innov-eat

Houston catering startup taps new tech to pivot to meal prepping during the coronavirus shutdown

Wolfe & Wine Co. is using a new software to dispatch meals to hospital workers as well as new meal prep customers. Getty Images

With an abundance of Houston restaurant and business closures spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, small company leaders are forced to develop resourceful solutions to keep afloat and compensate for slowed revenue.

Founder and chef of Houston-based Wolfe & Wine Co., Daniel Wolfe, has rejigged his social-focused business model to cater single-meal orders instead of large group orders.

Wolfe & Wine Co. is a full-service, chef-driven catering company, specializing in pop-up dinners paired with specially curated wines. Launched only a few short months ago in September 2019, Wolfe was looking forward to expanding his business across the Houston metroplex in 2020, one specially-catered social gathering at a time. His plans changed in March, when COVID-19 began to ingratiate itself in pockets of Houston.

"My business model thrives on events with more than 10 people, so we pivoted our focus to meal prep," Wolfe says.

Within 72 hours in March, Wolfe lost around $70,000 worth of revenue with the cancelation of all of his upcoming catering events, then feeling the first wave of economic and logistical impacts of COVID-19. However, Wolfe faced these hurdles with innovative and community-focused solutions that have already sustained his business and benefitted thousands of Houstonians whose lives have been affected by the coronavirus.

With the help of food service supplier Ben E. Keith Co. and cloud-based delivery management software company Dispatch Science, Wolfe & Wine Co. received the financial and technological sponsorship needed to provide single meals to his customers, and to donate meals to medical staff, including the entire Houston Methodist Emergency Room and ICU departments, and Houstonians in need.

"The dispatch software that we use is similar to what UPS, FedEx and Amazon use. When you order with us, you can track where your meal is in real time…That transparency separates us from [other meal prep companies]," Wolfe says.

Since producing single-order meal prep packages for his customers, Wolfe has noted that the two biggest challenges he has faced have been altering his recipes to accommodate single servings, and striving to maintain the same high-quality, personalized customer experience that he provides at his catering events.

In various industries, not only in Houston but across the globe, there will be elements of business that are forced to restructure, to accommodate the new economic and logistical boundaries brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This virus is forcing people to innovate, forcing people stuck in their ways to change and adapt, or they'll fail," Wolfe says.

For the hospitality industry specifically, Wolfe foresees that restaurants' refined food takeout processes, along with the delivery of liquor, beer and wine, will play a huge role in their fiscal well-being after this health crisis subsides.

"Businesses that said 'we're not doing takeout' are now doing takeout because they don't have a choice," Wolfe says. "In the next few months, you're going to see a lot more offerings for takeout and delivery. You're going to see a lot more refined and better customer experiences for takeout, especially with millennials."

Sharpened takeout programs and alcohol delivery are projected to revolutionize the food and beverage industry, Wolfe says. In addition to enhanced technological components and takeout processes, community stewardship has been a main theme within the industry, Wolfe noted.

"The hospitality industry, nurses, grocery stores and others, those are the people carrying the country through this pandemic," Wolfe says. "You're not just some kid flipping a burger or stocking a box on a shelf."

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This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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