Science - November 20, 2008

RESTAURANT OF THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE

The Restaurant of the Future is a highly successful PR project. It has been reported in media all over the world and is well known in the food industry. And yet big contracts remain elusive.

'Eat, drink and be monitored' in the Restaurant of the Future
The big brother canteen on the Wageningen campus gets about 130 visitors per day – mainly University staff. The set-up, the products and the furniture change every four weeks, and twelve cameras record the influence this has on food choices and eating behaviour. The images of dining customers are analysed by an intern. In a big kitchen there are eight booths where people can give their opinion of the food. But the kitchen is empty and the doors of the research rooms upstairs are locked: the rooms won’t be used this week.

‘Big contracts are yet to come in’, admits business manager René Koster. ‘To be honest, it’s going very slowly. I would have liked to have more projects by now.’ Koster is responsible for acquisition.
In one year, the Restaurant of the Future has had three managers. The group of researchers has shrunk from twenty to seventeen scientists. The management of the AFSG, which the restaurant is part of, has launched a rescue operation.
The problem is not a lack of publicity. ‘In the Netherlands, Eat, Drink and Be Monitored’, was the headline in the New York Times one month after the restaurant opened in October 2007. The British Independent announced: ‘From the country that gave us Big Brother, comes a new scientific venture into human eating habits.’

Reports about this consumer laboratory are still coming out all over the world. According to Wageningen UR science information officer Bauke de Vos, the Restaurant of the Future has been the most successful PR project of recent years.

Dr. Harold Bult, one of the researchers who have left, thinks it’s an ambitious project that hasn’t yet convinced potential clients. Bult is now at NIZO Food Research in Ede, working as a senior scientist on a multimillion euro study on the influence of structure on taste.
‘Potentially, the restaurant is a strong formula,’ thinks Bult. ‘It specializes in sensory work, and the team has a lot of experience in this. But they’re spreading themselves too thinly. Just look at the list of objectives - not only consumer research but also psychophysics and even neurological research. For psychophysics they have just one researcher – that’s not enough. Cross out half your wish list and blow your trumpet about what you’re good at.’

The Restaurant of the Future still has to convince big companies like Danone, Unilever and Campina. But reputed Wageningen nutrition centres such as TIFN and Human Nutrition are working closely with the restaurant. Professor Frans Kok: ‘The concept isn’t strong. Not enough thought has been given to the research. Gigabytes of data about choice behaviour in the canteen are being stored, but they are not preceded by good research questions. What’s more, we would have liked to be involved from the start. That didn’t happen. The managers of the restaurant thought they knew it all.’
Director Peter van den Elzen of AFSG, of which the restaurant is part, outlines the rescue plan: ‘We’ve got a few nice projects, but that’s not enough. We need WUR-wide commitment. The restaurant is going to focus more on healthy food choices. That’s what Wageningen UR stands for, and it’s what Frans Kok stands for too.’

Kok’s Human Nutrition division may yet get involved in the Restaurant of the Future. The current research group at the restaurant is called the Center of Innovative Consumer Studies. To emphasize the change of direction, Van den Elzen wants to rename it ‘Healthy food choice’. Which objectives will be abandoned, it’s too early for Van der Elzen to say. ‘Our aim is clear: Healthy eating. Now we’ll see which skills we need. In the process, it will become clear which techniques we don’t need.’ / Gaby van Caulil

A HOTHOUSE PLANT
A sum of nearly three million euros has been invested the Restaurant of the Future, most of it by Wageningen UR. The income in the first year has been disappointing, although it is not yet clear how big the losses are. The business plan and the annual accounts are not made public.
Wageningen UR spokesman Simon Vink reports, ‘The potential in the first year has not been realized. The restaurant is a hothouse plant which we hope will still flower.’ AFSG director Peter van der Elzen speaks of a ‘financial disappointment’. Business manager René Koster declines to mention any figures, except to say that ‘the volume is half what we had expected’.

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