Experts discuss how the increasingly sophisticated consumer is driving menu changes.
More often than not, today’s consumers are fully engaged in all things culinary. The “foodie” label is one sophisticated restaurant guests wear proudly as they continually strive to up their gourmet IQ.
Four industry experts share their perspective on how an increasingly sophisticated American palate is making a difference from quick service to fine dining.
What has been the biggest contributor to the dining public's increasingly sophisticated palate?
Andrew Freeman: We have our millennial friends to thank for this. Their quest for knowledge and interest in food and where it comes from has impacted the increase in the more sophisticated palate. I also think the farm-to-fork, garden-to-glass and movements that celebrate farmers and gardeners have made everyone more aware.
Amy Myrdal Miller: There’s a lot at play here. Some of the increasing sophistication is due to media — social media in particular. As more people share their food experiences, insights and opinions, their friends, family and colleagues become exposed to this information. Food knowledge becomes social currency, and everyone wants to be “in the know” about new restaurants, ingredients and trends.
How do operators take a sophisticated palate into account when trying to stay one step ahead of trends?
Jesse Gideon: I think chasing trends always leaves you chasing and never leading. You have to pick your genuine style and signature. It’s very important to stay true to that mission and goals. Those sophisticated palates will search you out and find you when you’re doing something real.
Maeve Webster: Operators wanting to be more trend-forward can’t wait for those trends to reach mass-market appeal. To stay out in front operators need to reach earlier into a trend cycle to choose the trends that work best for their operation. They should keep an eye on authentic ethnic operators and those with newer cuisines within the U.S. market.
How does a more knowledgeable dining public affect R&D in chain restaurants?
AF: Chain restaurants have to take this movement seriously or they will be left behind. The quality of ingredients, where they come from and how they are being presented is now equally as important to chains as it is to fine-dining restaurants. The chains that promote this — made in our kitchens, scratch kitchens, etc. — will have the ability to rise above the rest.
MW: Consumers are far more interested in the minutiae of what they are eating. It’s also true because consumers are generally more intrigued by all of the elements of the dishes they order. But beyond that when it comes to the marketing end of R&D, restaurants need to think through how they are describing the dishes, what they are calling out and how they are defining the more exotic elements of that dish to make the items both approachable and understandable.
Do demographic groups such as millennials and boomers have different levels of knowledge? If so how do operators develop menus that will appeal to all guests?
JG: In terms of experience, of course, the older crowd wins over those whippersnappers every day. But I think any operators who chase only one age group are fooling themselves. Social status, education, race, wealth and jobs define people far more then age range.
AMM: Yes, data suggests millennials have grown up trying more cuisines, foods and flavors. They are on social media, and are more likely to use food experiences as social currency compared to boomers. But every operator should focus on great food and great service. All demographics want quality food served by people who care about the diner’s experience.
How does an educated palate affect an operator’s ability to develop menus in independent restaurants?
MW: Though you still see this happening at some independent QSRs, gone are the days when just calling out a “turkey sandwich” or “muffin,” etc., will suffice for many consumers. It’s forcing operators to rethink their menu boards, printed menus and marketing materials. There is a need for more information to be provided, which is stressing resources. Photos are also a key element because seeing the ingredients is as or more impactful than just reading about them.
AF: It gives the chef or operator a lot more leeway with seasonality and availability of ingredients — menus become more locally focused, seasonal and creative. Chefs can have more fun as well.
How far has culinary curiosity evolved? How far is too far?
AF: It has indeed evolved but in some cases we are seeing some backlash. Guests don’t want to know every single farmer and vendor and know that their lettuces were picked an hour ago. They trust the restaurants based on the reputation and like when the chef shares some information — but not all. I also think operators need to be careful that they don’t try to appeal to all culinary curiosity, as it may take them away from their core concepts.
AMM: Eating insects is a trend that has gone too far. Yes, there are many cultures around the world that rely on insects for protein, but here in the U.S. we could learn a lot more about appreciating plant-based proteins from crops like peas, lentils, and beans.
MW: I don’t think there is a “too far.” If consumers are willing to pay for something and an operator can source that and work with it then there really is no limit to what can be done with menus. Of course, we could likely start to run into a variety of sourcing issues from depriving native cultures of ingredients — as we’ve seen with quinoa — or importing ingredients that could endanger domestic production — as we’ve seen with yuzu. On the flip side, as Americans become interested in a wider range of ingredients and foods, it provides an opportunity for other countries to leverage that for their own economic gain.
JG: I don’t really think it has necessarily evolved or that it is even based on consumers. I think it’s based on the industry. In the past a lot of chefs were very secretive. Now everyone wants the attention and everything that goes along with that. I don’t think there is a too far; there is nothing really magical about what happens in a restaurant. It’s the logistics of thousands of details that have to come together at the right moment to give that one great experience.