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Reflections on food culture: The forces that shape consumer behavior

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

People often speak of Alice Waters as a leading light in the trend toward fresh, less processed food. Utilizing her now-famous restaurant Chez Panisse as a springboard, Waters pioneered — and politicized — a new way of thinking about food that chose as its motif the romance of an imagined, premodern past. “So successful was her recipe for authentic food that the values she braided together into Chez Panisse’s winning formula — fresh, local, seasonal, sustainable, traditional and simple — now seem inseparable,” Emma Marris observes in Slate.

At first glance, the spoils of Waters’ victory can be found in many thousands of food trucks and farmers markets, and the millions of consumers demanding that their canned beans be local, whatever that means.

But are consumers putting these ideas into practice in the way Waters intended? We love our farmers markets, but are we there to trace the relationship of our food to its source, or do we just like to wander in the sunshine buying groovy-colored honey?

Recently, new voices have emerged as an alternative to Waters, creating a slight shift in food culture and consumer behavior. As Marris reports, chefs such as Daniel Patterson and René Redzepi, whose restaurant Noma is among the best in the world, freely tinker with technology to access what they believe is the essence of natural ingredients in a way that’s not possible by simply eating a carrot from Alice’s garden. Redzepi describes one dish of dehydrated scallop chips on boiled grains: “We’d made a dish with no reference points in the past nor in other lands.”

This postmodern stance eschews politics in favor of creativity and is not necessarily at odds with sustainability.

But why pay attention to it? At the risk of sounding simplistic, wouldn’t you want to be out ahead of the curve? To build the foundations to great brand and retail legacies while your competitors are heads down in the trenches of today, struggling for relevance in an increasingly crowded marketplace?

It’s ironic that while Alice was tending her peas at Chez Panisse, the founders of Starbucks — Zev, Gordon and Jerry — were busy roasting their beans. Both opened their doors in 1971. By comparison, Whole Foods was a relative latecomer, emerging in 1984. One wonders where A&P would be today if it had the audacity to align itself with those developments in the early 1980s.

If Waters’ philosophies reflected the growing skepticism of technological solutions espoused by ‘60s- and ‘70s-era political ideologies, Redzepi’s and Patterson’s beliefs are in tune with a contemporary culture that is increasingly global and that welcomes technology into every facet of our lives.

It’s much less interesting to whine about what manufacturers are doing with their tools when we can just buy 3D printers or food dehydrators and do things as we see fit. The Waters-inspired mantra of “screwing with things is bad” is replaced by “screwing with things may be bad, but let’s screw with them ourselves and find out.”

We looked at these issues in detail in a 2009 white paper, Technoemotional: An Innovative Cuisine Trend Emerges. Its conclusions and implications are relevant today, largely because they were grounded in culture:

STOP PENDULUM-SHIFT THINKING: Avoid taking a revolutionary perspective on trends — the idea that new trends must, by definition, refute previous or current trends.

DON’T ABANDON FRESH & QUALITY: As professional chefs — and increasingly consumers — begin to tinker with food science technology to provide higher-quality experiences, do not assume that the trend toward fresh, local and seasonal will subside.

RETHINKING TECHNOLOGY: If you are in CPG, consider how technology can create the highest-quality food experiences possible. Rather than settle on dated notions of technology as a driver of efficiency, predictability or homogeneity (or a tool for scalability), why not reconceptualize technology as a tool for creating more unique, compelling, customized food experiences?

REDEFINITION OF QUALITY: The sum total of ideas, preferences, desires, techniques and “ways of doing” that have characterized trends in the food world for the past 30 years (be they about all things fresh and local or all things technological) point to one inescapable conclusion: The overriding impulse is toward the redefinition of quality — the foundational restructuring of what it means to enjoy a quality food experience.

The Hartman Group, an authority on consumer culture, has a reputation among its Fortune 500 clients for translating shifts in shoppers’ behavior into solutions for overcoming growth and innovation challenges. Harvey Hartman founded the company in 1989 and is its soul, inspiration and charismatic force.


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