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From politics to HR practices, restaurant transparency goes beyond the menu

Illustration: RB Staff

When the topic of transparency comes up, many jump to the menu. Consumers want to know what’s in their food and what the ingredients will do for them. But now, consumers’ calls for transparency have extended beyond food to include a look into a restaurant’s culture, from social responsibility to workforce practices. “It’s table stakes,” says Kelly Weikel, director of consumer insights for Technomic. “Everyone has to do it.”

Being transparent about company decisions, sourcing, human resources and sometimes even politics won’t always necessarily drive traffic today. But hiding things from consumers or opting to be opaque could tarnish a brand’s reputation, Weikel says. “If it’s broken, it can be a deal breaker for people,” she says. And that’s especially true for the youngest consumers. 

For example, 62% of Generation Z and 63.6% of millennials say it’s important that a restaurant brand be vocal about its social responsibility, according to Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics data. Older consumers—just under half of whom say the same thing—have a slightly different stance, though. “Older consumers don’t see it as something companies should be taking a stand for: This is a business. It’s their right to have their own ideas,” Weikel says.

“Younger consumers feel more entitled to say, ‘I’m supporting this business with my money. … They need to be involved making social statements.’”

Going after those younger consumers, brands are responding to the call for transparency. McAlister’s Deli, for example, is testing a new line of sustainable packaging made with compostable materials, with an eye toward appealing to the youngest customers. “Gen Z knows you’re moving in the right direction as a brand,” says Brandy Blackwell, the chain’s director of off-premise marketing.

Response time

That brand transparency isn’t always a planned marketing venture. A one-time occurrence can force a restaurant to respond in a way that reveals what kind of culture it encourages.

There was consumer outrage this spring when two African-American men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks after employees accused them of trespassing. The chain responded immediately to the outcry, closed stores for a half-day racial-bias training and, to allow its customers a peek into how the brand was retraining for culture, made the training materials public. Consumers “want brands that hold themselves accountable,” Weikel says. “[Starbucks] did own up to it and they did try to make it better.”

While brand transparency is now expected by consumers, there are still new frontiers for operators to address, Weikel says. Consumers are starting to demand to know how restaurants are treating employees, from wages and benefits to corporate culture, she says.

Interest in data usage, too, is not going away anytime soon, she says. Recent controversies—from data breaches to Facebook’s use of consumer data—have shown that consumers want to know what information brands are collecting and how they’re using it. Consumer privacy is going to be a huge issue for operators in the near future, Weikel says, with brands “coming out proactively about the data they have and how it’s being used, asking consumers to opt in or opt out.”

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