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The dilemma of doing good

Perceptions of value continue to foil better-for-you options.

Soon, culinarians may be hitching capes to their standard-issue chef coats. If the prevailing rhetoric being projected out across Gotham is to be believed, it’s chefs who are being called upon to save the world.

Last month, I attended two foodservice conferences where the future of food was the central theme. Speaker after speaker painted a portrait of tomorrow’s diners: They want clean food, free of antibiotics, additives and anything else bad for you. They want to know where their food comes from, and the shorter the distance to the table, the better. They want more plant-based meals and less meat (mostly). They want their food—plant or animal—to be raised in a way that is friendly to the universe. And it’s not just food; they’re demanding goodness in a cup, not only on the plate. The kicker: Chefs have the power—and moreover, the responsibility—to deliver all of this to them.

Tall order? Yes. But it’s nothing new to foodservice. Alice Waters’ genesis of local and organic cuisine, Chez Panisse, is 46 years old, after all.

What is new is that the generation that experts say has the real potential to make a better-for-you lifestyle priority No. 1, Gen Z, is making their way through college—where they’re making their own dining choices, spending money (their own or their parents’) on meals and delivering their activist-slash-participation culture right to the doorsteps of foodservice operators. Soon, gangs of them will be infiltrating our cities.

Many operators are emerging from their bat caves to heed the signal, rising to the challenge—or at least appearing to. We’ve written a lot recently about the spate of high-end chefs launching fast-casual concepts designed to bring high-quality food to the masses. And I dare your icy exterior not to thaw just a little bit when Panera Bread’s new “Should be” commercial declares, “Food should be good ... strawberries should sing ... lettuce should be dirty ... sweet should never be fake ... and good food should be good for you.” Countless other restaurant chains—including several QSRs—are rolling out pledges to remove artificial flavors, coloring and other additives from the foods they serve, as if it were the next two-for-one coupon war.

That said, it doesn’t go unnoticed that some of those same operators aren’t exactly shuttering their other concepts, erected as veritable shrines to beef and butter. And many of those chains’ pledges won’t fully take effect for several years. A lot could change in that time to knock them off track. Heck, it took less than three hours for The Avengers to come undone in “Age of Ultron.”

Another potential threat to the crusade is consumers’ perceptions of value. What I left off of the laundry list of Gen Z demands is that they want all of that—but they want it cheap. Or at least they want to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth (or their parents’ money’s worth).

That means don’t hold back the beans and corn on that burrito, please—portion size and calories be damned.

And that, citizens of earth, is the real conundrum for culinary do-righters—balancing the forces of good-for-you against the evil side of value. 

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