Comment: Grocery – with a side of aesthetics

Andrea Hernández says that the future of food shopping lies in curated speciality goods – and it's vital that they look good.

Andrea Hernández is the founder of Snaxshot, a trend-forecasting company for the food-and-drink industry.

The way we do grocery shopping changed forever in 2020, with more people discovering the benefits of deliveries – sometimes under 15 minutes in major international cities. But while the ability to one-stop-shop seemed like a good idea to begin with, the experience has since become overwhelming. The giant online grocery stores are anything but convenient. 

Millennials are the generation of instant gratification and they crave Instagrammable health. 

They look to fill their pantries and fridges with new products that promise they are ‘better for you’. And just as food and beverage have become new signals for millennials to show off, we have also seen the rise of specialty and experiential grocers, whose items are designed to be seen as much as they are consumed. 

Folks like Emily Schmidt know this. Her business, Pop Up Grocer, involves highly curated products that cater to millennials (who recently dethroned boomers as the largest demographic in the US), Gen Z and Gen Alpha. Her traveling store also plays on the sense of urgency – essentially drop culture – that is now so prevalent among younger generations. Pop Up Grocer has appeared in cities all over the US and plans to open its first flagship in New York City by the end of the year. 

Foxtrot, which is based in Chicago and offers a similar concept, recently raised $40 million to expand its curated groceries nationwide. What I’m calling CaaS (curation as a service) is the new SaaS (software as a service). CaaS is the future of grocery – and it’s not just being done in physical retail. CaaS is also giving rise to niche marketplaces online, which specialize in the new grocery items we crave. 

There are so many iterations of CaaS online, with the need stemming from broken experiences on sites like Amazon or Walmart. These giants have not been able to keep up with the change in behavior led by millennials and Gen Z. Would you rather look for adaptogenic products on Amazon or a site like Multiverse, a marketplace specializing in mushroom products? 

CaaS is removing friction around the discovery process. Curation is the future in a world inundated with options. And it’s not just Multiverse doing it. New grocery marketplaces like Umamicart cater to those seeking Asian products, Tiny Bodega specializes in BIPOC-owned brands and then there are the sites curated by food influencers, such as Bubble Goods. There are even places targeted at Gen Alpha, like Cub Pantry. CaaS is suddenly everywhere. 

But CaaS isn’t limited to novel products. In 2020, PepsiCo launched and Pantry Shop, two initiatives that were essentially curations of their own products packed around utility. On Pantry Shop, for example, items are bundled into categories such as Rise & Shine for breakfast products and Workout & Recovery for fitness and hydration; at traditional grocery stores, these items would all be found under different categories and on different aisles. 

Delivery apps such as Instacart and GoPuff are also redefining how we buy groceries online. 

Does the rise of CaaS stem from some kind of generational disconnect from what we eat and how we buy our food? For me, it does. How can we form connections with what feeds us at gigantic one-stop-shop stores that seemingly offer just a sea of sameness on every single aisle? 

Our lack of intimacy with food has made CaaS in grocery a necessity. Consider the example of Alimentari Flâneur, a European market literally transported and carefully placed in The Market Line in NYC. 

With the name combining Italian and French words meaning ‘food to browse’, Alimentari’s mission goes beyond just beautiful aesthetics. There’s a calculated intention behind its layout, as well as how the produce is sourced. It also caters to our need for a better experience while we’re food shopping. Consider how the products are placed in wicker baskets, seeking to reconnect us to a sensorial experience we’ve long since lost, bringing back eroticism and literal intimacy, and helping us rediscover our humanity through food.

Specialty grocers aren’t just popping up in the US – they’re everywhere, each creating their own unique grocery-verse and promising to give millennials their food with a side of aesthetics. From Desiderata in Tepoztlán, Mexico, which offers pantry items and produce as well as movie and ceramic nights, to Miyam and SuperFrais in Paris, Good Food in London and Épicerie Basta in Montréal, the rise of CaaS is a global movement. And so, in these beautiful spaces, wicker baskets filled with produce and pantry items alike will continue to sit neatly on aesthetically pleasing shelves without obstructing views, just waiting for millennials to pick them up.

This article was first published in Courier issue 42, August/September 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

You might like these, too