(This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
By AnnMarie Mattila
Ask any business consulting firm about recent shifts in the market, and they will tell you the two most influential trends in any industry are technology and personalization. And though Gen Z is credited with these shifts, consumers of all ages are increasingly savvy and require something unique or customized to be enticed to shop. For the pastry industry, this provides a particular challenge since both time and resources are often limited. But thankfully, technology is more accessible to every sized business, and the ability to customize and personalize products is easier, faster and even more creative than ever. From laser engravers to 3D printers and even small crafting machines, technology is giving pastry chefs new ways to personalize their products, and the results are anything but cookie cutter.
Chef Vincent Pilon knows firsthand how useful technology can be for customization and creativity. By using a laser engraver and thermoforming machine, he creates custom stencils and molds for his chocolate work at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas. From large one-of-a-kind showpieces to thousands of logo chocolate bars, “the possibilities are endless,” he notes. He originally relied on the in-house hotel sign shops that already had the machines to help him, but that often took weeks. He was eventually able to purchase the technology himself to speed up the process, and though there was a learning curve to understand Illustrator, he can now design and create something in less than a day. “I try to do as much customized stuff as I can for our guests, because it makes them feel special,” he explains. And since branding and logos are so important to many of his clients, “what better way than to do it with chocolate?”
Cocuus, a food technology company from Spain, takes laser engraving one step further and applies it directly onto the food itself. Their Laserglow 1300 machine uses patented technology to engrave designs, patterns and logos on anything from meat to fruit to pastry doughs. With an average production time of a mere 40 seconds, products can be transformed almost instantaneously in machines that don’t require a significant amount of space, given their capabilities. Cocuus also has an edible ink printer called Level-Up, which can produce remarkable detail on surfaces as delicate as cappuccino foam and donut icing with preprogrammed options that only require a touch of a button to operate.
3D printed chocolate is also becoming increasingly more accessible with a startup called Cocoa Press offering affordable printers direct to consumers. Their original aim was to target smaller shops, bakeries and restaurants to provide what founder and CEO Evan Weinstein refers to as “another additional art form” to their already creative mediums. “There are just interesting things with 3D chocolate printing that you can do with unique textures and sensory experiences and even mixture of flavors that can’t be done by hand.” 3D printing also offers incredible speed, with a small chocolate design taking about a minute and a half to produce, while a larger showpiece might take one to two hours. Their first shipment of printers is due to ship in Summer 2021, and they recently pivoted their business focus to producing customized chocolates themselves. Customers will be able to order traditional molded chocolates and the company will use the 3D technology to print text, images or logo on top for them.
Of course, investing in expensive machines or purchasing through third party suppliers even during more lucrative times may not be feasible for some smaller businesses. But repurposing more affordable technology may prove beneficial and inspirational. Take for instance the recent innovation from baker and Food Network star Matt Adlard, who developed a Spotify-enabled dessert using a craft cutter. By creating an acetate stencil with his Silhouette cutter, he then made an edible chocolate code that could be scanned by a phone and the chosen song would play. This ingenious take on creating stencils opens a whole new world of possibilities of personalized messages, with customers increasingly comfortable with barcode, QR code and other scannable apps. Chefs are not limited to chocolate, of course. Cake decorators have been using craft cutters for fondant and gum paste decorations for well over a decade. And though Cricut stopped making machines specifically for this purpose, many companies like Edible Images sell affordable, food safe craft cutters bundled with edible icing sheets and wafer paper.
Regardless of the size or focus of the business, customization is becoming increasingly important to clients. “I think the entire industry is moving from mass manufacturing to mass personalization,” notes Weinstein. Pilon agrees, noting “the future is branding.” And thanks to technology, it is becoming more feasible for any level of chef to create something new and personalized. It just takes a little creativity to see the possibilities that technology can provide, and thankfully, that’s something every pastry kitchen has.