1. You source locally? Great! But what’s your labor policy?
Consumers’ desire to know where their food comes from will extend beyond where it’s grown to who is serving it, and more importantly how that person is treated and paid. According to a September 2014 study by Technomic, 83 percent of restaurant-goers support increasing the minimum wage (including 93 percent of liberals and 70 percent of conservatives). Commentary about a restaurant’s labor practices regularly creeps into the comments of even its most innocuous, unrelated social media posts, indicating that ignoring the issue won’t make it go away.
2. Leave me alone … nicely
Frictionless service—reducing anything that slows down the transaction, including consumer interaction—emerged as a big catchphrase inside the industry this year. Rapid pick-up windows where consumers could grab and go with little more than eye contact sprang up everywhere from Panera to Taco Bell. And at least one millennial-focused concept has made the idea its central operating theme. Businesses outside the industry, such as GrubHub and car-rental company Esurance have begun touting their frictionless ways in TV spots, and I predict restaurants will soon follow. As Apple Pay and other e-payment options catch on, possibly boosted by the rollout of the Apple Watch in early 2015, it will only continue. But customers still want to know they’re valued, and operators will need to find new ways to both acknowledge and ease their experience.
3. Keep it real
The latest crop of menu trends rolling out for 2015 cites regional Asian cuisine and authentic ethnic-food descriptions and ingredients on the menu. Authenticity is the new ethnic—and its being driven by consumers, including an increasingly diverse consumer base and more culturally knowledgeable millennial consumers. To appeal to these groups, Americanized dishes and glossed-over ethnic descriptions will no longer cut it; operators will need to show they truly know their stuff.
4. Hispanics are (really) the new millennials
The amount of attention and research that goes into understanding and courting millennials is mind-blowing. Heck, even we mentioned millennials in more than a dozen stories in the last few months, alone, compared to approximately that same number of stories mentioning Hispanic consumers in the past year. Arguably, though, Hispanics—which currently represent more than 17 percent of the population (and as much as 52% of the population in some urban areas)—are even more influential. Forget chasing Gen Z or whatever group of whippersnappers are trailing twentysomethings. Truly understanding—and not presuming to understand—Hispanic consumers’ values, preferences and habits when dining out is something operators can no longer ignore or delegate to some small department.
5. Health, schmelth. I want to feel “good”
“Healthy” is becoming one of those terms—like “farm-to-table” and “literally”—that has lost its true meaning. No matter how menu boards or doctors or the FDA define “healthy,” to consumers it means anything from fresh or locally sourced to hormone-free or gluten-free to protein-rich or antioxidant-packed. The bottom line is consumers want to feel good about what they eat (and about the places where they buy it) and operators will need to broaden their own definition and description of “healthy” options to appeal to consumers’ still-evolving definition of all the food that’s fit to eat.