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Reengineering the Kitchen to Serve the New Consumer

With full-service and casual dining growth at one percent last year, competition for the diner’s dollar continues to escalate. Operators continue to seek new ways to entice customers to frequent their restaurants as opposed to eating in alternative locations down the street. To do this, foodservice operators keep looking for ways to satisfy the evolving demands of socially-networked, technology-savvy, issue-conscious consumers.

It used to be that “experts” led the trends. Fashion designers dictated women’s hemlines and the width of men’s ties. Car designers introduced and removed fins, two-tone paint jobs and hatchbacks. Celebrity chefs made their names with designer dishes that swept the nation, moving from white tablecloth to casual to fast-food chains. Most consumers followed the trend of the moment, happy to be in the forefront of what was hot.

No more! People buy clothing and cars because they fit their lifestyle, and these lifestyles can be very individual. Thanks to social networks, consumers now gain exposure to goods, services and trends from all over the world. Instead of adopting a style dictated by so-called trend leaders, they design their own styles based on the plethora of ideas that come to them every day via the internet. They are their own style leaders.

Likewise, in foodservice, consumers have replaced chefs as the trend leaders. They decide what is important to them and they vote with their pocketbooks. Lifestyle chains like Starbucks have given them a taste of what it’s like to have the power to design their own purchases. The resulting desire for personal choice, which has also brought about a new awareness of the importance of food origins and production, has had an effect on the food industry that started small but is now growing steadily, like the ripple effect when you drop a stone in water.

This growing phenomenon means that savvy operators need to keep up on the latest conversations and behaviors to differentiate between fads and long-term trends that will bring about changes in their product and service models.

A number of factors have changed what consumers want to see on the menu. In the past, they were driven by taste buds. The greatest change in what consumers want from a restaurant has to do with health, well-being and social responsibility. Increasingly, they want the nutritional aspects, the origin, the preparation — in other words, the whole story behind their selection. This desire to know the provenance of their food is slowly causing an evolution in the go-to-market strategies of operators in all segments, from commercial to non-commercial.

For many years, consumers talked about eating healthier but now they are actually doing so. For instance, the increased use of fresh produce and decreased portion size of animal protein is a trend that is sweeping K-12 schools, colleges and universities as well as independent restaurants and chains. The increased use of fresh produce has also spurred the expanded use of local products. The “buy local” craze has become a foodservice imperative.

A trend piece published recently by foodservice industry research firm Technomic predicts significant changes in consumer behavior. Called “The Coming Decade, Foodservice Industry Metamorphosis,” it reveals how operators see their customers’ desires changing. Eighty-nine percent of the operators surveyed believe that health and wellness will influence purchasing decisions in the future. Eighty-two percent say guests will want sustainably produced foods and 79 percent say the demand will include food with no hormones or antibiotics and that has been treated humanely. In terms of menu construction, Technomic says this means less-processed foods, more recognizable ingredients, a shorter ingredient list and locally-grown and processed products are the way of the future.

Not every consumer group embraces these changes, as yet. At Technomic’s Consumer Trends conference last year, the research company identified a pair of behavior-based consumer segments: fast frugal and healthy chic. Fast frugal folks eat on the run, often in fast food places, value taste over health benefits and are not so likely to exercise. These are not the diners affecting changes in the back of the house. Rather, it is the healthy chic group that places value on fresh products vs. processed ones, has not been affected by the economy and exercises to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The healthy chic segment has made its desires known and has the buying power — and the will power — to back up its demands. The question for operators is, what will be the eventual spillover from the fast frugal cohort into the healthy chic group and how long will that take? That it will happen eventually is not in question.

Consumer food activists have made themselves heard in terms of traceability, food labeling and nutrition. The incidence of foodborne illness and food safety has brought about changes in all of the regulatory organizations and new rules for food production are coming down in all areas. This regulatory focus has made consumers more aware of their own food choices and continues to affect purchasing patterns.

The increase in allergies to various foods has also had an enormous impact in every segment of the industry. These range from serious, life-threatening reactions to things like peanuts to personal preferences to avoid certain items like gluten.

