Where to eat? Food service enters the knowledge economy
By guest contributor Arlin Wasserman, founder of food consultancy Changing Tastes, and The Hartman Group’s colleague in the syndicated research, “Diners’ Changing Behaviors: Sustainability, Wellness and Where to Eat.”
“Where to eat?” That’s the question we ask now, often before “what to eat?” There’s also a set of questions that tend to come after “what to eat?” They are: “Where was my food grown, how was it grown, who grew it, and what will it do to my health and the health of the planet?”
Still, “where to eat?” is the question today’s consumer asks more and more often as the share of meals we cook for ourselves continues to decline, a trend now stretching back decades.
The restaurant and food service segment has certainly benefited from our increasing desire to eat great meals but not take time to find the recipes, choose the ingredients and cook from scratch.
Grocery retailers still garner the majority of our food spending. But the fastest growing parts of the business are those that serve meals and dishes in which culinary professionals played a role. This includes the rapid growth of fresh and ready-to-eat restaurant-style meals as well as kabobs, fish roulades and other foods with inventive flavors in grocery stores. It also includes fresh and frozen ready-to-cook, center-of-the-plate choices, including marinated and portioned meats and fish. If you squint, it might seem that the fresh and ready meals section of grocery stores are starting to look like the food lines in buffet or limited-service restaurants.
Wherever we go to eat, we now spend more than half our food money on meals and dishes that culinary professionals helped create, either in restaurants or at prepared foods cases. They design the menus, make up the recipes, choose the ingredients and decide the proportions.
It might strike some people as odd that just as public interest in food, health and sustainability is coming into full bloom, we’re paying someone else to make these important choices for us. But that’s what happens when something gets more complicated and requires expertise. Do-it-yourself home cooking may be going the way of the do-it-yourself oil change and, at least in my neighborhood, the do-it-yourself manicure.
Consumers are paying professionals to do the tricky work, and the role of the chef has evolved from wearing a white toque to also donning a white collar, becoming a knowledge worker as well as a good cook. Today’s culinary professional is expected to be an expert in nutrition, sustainability, animal rights and worker rights along with flavors, plating and knife skills.
Just as other knowledge workers are paid for what they know and the decisions they make, culinary professionals are paid more than ever for their decisions and information, not just the food they serve. That’s a major shift in the marketplace: consumers don’t want to bear the responsibility for making the right choices. They’d rather pay a business more for its ideas and choices, not just for its apples, oranges, milk, bread and eggs.
Many grocery and food service companies are still catching on to this phenomenon and figuring out how they can shift away from making money on large selection and discounts and instead make a business out of offering fewer, better choices. In grocery retail, Whole Foods’ margins are large, the values it applies to merchandising are out front and its product selection is relatively small. Trader Joe’s and Sprouts are among the other top performers that are winning by offering a relatively small set of carefully chosen products.
In the restaurant and food service sector, a small, curated selection based on a clear culinary point of view also is winning, and not just in the world of fine dining and daily set menus. Chipotle offers its diners a few choices at a time: burrito, taco or bowl, brown or white rice, beef, pork, chicken or tofu, and so on, all with sustainability and integrity behind each choice. Fast-growing upstarts like Roti Mediterranean Grill, Tender Greens out west and Sweetgreen back east, Blaze Pizza and dozens of others are all drawing in diners not with endless choices but with a few, carefully made ones.
That’s how tastes are really changing. Today’s shoppers and diners want food that has great flavors and is healthy for them and healthy for the planet. It’s a complex request and one they don’t have always the time or expertise to make for themselves. Grocery retailers and food service companies that embrace making choices for their customers, and showing the values and reasons behind their decisions, will find that making healthy and sustainable choices is good business.
Arlin Wasserman is the founder of Changing Tastes, a consultancy that finds value and opportunity at the intersection of the five major drivers of change in our food system: sustainability, public health, information technology, demographics and the changing role of the culinary professional. Arlin also is chair of the Sustainable Business Leadership Council for Menus of Change, a joint initiative of the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health.