A.C.T. Place settingAt The Hartman Group’s A.C.T. “Food Culture Forecast 2015” this past April 2 held in Austin, TX, professionals and practitioners from across the broad spectrum of the food and beverage industry converged for an immersive learning experience on the cultural factors and trends transforming their businesses. 

For those who missed out, here are 10 gems from the day’s presentations: 

1. Common Food Rituals Are Eroding Along With Eating Styles and Meal Prep Habits

The Hartman Group has been tracking changing eating behaviors for many years. Some of our most recent research finds that today nearly half of all eating occasions are alone. With households getting smaller (and 35 million Americans living alone), interest in traditional meal occasions (including the “family meal”) is waning. Snack occasions are now nearly equal to the number of meal eating occasions, 49 percent vs. 51 percent. Meal preparation rituals have also shifted. In 2014, only 31 percent of dinners were made from scratch, despite the foodie movement; six in 10 dinners were planned within an hour of eating. Good-bye family meals. Over half (59 percent) of family households cooked multiple meals/dishes to cater to individual preferences. 

2. We’re Living in an Era Defined by a Cultural Redefinition of Food Quality

Fresh, real and less processed are the new symbols of food quality today: 28 percent of consumers look for foods that are minimally processed, 26 percent seek foods that contain only ingredients they recognize, and 25 percent say they watch for products that are local or have the shortest list of ingredients.  

3. High-Income “Upmarket” Consumers Heavily Influence Food Culture

The 9.5 percent of the population who live in households with incomes over $100K and who are college or higher educated are heavily influencing U.S. food culture, elevating the culinary and health awareness of other consumers.  

4. Premium Takes Root in Healthy Categories While Other Distinctions Are Popular

Consumers appear more willing to pay for health and wellness than for culinary diversity or fresh; however, in combination, all three of these factors are a winning mix. High protein, fresh and less processed, “free-from” foods (e.g., dairy free), nutrient dense and easy-to-eat hand-to-mouth healthy snacks are among the new demands for healthy fare. Digestive superfoods, alternative slow carbs and lower-sugar-content energy foods are other fast-emerging trends. Premium dollar sales share accounts for 33 percent of the yogurt market, 28 percent of the nutrition bars market and 22 percent of the coffee sector.

5. Consumers Shop Multiple Channels Seeking Unique “Values” and Enjoyable Experiences      

Shoppers today are achieving “value” through multiple shopping trips and channels. In 2014, 61 percent made 2-3 food shopping trips per week, visiting an average of three channels, and 52 percent say they visited 2-3 stores. Foods and beverages are major traffic drivers for only four retail channels: grocery (driving 76 percent of visits), followed by 55 percent mass/super, 31 percent club and 22 percent natural/specialty store traffic. Specialty/natural stores have the highest satisfaction and customer loyalty and are most often associated with a fun experience. Costco, Trader Joe’s and Wegmans are cited as offering a spontaneous and enjoyable experience.

6. Digital Technology Ushers in New Ways of Participating and Interacting With Our Food System

Aside from sales alerts and couponing (which are popular), 44 percent of adults have used digital resources to discover new flavors, ingredients and cuisines; 31 percent say they use digital technologies to communicate openly with those who produce their food and 20 percent to buy directly from small merchants or artisans. About four in 10 (39 percent) consumers say they would trust a food website because it has good photos or visuals; 70 percent used a recipe from a website or app in 2014. Nearly half of smartphone users have recently used their device to order food delivery or to book or review a restaurant online. Among avid urban smartphone users, 13 percent wrote restaurant reviews at least weekly; 17 percent product reviews; 14 percent ordered snacks; 13 percent meal kits and 13 percent groceries. In 2014, 23 percent did some grocery shopping online, up from 18 percent in 2012.

7. Generation Next: The Rise of Millennials

Millennials are taking a more proactive stance towards their health and are more focused on community, social issues and humane treatment of animals than their older counterparts. They’re significantly more likely to opt for foods made with premium distinctions, including natural ingredients, non-GMO, organic, allergen-free and locally grown or manufactured. One-third of Millennials say they consider environmental concerns when buying food; 54 percent say they back companies that support the local community and 47 percent say they avoid buying foods from firms with poor labor practices. Four in 10 complain that sustainable products are too expensive.

8. New Visions of Diet and Nutrition: Personalized Eating Ideologies

Consumers are experimenting with a new generation of eating behaviors, ranging from vegetable or plant-centric offerings to elimination, free-from, detox and food combination diets. Even in terms of indulgence, they are increasingly opting for unsweetened, minimally sweetened with real sugar or natural sweetener alternatives. There’s growing interest in gut microbes and the soil in which food is grown. FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) is the latest culprit blamed for digestive disorders, citing fructose malabsorption. Culinary ingredients with therapeutic properties are replacing some drug and dietary supplements. Consumers are enamored of new sources of protein, including insects.

9. The Changing Face of Eating Out: Reprioritizing Food Service Offerings

Recent Hartman Group eating-out research finds that on average Americans dined out 16 occasions a month, 14 for everyday and two for special occasions. Eight in 10 adults say they have changed their dining habits in the past few years: 42 percent say they order healthier, 31 percent say they try new flavors/styles of food, 34 percent avoid sugar-added beverages, 25 percent choose freshest, cooked-to-order menu items, 18 percent explore more global/ethnic foods, 18 percent choose locally sourced or seasonal items, 18 percent order more plant-based food and 17 percent choose restaurants that allow meal customization/substitutions. Opportunities in food service abound: breakfast, small bites, eliminating additives/preservatives, the casualization of organic (and its penetration into all levels of food service) as well as all-day snacking are high-potential opportunities. In terms of ingredients, diners say they are trying to include more vegetables, fruits, fiber, whole grains, vitamin D, calcium, antioxidants, healthy oils, nuts and omega-3s.

10. Key Areas of Uncertainty for Food and Beverage Stakeholders: Meeting the Needs of Increasingly Sophisticated Consumers

Over the next five years, mid-market consumers are projected to become more selective and continue to upgrade their culinary and healthy-eating skills. The nagging question is: will retailers reorient their stores to better service tomorrow’s more food-sophisticated shopper? The move to fresh will continue, and more products will try to convey a health halo through choice of ingredients, label statements, minimal processing and new technologies. However, how far will preventative health trends go? Will they remain niche or go mainstream? Is it best to invest in small new brands and go after the premium space? Size matters, but it’s small that really counts today: two-thirds of the growth in the food industry in 2014 came from small food companies.

These insights are excerpted from presentations made throughout the day at The Hartman Group’s A.C.T. “Food Culture Forecast 2015” event held this past April 2, 2015 in Austin, TX. Data and insights are drawn from Hartman Group intellectual capital, proprietary research and national syndicated studies. We invite you to our next event occurring September 24, 2015 in Seattle when we examine how wellness-minded consumers are reshaping the marketplace. Health & Wellness Now—And Next: Transforming the Food & Beverage Marketplace provides a new understanding of the consumers, the culture, the channels and the future. More information is available here.