Consumers’ evolving tastes

Beyond having a crystal ball, predicting consumer dining trends is no easy task. Who could have foreseen that Brussels sprouts, the vegetable children everywhere love to hate, would become this year’s menu darling? Or that quinoa, that hard-to-pronounce grain from South America, would find its way into restaurants and grocery stores across the country? And if operators aren’t offering at least a few gluten-free items, they’re missing out on a big opportunity.

While it’s inevitable consumers’ tastes in food change from year to year—keeping the savviest of foodservice professionals on their toes—there have been other dramatic shifts in the industry over the last five to 10 years that demand operators’ attention, regardless of the segment they’re part of.

Technology is here to stay

“Technology has permanently changed the way we experience food,” says Justin Massa, founder and CEO of Chicago-based research firm Food Genius. “We are at the start of a dramatic shift in how most people interact with any kind of product, and food is no different.” While these days it’s hard to imagine a world without smartphones, that was the case less than 10 years ago. Now we use them for everything, including getting directions, accessing emails—and, yes, ordering food. “That’s a massive change in consumer behavior,” says Massa.

But it’s not just mobile technology that operators have to take into consideration. Digital mobile boards and web-based ordering are part of our lives now, too. “There’s this explosion of new entrances to the food arena,” says Massa. For example, McDonald’s, Panera and Subway were some of the earliest adopters of Apple Pay, Apple’s new e-wallet platform, and Domino’s Pizza recently debuted a version of its mobile app that includes voice-activated ordering and navigation for on-the-go guests.

If operators don’t want to be left behind, then they need to incorporate technology into their operations. However, all of this great technology does come with a caveat: Data security needs to be taken very seriously.

What’s in store

Ever since the downturn in the economy in 2009, consumers have shifted back to grocery stores. And while the economy has slowly but surely recovered, says Massa, we haven’t shifted our focus back to dining away from home.

But that doesn’t mean consumers are necessarily cooking more at home. Rather, they’re starting to turn to grocery stores and other retail outlets for convenient food options that require little or no prep. In fact, according to a recent Technomic study, 37% of consumers say that they purchase ready-to-eat foods from a supermarket or retail store weekly or more often.

This shift means that both commercial and non-commercial operators should consider offering pre-packaged foods along with their traditional menus, such as portable sandwiches or salads during lunch or packaged pastries and breakfast sandwiches that customers can grab in the morning. For example, Dunkin’ Donuts recently debuted its Dunkin’ Go Bar, part of its grab-and-go snack choices offered at the counter. “The lines between foodservice and convenience packaged goods are blurring,” says Massa. “Restaurants need to participate in that blurring a little bit more.”

Time is money

A more recent phenomenon—and one that has been accentuated by technology—is the creation of an on-demand culture. “The majority of people don’t know what they are going to have for dinner at 4 p.m.,” says Massa, adding that he’s definitely in that group. This lack of planning has led to more and more dependency on convenience-driven, grab-and-go eating. Or, in other words, that old adage time is money still rings true. Operators should focus on offering portable, quality menu items for consumers seeking on-the-go options.

This post is sponsored by Kraft Foodservice


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