‘Food Stars’ Winner Smart Cups Ditches Water To Save The Earth
by Rudy Sanchez on 09/26/2023 | 5 Minute Read
Chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay is most known for shows like Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen, where fans typically witness the swearing Scot mentoring and teaching restaurant operators and aspiring head chefs. But on Ramsay’s latest US program, Food Stars, the Masterchef host plays the role of an angel investor looking for a venture to grow with his money and expertise in food and business.
Fifteen food entrepreneurs with businesses ranging from food trucks to packaged goods competed reality show-style for Gordon Ramsay’s investment. But in the end, food innovator Smart Cups won the inaugural American season.
Unlike some competitors, Smart Cups isn’t an experimental restaurant or the latest hip snack but a technology allowing dry powders to be printed onto the bottom of cups or containers. Consumers add water, and the powdered product dissolves into the liquid.
The printing technology has many applications but is particularly attractive for beverage use. By volume, water is by far the primary component of most drinks. Water is also heavy, which requires more fuel and greenhouse gas production to move around. In powdered form, many more servings can ship together, reducing the environmental impact of beverage distribution. Cups with printed beverages weigh less and take up less volume, which Ramsay sees as a game-changing positive for the planet.
Smart Cups developed its microencapsulation process that binds the ingredients together in dry form and the “printing” technology that places the products onto surfaces such as the inside of a cup. While it’s easy to visualize the process as “printing,” Smart Cups is actually attaching microcapsules of active ingredients that activate and dissolve in water.
According to Smart Cups, incredibly, it's also possible to print lamb sauce onto a surface—even if they haven’t done it yet.
Smart Cups, however, wasn’t invented to save the Earth, though that would make for a tidy, sustainable origin story. Instead, according to founder Chris Kanik, the printing technology was initially developed to address dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing. For patients with dysphagia, taking oral medications in tablets or capsules can be difficult, but they can drink liquids.
The idea came to Kanin while waiting for his meal in a busy Mexican restaurant. “Years ago, I was at a taco Tuesday. The server wasn't coming fast enough with my Margarita, and there was a glass of water on my table,” Chris said. “I said, ‘How awesome would it be if there was some powdered alcohol that I could just dump in here?’ I grabbed a napkin and drew out a protocol. The next day, I turned my kitchen into the crudest spray dryer imaginable, made of a frying pan, paper clips, and coffee filters, using Everclear and maltodextrin to capture the vapors of the ethanol."
"I blew up my kitchen," he added, "but I successfully made three different flavors of powdered alcohol.”
Kanik’s concept worked, but the application wasn’t necessarily as viable as a business as he had hoped due to safety and regulations. But Chris refined the technology, and it can now capture and dissolve active ingredients like ethanol, caffeine, amino acids, vitamins, and sweeteners. Smart Cups don’t just deliver dehydrated ingredients—they rely on bioavailability and precise dosing thanks to a proprietary polymer. Initially, Smart Cups launched an energy drink to capture commercial interest, but Kanik says medical and humanitarian applications are also possible and are currently undergoing human clinical trials and testing.
Currently, Smart Cups uses PLA “bioplastic” vessels from Fabri-Kal, but Chris says that the company can print on lots of material, including biodegradable and compostable substrates. In fact, Kanik says he printed laundry detergent on a t-shirt once to show it was possible.
As the first US Food Star winner, Kanik’s Smart Cups will see a cool quarter million dollar infusion from a world-renowned chef and successful business owner. Besides the money and the attention from the reality show, Chris also sees other benefits to becoming Ramsay’s corporate protégé.
“Gordon Ramsay’s partnership and network are far more valuable than the $250,000, and he put a massive stamp of validation on us,” Kanik says. “He could pick status quo products, but this is uncharted territory. Smart Cups is groundbreaking. Ramsay is one of the most globally recognized faces on the planet, and his stamp of approval is invaluable. I'm excited to see what doors will open because of our partnership with Gordon Ramsay and his involvement in helping us pick the right flavors for certain products. We’ve been focused on functionality, and taste was probably priority number three or four. We perfected the functionality, so we’re ready to prioritize flavor now that people are familiar with the technology.”
Even the most casual Ramsay observers are familiar with the clever insults and powerful, curse-laden outbursts. But, Chris says he was never on the receiving end of one of the chef’s famous dressing downs.
“I can’t remember being cursed out by Ramsay, but I did tell him to fuck off once,” Kanik says. “There was a call that we had after the show, he made a joke, and I told him to fuck off. And then it hit me. I said, ‘I just told Gordon Ramsay to fuck off.’”
Chris Kanik might be onto something genuinely transformative in Smart Cups, especially in reducing shipping-related greenhouse gas emissions. One thing is sure, however—Chris gets to cross off “Tell Gordon Ramsay to fuck off” his bucket list.
Images courtesy of Smart Cups.