A steadily growing share of the market also wants to know where and how foods were produced. Was the poultry free range? Questions like this were rarely asked 10 years ago but now are common enquiries made of wait staff. The desire for transparency has changed the way operators write their menus, with more of a focus on origin and production, as well as nutrition.

A number of these business-changing trends are already having an effect on foodservice operations, mostly in the back of the house, but also in the front. These changes seem to cluster into three categories: culinary-driven healthier foods, social responsibility and individualized service. Each has spurred reengineering in the kitchen and on the menu.

Culinary-Driven Healthier Foods

Diners do not want to give up variety and taste, of course, in their desire to eat healthier. This challenges chefs to respond creatively. Some food’s “health factor” comes from purchasing and some from preparation. The former can have an effect on the bottom line and both can have a significant impact on operations.

Foodservice consultant Georgie Shockey, co-principal at Ruck-Shockey Associates, is working with five hospitals in the South whose fryers will have disappeared from kitchens by January 1, 2015. The staff will now use ovens to bake or roast foods. “This is a big shift for them, especially because they are in the South and frying is part of that Southern cuisine,” she says.

Steam lines are disappearing from some schools and corporate dining rooms. Replacing these traditional serving platforms are heated shelves that hold grilled or roasted items rather than the less appetizing piles of soggy food typical in the past. There also has been an increase in the use of plant-based foods in these segments. To counter the increase in fresh products purchased locally, operators are cutting the portion sizes of animal protein. Since animal protein prices have escalated, this saves enough money to balance any additional cost of fresh produce items and the labor involved to prepare them.

Foodservice consultant Karen Malody, owner of Culinary Options, says some peripheral changes have resulted from shifts in the cooking processes. Consumers perceive anything roasted or grilled as being healthier and, indeed, these processes better retain the nutritional aspects of food. Since grilling and baking often take longer than frying, it may be necessary for the proper holding equipment, depending on the volume requirements.

In fact, Malody reports seeing a resurgence of sous vide, the water-bath preservation process that has had sporadic popularity with chefs since the 1980s. While the sous vide process takes time to accomplish, the re-thermalizing of the dishes later provides a high quality meal that is the ultimate in convenience.

The pursuit of intense flavors has also been expanded, Malody says. She sees more marinating equipment, like tumblers, that allow the operator to quickly imbue items with deep flavors. Smoking is another way to heighten flavor. Malody says she’s seen operators not only smoking meat but also vegetables, soup ingredients and cheese. Foodservice operators can choose from a variety of smoking methods, ranging from under-the-counter units to barrels in the back yard. “The smoking technology can be applied to almost everything, especially the cold-smoke process,” she says.

Removing fryers and steam tables can free up space in the kitchen in case updated cooking and service plans call for an additional oven or holding equipment.

Farm-to-Table and Nose-to-Tail

The purchasing of healthier food affects a number of areas: fresh vs. frozen, local vs. imported and whole vs. processed. Inventorying fresh vegetables and animal protein affects the storage area. Cooler space expands and freezer space can be reduced. Buying locally grown food generally means that it comes to the loading dock whole. This means more labor involved before it reaches the diners’ plates. Operators need to wash and trim produce before cutting and chopping. There is also shrink to deal with if the produce is cooked.

Local purchasing also results in seasonal supply issues, depending on the climate. Where the growing season is short, root vegetables that last through the winter are coming into favor. These require labor and creative preparation, as well. Local produce, especially if it is organic, can often be more expensive to purchase than frozen or otherwise processed. Some operators are reducing the portions of animal protein, which costs have escalated, to balance out the expense.

The purchasing of whole carcasses has not expanded beyond a few chef-driven restaurants, but it has an impact on those who are doing it. The “nose-to-tail” approach to beef, pork or lamb means there will be a lot of unfamiliar cuts, like shanks, that operators will need to introduce to diners in creative ways. Operators need to hold the carcasses in separate walk-ins, too, to prevent cross contamination.

