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Do We Really Need a “Smart” Kitchen?

Kitchen of the Future. Grocery Store of the Future. Home of the Future. We believe it’s safe to say, culturally speaking, that we’ve been in love with futuristic visions of some of our most emotionally charged (and labor intensive) theaters of domestic life for decades now. In the 1960s, the Jetsons’ robot maid, Rosie (who could prepare secret dishes like “Cream of Leftovers”), was simply a cartoon daydream. Today, Moley Robotics is preparing to launch its Robotic Kitchen, described as “sophisticated yet compact… with integrated kitchen robotic arms, oven, hob and touchscreen unit.” In step with increasingly connected consumers, the Moley unit may eventually allow an owner to remotely pick from an iTunes-style library of recipes and have dinner waiting when they arrive home.

Very Jetsonian for sure — as are many of the kitchen gadgets showered onto the marketplace each year.

A blog entry for the third annual Smart Kitchen Summit (held in Seattle in October 2017) reflected on what a blast it was “tasting beer from a home beer fermentation appliance, munching on 3D printed popsicles and watching robots make crepes.”

And yet, with all this excitement about replacing supposed drudgery in the kitchen with time-saving, trendy innovations, it is probably important to remember that one part of the enthusiasm driving food culture today is the interplay between relearning actual cooking skills (temporarily misplaced by a generation or two of reliance on packaged-food solutions) and incorporating technology into that enthusiasm.

For evidence, look no further than Millennials who, believe it or not, actually enjoy cooking. Millennials cook more than everybody thinks they do, and they do the majority of their household cooking. While definitions of what cooking actually is may vary, 60 percent of Millennials claim they do all the cooking in their household. Not only do they enjoy cooking, but they are responsible for providing snacks and meals for themselves, their friends and/or their family. When cooking, the Internet and social media are their go-to resources — platforms like Google, Facebook and YouTube are their references of choice for recipes, information and research about food products. Millennial interest in technology and cooking extends to “smart kitchens” as well: 67 percent say they are interested in “smart” kitchen appliances or devices that would help them prepare complex recipes, compared to just 36 percent of Baby Boomers.

Source: Foodways of the Younger Generations – Millennials & Gen Z, The Hartman Group, Inc.

While they are, in many cases, at the beginning of their cooking adventures, Millennials welcome the idea of cooking for themselves, friends and families with a robust spirit and a diverse approach as they challenge the influences of familial cuisine and create their own multicultural methods of meal preparation. However, how they define cooking incorporates a wide range, including a romantic dinner for two, a killer chili made for Sunday football with friends, grilling for summer weekend get-togethers or baking box brownies with kids. Life stage also has an important impact on what they choose to make for meals and influences the time they have to devote to culinary adventures. There is a huge variance in quality, ingredients and health benefits when deciding whether to prepare a meal for one vs. a gathering with a few friends vs. adding babies, toddlers and children into the mix.

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Looking even further down the age spectrum at truly wired youth, Gen Z teens have not, for the most part, taken on the responsibilities for cooking at home: Parents are still the meal providers. And yet, Gen Z is dabbling a bit in exploring cooking through school cooking classes, experimenting on their own and helping their parents prepare meals. Many teens have discovered TV and online cooking shows and get excited about dabbling in the kitchen themselves.

So, interestingly enough, while culturally we’re increasingly experimenting with outsourcing our cooking to grocerants and restaurants, at the same time, our youngest and most connected generations are actually taking a steady interest in the physical act of cooking. This tension between technology and the physical act of cooking points to some important questions as relates to futuristic kitchens and culinary gadgets:

  • What will happen to the personal space of the kitchen if we move towards more automation and gadgetry?
  • Where’s the right balance to give us enough control and creativity so that we don’t simply go to restaurants?
  • With more automation, will kitchens become less of an activity hub and instead some sort of vestigial part of the home for consumers who don’t actually care about cooking? What would that look like? (Maybe just a coffee maker and cooling/heating drawers.)

Maybe the kitchen of the future is an even more customizable space that will vary in its components and footprint, depending on the customer, priorities and resources of the household. Of note: No one seems to have yet come up with a self-cleaning kitchen (Moley Robotics’ functions do not seem to include washing the dishes). One interesting point to make is how much “the kitchen” has not changed at all (there has always been a spot to keep foods cold, a place to heat them up and somewhere to do all the washing), but one way it most definitely has changed is the “open” kitchen: The open kitchen design concept clearly came about as a way to “solve” many a problem, including being able to entertain more enjoyably, appreciation for viewing the preparation of food, improved visibility of children. But open kitchens have introduced some issues into the households, namely messiness.

Certainly food, chefs, cooking and kitchens are everywhere: Consumers are more connected to the inner workings of professional kitchens than they ever have been before and have higher expectations for what “doing cooking right” looks like. They want to play the chef and are intrigued by the specialist tools that can grant them access to the same ease and quality of results they can get when dining out. Examples would include Vitamix, pot filler faucets, Keurig coffee makers, fermenting crock pots or home soda makers.

One final thought — if we think of the kitchen as “the place where food preparation happens” but we live in a world in which food prep is increasingly outsourced, how will consumers remedy such thinking if they increasingly think of cooking as something done by choice to enact some sort of value (e.g., being morally good by being healthier, less part of “big food,” more sustainable) rather than a prerequisite to “existence?” Since we also live in a world increasingly interested in sharing and communal goods (and yet with a growing population), what does that do for the kitchen?

Could the kitchen as we know it, with an oven (or equivalent), cooking equipment and space for prepping and washing, go the way of the billiards room? Or kitchens might end up as something only the ultra-rich have and something that everybody else shares — for example, a communal kitchen for each street.

Who knows, IBM’s Watson might have some ideas, but we’ll probably just go hang out with some Millennials and teens and see what’s cooking.



Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Culture Retail/Shopper Insights Trends Point Of View


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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