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Who’s afraid of the smart kitchen?

It’s 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, and you’ve just gotten a notification on your phone. It’s a list of three recipes, all featuring mint. You bought a bunch of the herb a few days ago, and the sensors in your fridge have sent out an alert that it won’t be long before it goes bad. You chose the chicken recipe with mint pesto, and go back to answering that email from your boss. Even though you don’t have the flageolet beans on hand that the recipe calls for, you’ll get a delivery from your local grocery within the next couple hours.

It’s the dream of the smart kitchen, and these were all ideas discussed at this week’s Smart Kitchen Summit in Seattle. The summit brought together designers, CEOs, and leaders in the kitchen space, all of whom see the potential to simplify lives, reduce waste, and help people make better decisions about what they eat. While the end result is meant to be seamless and intuitive, it’s still a new space and there have been bumps along the way. How many people do you know who have a connected coffee maker?

Photo credit: Digital Trends / Jenny McGrath

Photo credit: Digital Trends / Jenny McGrath

“Habits are hard to change,” said Steve Joseph, president of Dacor. The company makes smart ovens with voice-recognition technology, but in this case, he was talking about something less futuristic: pure convection. It’s a technology that only 30 percent of its customers have embraced, though it cooks food faster and more evenly. It wasn’t surprising to many speakers that consumers have been slow to embrace a smarter kitchen.

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“People are not going to go looking for the smart kitchen,” said Madhuri Eunni, founder and CEO of SKE Labs, which makes the Neo, a smart jar that helps you keep track of what’s in your pantry. The key, she says, is to create an experience so intuitive, users don’t even necessarily realize the product is smart. “An 80-year-old guy now looks at a smartphone now and thinks that’s the natural way to talk to and keep in touch with his grandchildren,” she says. “They don’t think that it’s a smartphone; they think that it’s a way to keep in touch with their grandchildren.”

But new products for the smart kitchen are coming fast and thick, and they’re not all winners. Many people might see a benefit, but the cost is too high. Others might make the investment and find the experience is clunky and more difficult than the “dumb” solution. “My concern is, in these early stages in the infancy of the smart kitchen, if some of the bigger products that go out there give consumers poor experiences, they’ll be turned off to the whole smart kitchen, as a whole ecosystem,” said Steve Cho, connectivity program manager for Electrolux North America.  

Mr.-Coffee-Smart-Coffeemaker-Wemo-mem-4“The consumer expectations around the word ‘smart’ are gigantic,” says Peter Taylor, WeMo’s head of global product management. “People like Apple added $750 worth of technology in a phone in your pocket and called it a smartphone, and so your expectations around the word smart are extremely high. … There aren’t going to be many Crock-Pots selling at $750.” Instead of calling it smart or connected, potential users might understand exactly what they’re getting themselves into if connectivity is advertised merely as an additional feature. This is a Crock-Pot; it makes you chili, and you can check to make sure you turned it off when you’re not at home.

Another problem is that with everyone getting into the space, there are competing platforms and protocols. Even if you want everything in your kitchen to talk to each other, there’s not necessarily a guarantee that it will. “Kayak has been very successful at creating a consumer experience that is agnostic to the airline,” said Alejandro Pena, president of Jarden, which manufactures and distributes a number of brands like Crock-Pot and Mr. Coffee. “Who’s going to be the Kayak of the kitchen?” Right now, there’s a lot of onus on consumers to set up everything themselves and ensure this product works with that. To really be proficient in the smart kitchen, you need to know how do more than prepare meals; you have to execute If-This-Then-That recipes.

SideChef appThat’s two hurdles for people to overcome, the complicated technology and the challenge of cooking. “One of the biggest search terms on Google around cooking is ‘How do I know when water is boiling?’” says Kevin Yu of recipe app SideChef. He says his company is focused on being a sort of Cooking for Dummies, giving people detailed instructions and videos but letting them “level up” to new techniques as they get more proficient in the kitchen. It’s one example of smarter technology is helping novice chefs, but it’s only one slice of the pie.

There seemed to be some differences in opinion when it came to putting smart technology in existing tools, like a connected Crock-Pot. For some, it’s a good start, while other speakers think it’s not enough to dramatically change the kitchen. “What I’m not seeing and makes me somewhat, I suppose, sad, is there’s not a lot of innovation in tools that make the impossible possible, where you’re now able to something in the kitchen that your mother couldn’t do, your grandmother couldn’t do, your great-grandmother couldn’t do,” said Chris Young of ChefSteps. “You want to have tools that are unrecognizable to people from 100 years ago and enable the future of cooking.” Lamenting that there hasn’t been a really new of cooking that’s been adopted by the mainstream since the microwave, he admits that sous vide has that potential.

And while Young thinks more actual chefs need to get involved in designing these new tools, John Kestner of Supermechanical said that everyone who’s working on these products loves and is patient about food: “Otherwise, we’d all just give up and drink Soylent.”