Growing From Ziki to The Food Company, Thanks to Automation and Innovation
Nick Nanakos shares vision for "intelligent theater where humans and robots share the stage."
When you follow the food technology space, oftentimes you see an amazing machine that’s perfected the art of quickly churning out food that tastes remarkably mediocre. Other times you take a bite of something delicious and struggle to imagine how the creation of its intricate flavors and textures could be automated.
Nick Nanakos is the rare chef and entrepreneur who’s combining both worlds; making some truly delectable fusion food via Austin-based Ziki, while harboring even larger ambitions via his The Food Company holding co, which recently acquired Bowlton. When I first met him at Curbivore 2022 (where his meals absolutely stole the show) I knew he had big plans in store; I’m thrilled that we had a chance to catch up so he could share those with the world…
Jonah Bliss: Nick, it’s great to catch up. For folks that don’t know you as well, why don’t we start at the beginning — what can you tell us about Ziki, and your background in the food industry?
Nick Nanakos: My grandparents grew up on a small, farm-village in Greece — raising their own cattle, producing their own eggs, cheese, and milk in order to survive. After immigrating to the United States, our family became lifelong restaurateurs — opening steakhouses, diners, and most notably Greek restaurants named "Tzatziki."
I firmly believe that food is both the world's most important category and truest form of medicine. A broken food-industrial complex was built on all the wrong values and is affecting people daily: the main driver of disease.
JB: You’ve gone from quickly scaling up Ziki, to something even more ambitious; what can you tell us about going from a single restaurant brand to what you’re now calling The Food Company?
NN: At The Food Company, we invent and operate the most creative concepts across farms, grocery, and restaurants — bringing them to the masses at enormous scale.
We're here to flip incumbent models upside-down and transform widespread corruption by re-architecting the toxic food system that is killing us.
A simple way to look at it: Amazon ($1T+) is the parent company that owns Whole Foods, and many others. The Food Company owns ZIKI, and more concepts to follow.
JB: Ziki has long had a focus on health and ingredient sourcing; how do concepts like your “no seed oil” rule carry over to your larger ambitions around the food space?
NN: We will always work toward scaling earth’s purest ingredients. Opting for higher quality ingredients may be more expensive, however, that’s why things like automation and a lean-labor model can help offset that cost as a result of requiring less people in the kitchen.
We prioritize your health at our expense, by sourcing higher quality ingredients — while they are prioritizing their margin at the expense of your health.
JB: The Food Company recently acquired Bowlton, what can you tell us about that company? What drew you to that team, and tech stack, specifically?
NN: Automation has always been a key part of our vision. Our vision is not to replace humans, rather we view The Food Company as an intelligent theater where humans and robots share the stage.
When I met the Bowlton team, I was blown away by their level of intelligence. This team of 12 had raised money, built together for 5+ years, and engineered a robot that can make 300 rice bowls per hour. During our first meeting, I knew I wanted to acquire them. By the end of the second meeting, we were all on the same page. Building-custom ground up automation is key to our vertically-integrated model, and we now have the right structures and engineers in place to bring this into fruition.
This is one of many more acquisitions to come.
JB: Will hungry customers see Bowlton tech powering future Ziki kitchens?
NN: No — hungry customers will see The Food Company tech powering future ZIKI pods, led by the efforts of the remarkable engineers that have joined our team from the Bowlton acquisition. Our collective efforts are taking what they’ve built to a much more powerful and new level.
JB: You’ve got some other interesting automated concepts in the works. What can we expect with Big Farma?
NN: The name is intentionally ironic, as the powerful producers of highly addictive foods are the same people that make you sick and dependent on Big Pharma.
These are essentially farmer’s markets in a food pod — raw milk, butter, pasture-eggs, grass fed regenerative meat, organic fruit, veggies, honey, tallow-based cosmetics, holistic remedies.
This is because we believe that food is our truest and most proactive form of medicine.
ZIKI customers get the finished product, while BIG-FARMA offers the raw ingredients.
JB: There’s been a lot of interesting action in the restaurant automation space lately — Sweetgreen launched the Infinite Kitchen, Steve Ells is working on Kernel, Robert Fried Chicken is coming to the U.S. from Korea. How do you feel about the industry as a whole, and where does The Food Company fit into that?
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