At the onset of the recession, most restaurant-goers defined value with a single word: price. More recently, however, consumer behavior at restaurants has begun to shift, and that value definition has now come to be identified with another term: quality.
The most important value driver when choosing a restaurant these days is quality of food, according to “Defining Value Today,” a recently released study by Port Washington, N.Y.-based The NPD Group that examines consumers’ perceptions of value when they go out to eat.
“There’s even more focus on the value equation not being driven by price, but really how much it is driven by the food and the quality of the food,” said NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs. “When it comes to value, it’s about the food, the quality — that’s the price of entry.”
When asked what value means to them, consumers surveyed described features both related to price and unrelated to price. The top price-related features consumers associated with value were “quality for price,” “quantity for price,” “reasonable price” and “money’s worth.”
The top non-price-related features associated with value were “service,” “ambience/atmosphere,” “portion size,” “quality,” “good food” and “taste.”
Seventy percent of consumers polled said price- and non-price-related features are equally important, NPD found. However, price alone is the top priority of only a small percentage of people.
“It is important to some, not most,” Riggs said.
The importance of the right value proposition can’t be underestimated, Riggs continued. According to NPD CREST data, consumers who rated a restaurant’s value for the money as “excellent” are nearly 50 percent more likely to say they definitely will revisit.
Of all the industry segments, fast casual has been meeting consumers’ new definition of value most, she said.
“The growth that it’s had during this time when the rest of the industry hasn’t done well, … that’s the driver,” Riggs said. “Fast casual has raised the bar for consumer expectations, especially in limited service.”
While quality is top of mind, NPD suggested that operators must go even further, delivering on customization and fresh ingredients as these also are important factors in the value equation.
“Keeping things hot under a light is just not going to cut it,” Riggs said. “These other things need to be brought into the equation in order to drive traffic.”
Telling the story
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Savvy operators have been aware of the growing importance of food quality to consumers for some time now. In 2011 a number of major chains launched campaigns to ensure consumers understood their brands’ commitment to quality food. Among them were McDonald’s, which began telling its farm-to-franchise story through commercials featuring ranchers in its supply chain; Chipotle Mexican Grill, which launched a short film promoting sustainable farming; and Wendy’s, which started using the tagline “You know when it’s real.”
Many of those brands continue to tout quality today. Meanwhile, other brands are realizing that they may have the quality food consumers crave, but they need to tell their story — or in some cases, tell it better.
In February Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based Culver’s launched a series of Culver’s 101 Web videos designed to inform consumers about the brand’s quality offerings and the ability to customize.
“We’ve had more questions, comments, hits on the Web about ingredients than we’ve ever had,” said Culver’s president Phil Keiser. “[The videos are] a fun way to tell the story of our ingredients.”
While Keiser said offering fresh, quality ingredients and preparing items to order have been the better-burger chain’s aim since its inception in 1984, it only recently has been focused on telling that story. The first effort began in 2011 when the chain launched its “Welcome to Delicious” campaign, a series of commercials featuring executives and suppliers demonstrating the origins of the chain’s meats and cheeses.
“We’re talking about paying attention to these ingredients and the freshness of them,” Keiser said. “We believe it’s a differentiator.”
Similarly, Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, which built its brand on fresh, handcrafted items, such as hand-breaded, whole-breast-meat chicken sandwiches, hand-squeezed lemonade and biscuits hand-rolled in stores daily, wants to do a better job of articulating the quality of its ingredients to its customers.
“That’s what we’ve always been doing,” said Amanda Norris, Chick-fil-A director of product development. “But we’ve not always done a good job of telling our story.”
The brand plans to change that in 2014, when it will launch a new campaign around its core classic products. In the meantime the chain is focusing on the addition of new, freshly prepared items such as the recently launched Entrée Salads. The new Cobb Salad, Asian Salad and Grilled Market Salad all feature upgraded ingredients, such as romaine lettuce, field greens, hot chicken, blue cheese and blueberries. All are made fresh in stores throughout the day.
“We want to get the word out to our customers that we are fresh,” Norris added.
In March Boloco, a Boston-based burrito chain built on the concept of high-quality fast food, launched c.i.a., or culinary investigation assignment, a series of online videos designed to trace and explain the brand’s ingredients.
“We’re definitely seeing more interest in quality and sourcing of ingredients than ever before,” said Allison Doyle, Boloco’s director of strategic projects. “Boloco’s been focused on it for a long time. We are exploring it even further this year.”
The first video features team members and executives visiting the farm in Uruguay where Boloco gets its grass-fed beef and explains why it uses beef from so far away rather than from right here in the U.S. The latest video tracks down the origins of Boloco’s corn chips, which the brand now has made using non-GMO corn.
“We know that our guests are looking for more information all the time,” Doyle said. “We let our guests decide if it’s a value or not.”
Nation’s Restaurant News has an exclusive agreement to obtain The NPD Group data and research findings that appear on the Consumer Trends page.