Would consumers be more likely to pick products off supermarket shelves if they knew they'd like the food before tasting it? Could identifying favorite flavors make planning meals more efficient?
Such questions led the founders of Baltimore-based Vivanda to create what they bill as the first technology to digitize taste.
The result of research and development that got its start at Sparks-based spice maker McCormick & Co. resulted in a product called FlavorPrint, a "digital fingerprint" for any food, recipe or person designed to reflect taste and texture in a standardized way.
The technology, which Vivanda is offering to customers in the food and beverage industry, analyzes millions of data points to match foods with a person's flavor profile.
Thanks to a strategic partnership announced last week with software giant SAP, the food technology startup expects to move to the next level. The German company, which already has a dominant presence in that food industry, announced last week that it would invest an undisclosed amount in Vivanda, and the two companies will collaborate to offer FlavorPrint to SAP's consumer food and beverage customers.
The partners hope to make the product a food industry standard, starting first with food manufacturers and moving on to retailers.
Before Vivanda spun off from McCormick nearly two years ago, the spice maker saw FlavorPrint as an online tool for consumers. But the manufacturer and employees who had worked on the project since about 2010 agreed the tool could have broader applications.
Those employees, including Jerry Wolfe, McCormick's former chief information officer and vice president of connected commerce, and two of his colleagues, left the company and in December 2014 moved into a converted firehouse on Morton Street in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood and formed Vivanda.
"We realized that what we were on to had applications for the entirety of the food industry," said Wolfe, now Vivanda's CEO.
Besides SAP, McCormick and a New York-based private investor group have contributed to Vivanda's total $4 million in funding. A spokesman for McCormick, which is one of FlavorPrint's customers, declined to comment.
Before FlavorPrint, nothing like a visual representation of an individual's taste profile has existed, said E.J. Kenney, senior vice president for consumer products industry business solutions at SAP.
"It digitizes the one thing that matters the most in food, and that's taste," Kenney said. In the food industry, "there's no way to digitally represent what a given food or packaged food tastes like. Being able to represent what they taste like digitally does not exist."
FlavorPrint looks like a color wheel of sorts representing 33 flavors, determined by 16,000 aroma chemicals, nine textures and rankings of flavor intensity. The product develops individual profiles after a consumer takes a quiz or searches for recipes.
Wolfe's own flavor profile is defined as "Garlic/Onionish" and "Coffee/Chocolatey." Co-founder Oli Fuchs, the company's chief administrative officer, has a "Citrusy," "Herby" profile, while co-founder Matt Corish, vice president, has a "Cheesy"-"Heat" profile.
The flavor profile enables food makers or retailers to make recommendations for food, recipes or ingredients and use the data to create or modify products and customize assortments at stores.
"FlavorPrint has the power to determine that if you like hazelnuts, you'll love aged Gouda cheese," a video on the FlavorPrint website says. "If you'd fancy a black coffee, it may be smoked brisket you're craving. Think of it as a totally customized lens through which to experience the world of food."
The company has grown from one customer — McCormick — to five, including manufacturers, food retailers and recipe sites, which it can't disclose because they are testing the technology.
FlavorPrint could be the next generation of programs such as loyalty or club cards at supermarkets, which retailers use to track spending habits, said Jeremy Diamond, a director of Diamond Marketing Group, a Baltimore-based food retail consulting firm.
"The grocery industry has been trying different methods for decades to figure out the buying habits of their customers," Diamond said. "Now, with millennials … retailers are trying to figure out 'What do millennials want?'"
FlavorPrint "is going to do an even more pinpointed job of seeing what the shoppers are buying and what their eating habits are," he said. "There's always a few chains that try it out first, then it catches on. It will be interesting to see if it becomes the norm.
"The end result is to increase sales," Diamond said. "If this helps increase sales, it should take off."
One food retailing expert is unconvinced.
When it comes to tools such as FlavorPrint, "it's a great advertising and marketing tool for a brand," said Phil Lempert, a food industry analyst and editor of SupermarketGuru.com. "How good or bad it is for the consumer and how accurate it is another story."
Consumers today are looking for different attributes in their food — taste as well as health, transparency and sustainability, he said.
"I think we can give enough credit to people to understand what they like and don't like," Lempert said. "People like the adventurousness of food, of trying new foods."
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Vivanda executives argue that their technology promotes being adventurous, by nudging people to try something they might not have otherwise.
The company's roots date to 2011, when Wolfe took on additional responsibilities at McCormick in connected commerce to come up with innovations as consumers were beginning to use technology to find recipes, plan meals and buy food. He and others developed FlavorPrint based on food science and culinary research, including research showing that food choices are driven more by taste than by value or health.
Consumers who used FlavorPrint on McCormick's website ended up buying more products than those who didn't use the service, he said.
"What these companies are looking to do, if they can create a more personalized experience for you, they have a much higher probability of influencing the choices you make," Wolfe said.
Now, said Fuchs, only about 5 percent of food marketing is well-targeted.
"We really see enormous potential between Vivanda and SAP," said SAP's Kenney. "It goes at the heart of what food manufacturers are looking for … but ultimately what consumers are looking for in going after more flavorful foods."