Not all ingredients are created equally, and increasingly, restaurant-goers want to know more details about how their food reaches their tables. A 2014 report from marketing researchers Sullivan Higdon & Sink finds that 65 percent of consumers want to know where their food is sourced, and 67 percent of consumers think it’s important to understand how their food is produced.
What’s more, 52 percent of consumers want restaurants to be more transparent about the content of their menu items, and 70 percent said that it’s important to feel good about the food and beverages they consume, according to Chicago research firm Technomic.
As the list of sourcing terminology keeps growing, from all-natural to sustainable and antibiotic-free to grass-fed, operators face the challenge of deciding which stories to tell.
Feel good stories
Often, knowing about food sources, or a food’s point of origin is what makes consumers feel good about their dining choices.
“Educated consumers want words with real meaning on the menu,” says Sara Monnette, senior director, consumer insights & innovation at Technomic. “They know that ‘natural’ is not a regulated term, and many words can get muddled. Telling an ingredient story is a way to be truthful and authentic.”
She points to Chipotle’s “food with integrity” approach as a leading example of point of origin storytelling. In the last few years, Chipotle has gone big with sourcing messages by creating mini-movies and making major television ad buys, but they started small, with in-store messages and menu copy. Many independent restaurants and emerging chains are building from similar blueprints.
“Most of our stores have large chalkboards listing what's local in the store that day,” explains Tony Rosenfeld, executive chef and co-founder of b.good, a Boston-based, 18-unit fast-casual chain. “Also, one of the first things customers see when they enter is a row of head shots of the farmers and artisans that raise/make the beef, local produce, ice cream, and milk for that specific store. Finally, we have table tents that tell the really cool stories of some of our different farmers and artisan purveyors. We try to tell folks' stories without embellishment; the authenticity of these people shines through.”
Tell the truth
On the supply side, Technomic asked 500 operators what they see as most important to their business, and clean labels, local sourcing, transparency in sourcing and sustainability all rated extremely high. Monnette notes that it may be easier for operators to maintain their point of origin stories when a concept establishes better sourcing as one of their founding principles.
Rosenfeld’s experience supports this idea. “Early on, we decided that creating a seasonal menu would not only highlight ingredients at their peak, but also source them when they are most abundant and affordable.”
For example, the only time a customer would see asparagus on a b.good menu is in the spring when Rosenfeld can source it domestically (in April) and locally (later in the spring), and it is reasonably priced. For other operators, especially larger chains, state or region of origin details— such Northwest salmon or Vermont cheddar—help bring some point of origin stories to the menu.
Customers respect honesty and want to trust that what they are being served is what operators say it is, says Monnette. She urges operators to disclose any sourcing problems up front instead of trying to get out from behind a bad news story. “It’s human to admit error,” she says.
Rosenfeld agrees. “Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate. Part of our commitment to sourcing locally is rolling with whatever happens to the crops each season. Our customers seem to understand if the blueberries are late, or if the tomatoes are undersized. Hopefully, it adds to the authenticity of what we are trying to do.”
For more ideas about incorporating point of origin information on your menu, visit Lamb Weston at www.tracemyfries.com.
This post is sponsored by Lamb Weston