Individualized Service

Consumers’ desire to have what they want when they want it affects foodservice operators across all segments. In white tablecloth and casual dining, Technomic sees more focused and local menus. This seems to contradict diners wanting variety, but what has occurred is that they now can choose a particular restaurant to go to for a particular type of culinary experience, knowing the food will be authentic and fresh, rather than going to a restaurant that has a menu with the traditional huge variety of dishes that make the guests wonder how fresh everything actually is.

Even the chains are responding. McDonald’s is testing customizable burgers in several units. This is the extent to which consumers’ desire for really having it their own way continues to impact the industry. The strength of burger chains has always been that guests always knew what they were going to get, they got it quickly and didn’t pay as much as they would have in a casual dining restaurant. Customization means a slowdown of ordering and preparation and an increase in labor, which contradicts the historical go-to-market strategy of the fast-food chains. McDonald’s new concept is a testament to the new power of the consumer.

The desire for individualized service has also inspired the use of self-ordering and payment technology. A number of chains have self-ordering kiosks that not only provide variety for guests but also display the order histories for loyal customers. Some full-service restaurants now place ordering technology on tabletops.

Datassential, a foodservice research firm, has come out with an occasion-based model for market segmentation that the company believes should replace the traditional one based on dayparts. Their theory is that dining represents a series of occasions, ranging from family meals and social gatherings to quick bites, running errands and last-minute dinner. Again, this is evidence of the new power of the consumer. Dayparts — breakfast, lunch, dinner — have been based on operator-driven, functional formats that made a clean cut between each occasion. Now, dayparts blend together and include such categories as snacks and all-day breakfast. This has the potential to disrupt mealtime prep,
so operators need to plan and organize their kitchens accordingly, according to Malody and Shockey.

Social Responsibility

The ultimate in social responsibility is not making your guests sick. The increase of allergies in children and adults has been a phenomenon that has changed school lunches, peanuts in airplanes and many foodservice menus. Shockey reports visiting a burger chain and ordering a burger without a bun. She was asked if it was a gluten issue. She said yes. Then she was asked if it was an allergy or a preference. The difference was in the way the burger would be cooked. For actual allergies, it would be cooked in a pan separate from the grill where the buns were browned. For preferences, it would be cooked on the grill and served without the bun. This separation of an allergen ingredient from food that contains the ingredients, like nuts, is necessary for absolute protection against a serious issue.

The social responsibility movement relating to food origin has come about perhaps as a result of investigative journalism into production and processing practices that have, in some cases, been less than stellar. Overcrowding of poultry and swine, intensive animal farming and slaughter of ill cows has each had coverage in the news. Foodborne illnesses and allergen attacks have also made consumers much more aware of the origins of food than ever before.

This has spurred operators to respond not only with more specific purchasing practices but also by including information about those purchases on the menu. The FDA menu labeling regulation, requiring calorie counts for everything, is just the beginning of the menu revolution. Information about the farm where the potatoes came from that were made into the fries on the menu, the fact that the beef was grass fed, the fact that the bread is gluten free — and all the various data about the life of the food before being served — is what could be called educational marketing. It is information that will assuage diners’ concerns about what they are about to order. It is tied to the evolution of the new consumer.

The Next Evolution?

It is clear that a growing segment of the dining industry demands healthier food, wants to know its origins and ingredients, wants it to be delicious and is eager to engage in technology to order and pay for their orders. There is still a segment that eats fast food, fried food and processed food and wants it cheap. Over time, this will change. There will be fewer one-size-fits-all operations that are driven by the company’s mission to provide cheap food to the masses.

The burden will be on operators to maintain constant diligence on consumer trends and see how they may have an impact on their operations. They will need to look at the economics of changing processes in the back of the house and ensure that additional sales will be the outcome. Sourcing will be more important than ever in terms of food safety, humane treatment, sustainability, freshness and geography.

Technomic sees more focused and local menus in the future. They also predict a decline in the traditional chain segment that doesn’t adapt to the consumer evolution. All of these changes will have an impact on labor in the kitchen, storage space and cooking processes. Front-of-the-house changes will occur as well, in the degree of information and education available to diners either through menus or via wait staff. It may be true that the next five years will see changes in foodservice far greater than any in the last fifty. It will be a fight to the finish.