Image: Gabriel Ebensperger

Social listening has emerged as a quantitative approach to discovering widespread changes in food preferences, and airlines are all ears.

Zhoug will be the next Sriracha, according to Alon Chen, CEO and co-founder of culinary trend analysis company Tastewise. Not only was the Yemeni hot sauce mentioned more frequently in social media posts and on menus throughout the United States in 2018 compared to 2017, it also conforms with the prevalent keto and clean-eating diets, explained the former Google employee in a recent Forbes article.

Two-year-old Tastewise has access to the largest set of menu data in the US, in addition to social media data. Using artificial intelligence (AI), it also analyzes images and mentions shared on social platforms to determine food and beverage trends – for instance, the use of refreshments for health benefits. “People may drink kombucha or kefir to improve their gut health, or add cannabidiol to their beverage to relax nerves,” Chen suggests.

Marriott International’s hotel restaurant and bar consultancy service, Pure Grey, is a customer, while some of its other clients produce and sell food and beverages to airlines, Chen divulges, highlighting that the tool can segment frequent-traveler data.

Eurowings has been testing trendy in-flight food products since August of last year through an ongoing partnership with Metro’s NX-Food, which helps gastronomical startups bring concepts to market, and LSG Sky Chefs subsidiary Retail inMotion, which has been gathering customer feedback using social media and e-mail to determine which products performed best.

The most popular items were Wildcorn Mid Sommar (salted popcorn), Berwork (beef salami) and Bitebox Karamello Mandello (salted-caramel-flavored almonds), indicating that specialty snacks are in demand in flight, notes Claudia Witt, Retail inMotion’s product manager of Onboard Retail.

Gateretail, gategroup’s in-flight retail subsidiary, has also turned to AI-powered tools, using Black Swan Data’s Trendscope to develop healthy in-flight menu options, including non-alcoholic beer. “Because gategroup owns the supply chain, they’re able to action changes, which our non-aviation customers are jealous to see,” says Steve King, CEO of Black Swan Data, which recently rebranded its aviation business as Fethr.

“It’s not as easy as knowing this will be a huge ingredient in six months, so let’s stick it on loads of planes.” – Steve King, Black Swan Data / Fethr

King acknowledges that food tastes different in the air than it does on the ground, and demographics vary by airline. “It’s not as easy as knowing this will be a huge ingredient in six months, so let’s stick it on loads of planes,” he cautions.

Trendscope identifies food fads by crawling the Internet – including social media, travel-review websites and blogs. “It can take up to three months to train the AI to understand the context of what it’s looking for. Then it can create millions of keyword sets,” King explains. “We’re removing the risk for when smart people sometimes get it wrong in their predictions.”

But King doesn’t think machines should be left to their own devices. “They’re pointless without humans who know how to use the data,” he says. “We are amazing things.”

“Listen Up” was originally published in the 9.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.