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Foodservice today: Diners seek cues to fresh, healthy, culinary skill

In foodservice of the past, processed uniformity in food reassured consumers of quality and safety in products, but today such characteristics are anathema to many.

4 min read

Consumer Insights



Symbolic of sweeping departures from established eating habits and formerly reserved for largely special occasions, eating out or getting take out have become everyday occasions — no longer reserved for special events in our culture.

The Hartman Group’s Food Service Experience 2016 report affirms that much has changed in recent years in the world of food, and while some of those changes have originated from within the realm of foodservice, many changes are a result of a broader trend in American food culture where consumers are demanding fresher, healthier, and higher-quality foods. These changes are reflected in interesting, unique taste profiles and even speak to socially-conscious consumer identities.

In foodservice of the past, processed uniformity in food reassured consumers of quality and safety in products, but today such characteristics are anathema to many. Instead, consumers look to be inspired by food, through unique flavors and experiences. They understand food not merely as eating — as a singular occasion — but as a process that connects them both externally to how food is made and prepared and internally to how it affects their bodies and sense of well-being.

Trend-forward restaurants and media that speak to such understandings of food are shaping these trends and consumers themselves are very much change agents in the evolution of food culture. With tastes changing, restaurants are innovating. Menu items once considered fringe or exotic are now the new norm, such as:

  • Spirit-infused sauces and new spices and cuisines
  • Local, organic, and artisan-produced fresh ingredients
  • Whole grains in breads, salads, bowls, side items
  • Non-meat protein sources, including plant-based
  • Fresh, never frozen meats, and animal proteins with distinctions like grass-fed and no antibiotics
  • Cage-free eggs and sustainable seafood

We also find that freshness, quality and healthy eating in foodservice have been elevated to new levels. These factors stem from the fact that over the past decade or so, consumer expectations of foodservice chains have evolved beyond seeing them as sources of fast, cheap and easy sustenance or familiar, indulgent comfort food.

Fueled in part by innovations in fast casual formats that have helped bridge the convenience of eating out with aspirations for healthier diets, consumers now list “freshness” as a key marker of quality in foodservice. Across the four restaurant channels we studied, when consumers talk about food that tastes “fresh,” they describe the experience of eating food that is:

  • Made with simple, “real” ingredients (simple, fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, all-natural/no artificial ingredients)
  • Minimally processed (cooked to order, open production, not sitting under heat lamps) and customizable

We find that consumers who frequent restaurants are increasingly savvy to exploring multiple restaurant formats and channels and though many are regulars at specific restaurants, it is the rare consumer who visits only one foodservice channel.

Today’s savvy restaurant-goers understand what to expect from different channels and restaurants within each channel. Depending on their mood, how much time and money they have and who they are with, consumers know they can easily find out about a restaurant on their phone, and they understand for what occasions it will be appropriate.

What do these consumer insights mean for foodservice?

Consumers are increasingly expecting foodservice to have a digital presence and loyalty programs.

User-friendly mobile digital tools should reflect and be integrated into brand identity and offer opportunities for increased engagement with a brand, including information about menu options, special promotions and nutrition.

Foodservice operators should also be aware that there is now a cultural focus on freshness and cues of culinary skill. While cravings and indulgence are key reasons for dining, eating out can be at odds with modern aspirations for health.  Operators should emphasize fresh, simple, quality ingredients and real production (e.g., real cooking, customization, made-to-order food, visually appealing food that communicates culinary skill and creativity) in ways that are appropriate for your brand to speak to quality, health and safety concerns.

Operators should also think beyond traditional mealtimes and dayparts. With the rise in snacking and the erosion of rituals and structure, restaurants that remain pigeonholed as mealtime destinations will lose dollars to formats and segments that are able to meet non-meal needs.

As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company’s associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.


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