Food has always been an important part of life, but how Americans relate to what they eat has undergone a substantial shift in the past couple of decades.
What was once a source of fuel for everyone, and a source of solace and pleasure for many people, is now a vehicle for self-expression, a point of pride, a political statement, a declaration of identity and much more.
Health seems to be on more consumers’ minds, too, although their definition of health, and their perception of what’s good for them, has shifted in varying and often contradictory ways.
Restaurants have responded by finding new ways to engage with their customers, not merely with new menu items, but with entire new conversations about how their food is sourced, prepared and served.
As Yum! Brands Inc. CEO Greg Creed observed at an investor and analyst conference last year, consumers, particularly young people, see social responsibility as part of the food conversation.
“From a Millennial perspective in particular, it is good for me and good for we,” the head of the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell said.
With food now woven into many Americans’ sense of identity and place in society, Nation’s Restaurant News takes a look at this state of affairs and what restaurants should be doing about it.
Food as self-expression
If you’re concerned about the environment, you might be a vegetarian. If animal welfare is your cause, then you could well be a vegan. Into CrossFit? Then Paleo’s the diet for you. “You are what you eat” might be a cliché, but these days it’s truer than ever as many Americans tout their dietary preferences loudly.
Market intelligence agency Mintel estimates that more than 29 million Americans have posted a picture of food or drink from a restaurant via social media, but that’s just the most literal form of using what you consume as a way of expressing yourself. These days, what people eat has deeper connotations than merely getting “likes” on Instagram.
Psychologist William Hallman, department chair of human ecology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., said people’s eating habits help them identify who they are on many levels.
On one level are the people — particularly young men, he said — who watch food competition shows and food adventure shows such as “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and use them as sources for social currency.
Many of the viewers of these shows, Hallman said, don’t cook themselves, but enjoy the competition. They also get introduced to new ingredients that then become part of casual conversation, or even a sort of one-upmanship: “Oh, you’ve never tried sailfish roe?”
That was the idea behind the jelly doughnut milkshake that Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes added to the menu earlier this year as a limited-time offer.
Michael Mabry, chief operating officer of the 85-unit chain said his team introduced the somewhat offbeat item to “get people to talk about it and drive them to our shake section, and it worked. The jelly doughnut shake sold relatively well, but shake sales [overall] improved from the same time last year,” he said.
Now that food is fashionable, a certain amount of diners want to be trend leaders by being the first to try new foods, while others want to try new things for the fun of it. This consumer shift has been exhibited in recent years by widespread acceptance of formerly obscure ingredients such as hummus — now a supermarket staple — and quinoa.
Looking for adventure
The latter was introduced to casual-dining chains just three years ago, when it was part of a vegetarian tasting menu at Darden Restaurants Inc. subsidiary Seasons 52. It wasn’t listed as quinoa, however, but as “grains of life,” because quinoa wasn’t a readily recognized ingredient.
The majority of consumers are looking for food adventure.
According to a recently conducted survey by the National Restaurant Association on consumption of ethnic food, 20 percent of respondents defined themselves as adventurous diners who “really enjoy trying new dishes that [they have] never had before.” Another 56 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed said they were open to trying new dishes occasionally.
Restaurants have responded to these customers by introducing new ingredients. However, to give those ingredients even broader appeal, the restaurants generally introduce them in a context that makes them less alienating. For example, Rubio’s Coastal Grill this summer introduced a new fish, grilled Japanese sea bass, to its 193 locations, but it did it in the form of the chain’s beloved fish tacos.
Culinary adventurism is even more prevalent among younger customers. The NRA ethnic foods survey found that 29 percent of respondents said they had tried a new ethnic food — defined as food that originated in a different country or that is specific to a certain region within the United States — within the past year. But that figure jumped to 37 percent for people aged 25 to 34 and to 48 percent for people aged 18 to 24.
Those age groups, as well as people under 18, are also the ones most likely to share pictures of those new foods on social media, adding to their reputation as adventurers and giving restaurants new reasons to offer foods their guests might not have tried before. Romano’s Macaroni Grill did that this summer with the introduction of Calabrian peppers, a robust chile from Italy that’s appearing on menus at trendy independent restaurants. To make the new ingredient less of a challenge, the 141-unit casual dining chain introduced it in the form of a pesto made with sundried tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice, sea salt and olive oil as well as Calabrian peppers. To ease the risk even further, it served the pesto as part of an approachable breaded steak & eggs dish on its new brunch menu.
