By Mindy Armstrong
Farmers markets around the country are back in full swing for the summer growing season. These direct-to-consumer venues represent perhaps the purest expression of a growing consumer demand — and a growing consumer desire. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that farmers' markets have increased by 17 percent in the past two years.
Knowing where one's food comes from is a phenomenon known as transparency. And although this need-to-know reflects a refreshing consumer awareness, there's more to the story. The demand to understand the sourcing and nutritional value of foodstuffs has reached all the way into the restaurant world.
"Transparency" has been much in the headlines in 2011. And it's an accelerating trend. From a renewed emphasis on hyper-local sourcing and roof-top gardens, to an increased focus on nutritional labeling, to a new-found desire for authentic flavors and "clean" ingredients, consumers are demanding healthier menu options these days. And they're seeking out restaurants that offer them. With taste remaining high on their list of must-haves, meeting all those needs poses a whole new set of challenges for chefs and operators.
Perhaps this shift is not so surprising. The concept of transparency reaches far beyond food; a natural response to national news. According to Inc. Magazine, trust in companies has declined by more than 58 percent during the recent recession. As consumers, we interact with brands more directly that ever before, and share our opinions with the ease and speed of a wireless connection. We expect companies to respond just as quickly.
Domino's is a brand that listened, learned and responded — and took a massive risk in doing so. In a transparent public response to consumer reactions to an unacceptable status quo, they revamped an admittedly substandard product, and launched a media campaign to acknowledge the reasons why. Even better, they encouraged customers to call them if their pizza wasn't up to par. Their own version of "radical transparency" (as Fast Company magazine calls the paradigm-practice) has paid off with an increase of almost 12 percent in same-store sales.
Let's face it: People love to eat out. Even in a shaky economy. Until recently, more dollars were spent in foodservice than in the grocery store. And although the recent recession has put foodservice consumer spending back below retail grocery spending, a return to restaurants is now in evidence. One difference is that educated consumers are now more careful of where they choose to spend their foodservice dollar. And if transparency is one of the things that truly matters to them, how do you make a competitive difference?
The answer might be as simple as sharing your values. Inc. Magazine reports that 72 percent of American consumers are searching for companies whose values match their own, which means that embracing the values of transparency is the right place to start. If you are committed to health, a proactive sharing of your menu's caloric values shows that you are true to customer desires.
Colorado-based Mad Greens, an 11-unit fast casual chain, recently added nutritional information to its menu even though they are not large enough to fall under the new federal regulations to do so. Their reason? Because it's an important part of their concept of transparency and health.
Chipotle has showed us that successful transparency is also about delivering fresher, less processed food quickly, a differentiating commitment from which they've never wavered. Inspired by the booming food truck craze, Qdoba recently launched Street Tacos, a concept that not only includes high-quality ingredients but also stays true to the to-the-minute freshness that street food is known for. With their open kitchen and made-to-order production, consumers are able to watch as their authentic, fresh tacos are prepared.
For three booming burger outlets, focusing on sourcing transparency has been part of their brand message from the beginning. Five Guys, who display the origin of the potatoes used for their daily-fresh-cut fries, is set to open another 200 locations in 2011. Elevation Burger promises ground-on-premises grass-fed beef, olive oil-fried French fries, and environmentally friendly operating practices (from renewable, non-pollutant building materials to oil for biofuel donation.) The chain has 15 units slated to open in 2011, with projections for 100 more over the next three years. Burgerville, a smaller regional chain, has continued to partner with local producers for many of their ingredients, including products for seasonal LTOs.
As menu labeling laws come into effect, and more emphasis is placed on nutritional values, the topic of transparency will become more entrenched in foodservice operations. Take this opportunity to be open and honest with your guests about why they should trust you: ingredients, nutritional benefits, or local sourcing are good places to start. It's a prime way to get a jump on the competition — and an important, growing trend.
Mindy Armstrong is the Insights & Account Manager at Food IQ. Her background in branding, food marketing and menu innovation in the restaurant industry gives her clients a unique advantage in the development of insight-driven menu concepts.
Photo provided by NatalieMaynor.