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The Grocery Store of the Future

© Jason Lee

If scientists succeed, farm-to-table may someday mean picking your own produce at the supermarket.

Agropolis is a marvel of a grocery store. Blushing tomatoes and crunchy emerald-hued cucumbers grow hydroponically in-store, and customers simply pluck what they desire right off the plant. Crisp butter lettuces mature in aeroponic setups suspended in air, without soil, fed only by mist and fertilizer. Aquaculture tanks filled with live tilapia feed nutrients back into the system.

The only problem with this wondrous market? Agropolis doesn’t actually exist. Rather, it’s a prototype presented by a group of researchers last year at NEXT: Nordic Exceptional Trendshop, a futurist conference and exhibition in Denmark. As Rand Hindi, one of the project’s creators, explains, “Agropolis offers a unique experience where consumers can pick their own food fresh out of the growing medium. It couldn’t be any fresher.” And as anyone who has shopped at a local grocery store knows, finding excellent produce is no easy task. Even during peak summer months at first-rate supermarkets like Whole Foods, the selection is often disappointing. Why is this, and what’s to be done?

The less-than-stellar quality of produce is the result of a number of factors: adverse weather conditions during the growing season, being picked before reaching full maturity and poor storage and handling. Produce right off the farm or orchard certainly tastes better, but despite the proliferation of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, this is not the norm. “The direct relationship between farmer and consumer has been largely lost. Instead of being vegetable artisans, farmers have become commodity factories,” notes Jurrien Swarts, a co-owner of Vermont’s Holton Farms, which offers a different model of CSA from most, allowing shoppers to purchase as-needed instead of receiving a set amount weekly. “All the money goes into the pockets of middlemen and immensely large farms. And consumers expect rock-bottom prices,” he says. “This all combines to shift the market’s focus away from flavor and nutrition.” Cutting out the supermarket middleman almost guarantees better produce, but still, these farm-direct options are often inconvenient and impractical. Is there a supermarket solution to this supermarket problem? Could something like Agropolis be the answer?

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely. “While it might add a nice touch to the store’s image, let’s remember that farming is a very different profession than retailing,” observes Phil Lempert, a supermarket analyst. Indeed, such state-of-the-art technology remains prohibitively expensive and out of reach for even the largest supermarket chains, not to mention that many crops aren’t suited for hydroponics. Yet there are innovations in technology that are helping food taste better. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, for example, can track a single produce item on its journey from field to shelf. “Most produce is already rotting when it reaches the retailer. You just can’t see it. At every point in the cold chain, there’s a potential for the temperature to fluctuate,” explains Kevin Payne, whose company, Intelleflex, makes a chip that alerts suppliers when temperature thresholds are reached during the shipment process, thus helping to prevent rotting fruit from hitting shelves. “It creates accountability, so if there’s a problem, we can identify where that problem is. The benefit for the retailer is that they’ll have a better ability to determine shelf life, and then higher quality is passed along to the consumers.” However, this technology is far from being widespread. “RFID holds much promise once it is embedded in every package, but the costs are still too high for that today,” Lempert says.

In some cases, finding great produce is simply a matter of identifying a store that has excellent buyers who, in turn, have strong relationships with farms and producers. Though primarily a hub for Italian foodstuffs, New York City’s Eataly features an extraordinary produce department that carries exotic goods like finger limes and Buddha’s hands, and even employs “vegetable butchers” who instruct the consumer on the proper way to clean, trim and prepare produce. “It’s pretty unique now, but I notice a lot of people who own markets taking notes and pictures,” says Joseph Nieves, one of the store’s two vegetable butchers, predicting that Eataly’s model will become commonplace in grocery stores in major cities over the next two years. Once customers learn the proper way to handle and cook their produce, it might taste even better.

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Yet customers no longer have to leave their homes to get great-tasting ingredients. “Our product sales continue to increase,” notes Robert Schueller of Melissa’s, a website offering high-quality produce from around the world. “We’re able to ship if a consumer can’t find local produce at their store.” Melissa’s was one of the first companies to introduce ingredients like dragon fruit and goji berries and has become a go-to resource for chefs across the country, helping bring new—and often tastier—items to market, like the long black radish it introduced to the States this May.

Produce e-tailing lets shoppers easily obtain farm-fresh groceries through services like Basis and Urban Organic in New York, Planet Organics in San Francisco, Irv & Shelly’s Fresh Picks in Chicago and Door to Door Organics throughout the Midwest. Produce found at farmers’ markets is generally better, but because they aren’t convenient for everyone, these virtual models offer a future solution.

As a rule of thumb, though, it’s still best to eat seasonally and locally to minimize the variables at play. A peach in November rarely tastes as delectable as one in the height of summer. Aeroponics and RFID technology might be innovative, but fruits and vegetables are fickle beasts, leaving the future of the produce industry and the grocery store unclear. “It’s not really a sustainable technology,” says Schueller about hydroponics. “Remember, it’s hard to fight Mother Nature.”

Fact: According the Food Marketing Institute, in 2010 the U.S. had 36,149 supermarkets, each carrying an average of 38,718 items.

Rethinking the Supermarket

Too often, the experience of shopping for something as essential and pleasurable as food is exceedingly unpleasant. How could the design of grocery stores themselves be overhauled to create the ideal setting? Three takes from three different areas of expertise.

The Designer: “Before they put pencil to paper, the designers of our supermarkets would be well advised to get on a plane to Seoul or Tokyo and visit the food halls at the lower levels of any decent department store. Each section is well defined, accessible and simple to navigate. There’s a lot of variety in design, making shopping an adventure. Spotless, efficient and enticing.” —Adam Tihany, hotel and restaurant designer

The Chef: “Change the damn lighting, bring in a DJ (lose the Muzak!) and stop selling underwear, fake Christmas trees and imitation Camembert. In all seriousness, I’d love to see a real butcher counter with professionals breaking down your meat in front of you, and real fishmongers with serious knowledge serving high-quality seafood, instead of meat and fish wrapped in plastic.” —Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner, le bernardin

The Nutritionist: “Supermarkets are designed to promote impulse buys. So from a health standpoint, the healthier foods would get prime real estate: I’d want to see gorgeous, colorful fruit and vegetables at every checkout stand, the healthier cereals and crackers at eye level and only a tiny aisle devoted to sodas and chips.” —Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University