Adventure is one level of food-related self-expression. On another level, many diners, often the same ones keen for culinary adventure, have restricted what they will eat, sometimes based simply on preference, but often based on real or imagined allergies, or moral concerns.
“I think it allows them to connect with other people,” Hallman said about these restricted diets. “It’s a signifier. It allows them perhaps to distinguish themselves from other people.”
Social pressures can have an effect on diets, too, like when parents judge what other parents feed their children, Hallman said.
Restaurants have responded with an array of items to suit their customers’ dietary whims, from gluten-free foods to protein-focused bowls and snacks.
Dan Kish, senior vice president of food at Panera Bread, said the 1,900-unit fast-casual chain is taking a broader approach, even developing an app and updating its website to accommodate guests with dietary issues. With the click of a virtual button, customers will be able choose categories including vegan, “gluten conscious,” “protein rich,” and “calorie conscious.” Then the website or app will only show menu items that match those criteria and even reformulate certain items to make them fit, such as removing croutons from salads to make them gluten conscious.
Panera’s move also acknowledges another reality of the modern food climate: Although people’s diets can give them a sense of belonging, that doesn’t mean their choices are permanent.
Laurie Demeritt, CEO of consumer research firm The Hartman Group, pointed to a recent report on health & wellness by her company that found a third of respondents have tried a different customized eating approach over the past 12 months — “doing Paleo for a while, being a vegan for a couple weeks, kind of trying it on and then discarding it and moving on to something else, since they don’t really necessarily know what’s going to be right for them,” she said.
Restaurants should be aware that such life choices could change every few weeks, so rather than committing to catering to a specific dietary choice, they should have the flexibility in place within their systems to adjust to whatever their customers are looking for, Demeritt said.
Power of perception
If most Americans are asked, they’ll say they’re trying to eat more healthfully. But even when they actually act on those claims — and they do with increasing frequency — what they think of as good for them might not actually be. That doesn’t merely have to do with salads that are unexpectedly 1,200 calories (dressing, croutons and cheese can sneak up on you). Consumers often confuse terms that seem healthful, like “fresh” and “natural,” with actually healthful food. A naturally raised, local, sustainable slab of pork belly has just as many calories as any other kind of bacon, for example, and with obesity remaining the single biggest health challenge in the United States, calories are important.
“If you’re a nutritionist or a dietitian, you think about health and wellness as very structured — how many calories, how much fat, what’s the right balance of fiber, and protein, etc,” Demeritt said. “If you’re a [health & wellness] professional, you think that’s what health and wellness means to a consumer. It by no means does.”
In fact, according to the Hartman Group’s recent report, the 13 percent of consumers most engaged with health & wellness think of it as “being attuned and connected to mind, body, soul, relationships and the wider world.” This mindset on health and wellness translates to buying sustainable, humanely raised and locally sourced items all fit into their notion of their own well-being, and what Demeritt refers to as “fresh, real [and] minimally processed foods.”
That reality is clear to restaurant operators at all levels, whose job is not to police the dietary habits of their customers but to sell them food that they want to eat. In response to consumers’ interest in “cleaner” food, restaurants ranging from Panera Bread to Papa John’s to Subway have moved to strip artificial ingredients from their food while other large chains, including chicken sandwich giant Chick-fil-A, have committed to buying protein raised without antibiotics. CKE Restaurants Inc. subsidiaries Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s now offer a burger made with naturally raised beef — free of added hormones or antibiotics — and smaller, younger chains, such as 28-unit better burger chain Bareburger, have such purchasing practices as part of their corporate DNA.
Creed of Yum Brands said the fact that “fresh and real” foods aren’t necessarily better for you, is beside the point.
“I can argue the facts, but the facts don’t matter, because it’s the perception, the perception is the reality,” he said.
He added that Yum Brands should shift towards food that is “real” and affordable.
Management of Pudgie’s Famous Chicken, a legacy brand on Long Island in New York that is now down to three-units, has made a similar observation and is in the process of rebranding.
