San Franciso is an expensive city attached to Silicon Valley and a slew of incredible universities. This is home to the most innovative tech companies in the country. This combination of affluence, intelligence, and pioneering spirit handed down from Manifest Destiny to the Gold Rush led to the type of environment suited for forward, independent thinking. The fact that California is also an agricultural leader attracts great chefs which has created a culture of culinary exploration and expression that is unmatched in the US.
The second I walk off the airplane at SFO the difference in technology and culture hit me right in the face. First, the airport is beautiful in design with seating that includes upholstered armchairs and padded rack seating supported with ambient lighting in the vein of a mid-century library. Continuing with the library motif, SFO is a quiet airport, so it doesn’t feel stressful.
On my way out of SFO, I pass by at least three art exhibits and a permanent museum. Finally, I am met with my first robot of the trip, Café X the robot arm barista. The arm dances and waves and occasionally makes coffee. Making my way into the city I am passed by multiple self-driving cars that are still in test mode as evidenced by the presence of a physical yet ineffectual driver.
Just as I am about to cross the sidewalk from the car to the hotel I am cut off by a delivery-bot that looks like a dorm refrigerator zooming by on four wheels. I have stepped into the future.
The refreshing part is that along with this technology comes a culture of people that are truly integrating a green attitude into their daily lives. I was not able to find one plastic bottle of water during my trip. Instead, I could only purchase aluminum reusable bottles which were easily refilled at stations throughout the city. Plastic bags were not available and almost all food packaging was compostable.
Most refreshing of all is that no matter how advanced the tech is in San Francisco, the artisans and craftspeople in the kitchen and at the roastery continue to march to their own beat. As much technology and innovation are integrated into the city and even its coffee the human touch remains very prominent. Café X was the first robot coffee I have had and yet it was clear that the people of SF still prized handmade things. The cafes were bustling, and the baristas were still grinding on demand and hand-tamping their way through the line. Perhaps there is a balance to be struck between automation convenience and human skill and service. We just need to build a culture that respects both.