From Tweeting to Eating
How food and technology are changing Austin
Ask anyone in the high-tech industry about what they like to do for entertainment and a common response is "Eat." Tech industry people are legendary foodies. Maybe it has something to do with all the comestible perks technology companies offer their employees. After all, Facebook's Silicon Valley headquarters has nine restaurants – including one that offers nothing but sweets.
Not to be outdone, the Googleplex has no less than 25 restaurants, each with its own professional chef dishing up anything from sushi to porcini-crusted beef, all completely free to employees. When you factor in all the snacky microstations dotting the complex, it is estimated that Google employees are never more than 150 feet from food at any time. Even smaller tech start-ups that don't have their own food facilities still regularly offer free meals to their employees shipped in from popular eateries, food trailers, and farmers' markets. This has even spawned its own microindustry, with companies like Cater2Me and Goodybag delivering empanadas, lobster rolls, and even cupcakes from quirky local businesses to busy tech offices.
Holly Wood, an HR consultant who has worked at several tech start-ups in Austin explains it this way: "Start-ups tend to blur the line between work and life, and free food, daily lunches, and regular happy hours are part of the way they do that ... people bond over food." Put simply, good food is embedded in the culture of technology companies.
Locally, the high-tech industry's impact on the dining scene is undeniable, helping to transform the way all Austinites consume and interact with food. Not only has the industry brought greater national and ethnic diversity to the city in terms of people, but it has also created a relatively young professional class with an interest in food and cash to spend on it. In terms of product consumption, this translates directly to demand for more restaurants, more culinary variety, and better quality when it comes to dining options. Newcomers cannot imagine a time when the city was a culinary swamp, when canned tomato sauce pumped up with spices, a little coconut milk, and jalapeños masqueraded as Panang curry. The truth is that the culinary landscape of Austin just two decades ago was vastly flatter, and much less varied than it is today. And certainly the surge in techie types with global tastes and deep pockets has contributed greatly to this transformation.
Dining out and eating well is all a part of what Patika coffee shop owner Andy Wigginton calls the search for the authentic experience. "Whether it is that perfectly brewed cup of coffee, or watching someone break down the cow served for tomorrow night's dinner at Dai Due," says Wigginton, many techies in particular seem to be attracted to that authentic food experience because it's a low impact diversion from working 70-80 hours a week in front of a screen.
Social media has only magnified the interest. Austinites are huge consumers of social media and digital content. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, as well as dozens of apps, websites, and blogs devoted to food, have created a snowball effect when it comes to the visibility of all things culinary. Through social media, we pant with anticipation when Andrew Wiseheart or Paul Qui plan a new restaurant, and the opening itself becomes an event. In this way, technology generates greater urgency, more desire for the food experience among everyone using it.
But the tech industry has injected more than just money and demand into the city's food scene; tech talent and its entrepreneurial spirit are at the heart of many of Austin's newer restaurant ventures. Take Wigginton, who migrated to cafe ownership after years in the software development industry. His journey began with his obsession to brew superior coffee at home. For years he tried different coffees, different machines, each time upping the game to get the brew he wanted. He even tried hacking his own coffee maker to better control temperature. Finally he realized that what he really needed to make that perfect cup of joe was a state-of-the-art industrial machine with a price tag of about 12 grand. That's when he traded in his computer for a coffee cart and embarked on a start-up of a different sort.
Stories like Wigginton's are not uncommon in Austin. Michi Ramen's owner Fredrick Lee also came to the restaurant industry from tech (website design), as did Home Slice Pizza co-owner Joe Strickland, a onetime programmer for Dell. Jack Mathews is a video-game designer who co-founded a popular food blog called Love & Lemons with his wife Jeanine Donofrio. Their blog aptly captures the artfulness and adventure of cooking great food at home. He finds many similarities between software development and cooking. "A lot of people look at writing code and they don't think of it as a creative act, but it is. There's a certain architecture to it; building something is an intrinsic part of code, just as it is intrinsic to cooking." Lee also sees a lot of parallels between the products of the restaurant and tech industries: "There's a front end, designed with aesthetics in mind; and then there is the back end," which is purely operational. Whether you're talking about a restaurant or a web app, both ends have to work in harmony to make them usable, to make them articulate with people's professional, personal, and social lives.
It takes more than creativity to build a successful food business, or even food blog, and here too is where the culture of technology dovetails neatly with the food industry. Techies and cooks are natural tinkerers, Andy Wigginton believes. "The hardest part of any project is delivery, getting it out there to the world," says Mathews. This is something at which tech folks are adept. "It's not just about having money to start a restaurant; people who work in technology often have firsthand experience with growing a successful business," observed Wigginton. The spirit of entrepreneurship, that "I-can-do-it attitude" is endemic to the technology industry, and this translates nicely to food industry projects as well.
Of course, inspiration works both ways. Just as food is the shrine at which so many tech industry folks worship, so is tech becoming muse to cooks. The recent trend toward molecular gastronomy is just one symptom of the food industry's love affair with things techy. Gadgets that fluff and foam, that cook foods in tightly controlled environments, toys that dehydrate and that fundamentally alter chemical properties are becoming standard equipment for the restaurant toolkit. Even the aesthetics of food is changing. Let's face it, anyone who has sampled the celery root risotto dish at Gardner will tell you that it looks like something a Super Mario Kart character would wear.
The points of intersection will continue to proliferate as new food and tech products become more entwined in Austin daily lives: Crowdfunded restaurants, edible 3-D printing, and online grocery shopping are among just a few of the tech innovations that will change the way we coalesce around food in the future. This year's SXSW Interactive has nearly three dozen sessions devoted to food culture, covering everything from mining big food data to local farms that change the world. Clearly the articulation of food and technology is on many people's minds. For Austin, they are quickly becoming the hero twins of a new community identity.