The expansion of drive thru fast food joints in the 1970s and 1980s and popularity of salad bars in fast casual dining in the late 1990s and early 2000s are both good examples of changing consumer demands dictating the dining out experience. Dining habits of today’s foodservice consumers are once again challenging foodservice companies to get creative in the options they provide. More than ever before, consumers want food that’s healthy, but they also care about product diversity—when you serve an Anjou Pear, Four-Green Salad with Thick-Cut Peppered Bacon and Goat Cheese, it matters to the consumer that the goat farm is local and the greens are organic. Taking it a step further, having vegetarian, vegan, gluten safe, and nut free options are also higher priorities for today’s diner. Trying to provide all of these options had led to increased competition in the foodservice industry—especially among quick serve and fast casual restaurants. Different types of foodservice companies react to changing consumer demands in different ways in order to stay competitive. Over the past several years, the majority of quick serve restaurants started offering healthier choices, from lower calories to smaller servings—kids’ meals included. Fast casual restaurants are turning away from the traditional static menu. Non-static menus are growing in popularity and customers appreciate the opportunity to try something new every time they come in, or anticipate a favorite that’s only offered at certain times of the year. Summer salads, autumn squash and veggie dishes, along with other seasonal fare allows the restaurants to give customers the fresh, local options they crave all year round. In the casual dining restaurants, we see a focus on the “experience of going out to eat.” It’s not just about the food anymore; these restaurants try to tell a story and create emotions to get return customers. The story aspect is especially popular for chain restaurants. A lot of consumers find it comforting to know they’ll get the same experience at their favorite restaurant, whether they are in San Diego or St. Louis. Providing these options can make for happier and returning foodservice consumers, but often puts added strain on menus and the entire supply chain. Start to ease these challenges with these four simple, yet effective, strategies:
- Know your consumer. If you’re a trendy fast casual restaurant that just opened up downtown, your consumers will expect something different than a casual dining experience in the local mall.
- Be open to regular menu changes. Flexibility is key when trying to use fresh, local products. Having a backup plan when this year’s pumpkin harvest is lower than expected can help prevent lost sales. Offering a “new option” always sounds better than having to say, “we’re out.”
- Plan ahead. When sourcing regional or local produce, try to plan at least six to nine months in advance. Having an idea of the produce you need allows your suppliers to work closely with growers to make sure enough is planted in the beginning.
- Utilize technology. From menu signage boards to tabletop tablets, digital displays make it easy to change menus and adjust offerings when the need arises.