Gary Occhiogrosso, president and chief development officer of Truefoods, which owns the Pudgie’s brand, said the chain started shifting emphasis away from its signature skinless fried chicken with a prototype it opened a year ago in Massapequa, N.Y. The skinless fried chicken has a more healthful perception than other fried chicken since it doesn’t have the high-fat skin, but it is still fried chicken. The new unit was given a new name: Pudgie’s Naked Chicken.
“Most people just call it Naked Chicken now,” he said, noting that he plans to drop the “Pudgie’s” in future branding.
The word “naked,” apart from being fun marketing, made reference to the chain’s signature dish, still an important part of the menu, and also implied a cleanness and purity expressed in new items, such as salads, brown rice bowls and a grilled chicken sandwich.
“The general public today looks toward cleaner eating and healthful options,” he said, noting that they love fried chicken but understand the need to eat other things, too.
Giving control to the consumer
Customizability, and how that resonates with guests, is often cited as a reason for the current success of the fast-casual segment. Never mind that Burger King was inviting its customers to “Have it your way” in the 1970s, or that Subway started assembling food in front of customers long before Chipotle had even been conceived. The open-kitchen feel and overt involvement of customers in the construction of their meals has given those customers a sense of empowerment that makes them feel good about eating a 1,000-calorie Chipotle burrito, when they would have felt bad about eating a 540-calorie McDonald’s Big Mac.
Hallman said that people sometimes feel better about what they’re eating just by doing something about it — practically anything, in fact, such as deciding to put a little bit less guacamole on their burrito.
“When you give people a sense of control they can feel better,” Hallman said. “Giving them something to do, an activity which gives them the illusion of control, can work wonders.”
That might be why the easy customization that’s a hallmark of fast-casual restaurants has such appeal.
Drew French, founder of Your Pie, a 22-unit fast casual pizza chain, said he established the chain with the idea that it would have a “user-generated menu.”
“That’s why we call it Your Pie to begin with,” he said.
The chain’s messaging focuses on asking customers what they like on their pizza. “We added gluten-free dough because people kept coming in with their own dough and asking us to use it,” he added.
“What customers like about Your Pie and our [fast-casual] style in general is they can see what they’re putting in their bodies. A lot of it is about what they can see and smell and touch and feel,” he said.
But the restaurant also benefits from customer suggestions, which currently is inspiring their “Craft Series” of pizzas that use seasonal ingredients. In August that was a peach and prosciutto pizza.
“It’s about giving customers access to the brand and asking for their feedback, and then hopefully giving them what they want,” French said.
What customers say and what they do
With high and sometimes contradictory expectations for food, many consumers are setting themselves up for disappointment. It’s a tall order to have reasonably priced, delicious, nutritious, humanely raised, sustainable, local food on hand for every meal.
As a result, people often pick and choose their values, Hallman said, deciding, for example, to ignore the fact that their strawberries aren’t local because they want to make strawberry cheesecake for Thanksgiving.
Or people will engage in what Hallman calls “psychological bargaining,” such as drinking a diet soda and rewarding yourself with a slice of pecan pie.
Or, as number crunchers at the online ordering platform Olo observed, eating meals they feel are good for them early in the week and blowing their diets on Friday.
At NRN’s request they looked at three national burger chains and how their sales evolved over the course of the work week. Although they couldn’t divulge the brands’ names for confidentiality reasons, all three displayed slow sales on Monday, which then spiked as the week progressed. They saw a similar increase at a national wing chain, with sales as much as 75 percent higher on Friday than on Monday.
Conversely, a salad brand saw sales on Friday that were 43 percent lower than they were on Monday, indicating that chains with solid health halos might consider offering cheeseburgers on Fridays, or that burger chains might consider highlighting some lighter items earlier in the week.
Apart from the psychological games we all play to justify our choices, sometimes the realities of everyday life intervene at meal times.
Stan Dorsey, chief strategy officer for The Center for Generational Kinetics, a research firm that focuses on Millennials, said that, as we observe this ongoing evolution of Americans’ interaction with food, there are still fundamental aspects of eating that remain unchanged.
“Sometimes it comes down to cost and it comes down to speed,” he said. “If you’re at lunch, you need to get in and get out. There’s a chance that you’re going somewhere that’s probably not as healthy that will get you out faster and that will meet your needs at that time.”
As much as people might be concerned about social justice and a clean planet and their own health, sometimes they’re hungry and just want to eat lunch.