The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Where to Eat?

Where to Eat?

In the News

July 30, 2014

by guest contributor Arlin Wasserman, Founder and Partner, Changing Tastes

“Where to eat?” That’s the question we’re now more often asking and even before “What to Eat?” And there’s also now a set of questions that regularly 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 shoppers and diners are asking more and more often as the share of meals we cook for ourselves continues to decline, a trend now stretching back several decades. 

The restaurant and foodservice segment has certainly benefited from our increasing desire to eat a great meal, but we do not have to take the time to figure out a recipe, choose the ingredients and do the cooking from scratch. 

Grocery retailers still command the biggest share of food spending. But the fastest growing parts of the business are those that offer serving meals and dishes where a culinary professional has played a role. This includes the rapid growth of fresh and ready to eat restaurant-style meals in grocery stores. And it also includes fresh and frozen ready to cook center of the plate choices from marinated and portioned meats and fish, to kabobs and fish roulades that are being given more space in traditional meat and fish sections, many showcasing inventive flavors. 

And, if you squint a bit, it might seem that the fresh and ready meals section of grocery stores and the food lines in buffet or limited service restaurants are starting to look alike.

Where we go to eat, across all our eating opportunities, we’re now spending more than half the money we spend on food to pay culinary professionals to design the menu (either a menu in a restaurant or the selections in the prepared foods case), make up the recipes, and the choose the ingredients we will eat and in what proportions.  

To some it might seem odd that just as public interest in food, health and sustainability are coming into full bloom, we’re paying someone else to make the 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 as well. 

Consumers are paying professionals to do the tricky work and the role of the chef has moved from just having a white toque to also having a white collar, becoming a knowledge worker and not just 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. 

And, just like knowledge workers who get paid because of what they know and the decisions they make, culinary professionals also are getting paid more than ever for the decisions they make and the information they provide, not just for the food they serve up. 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 and oranges… or milk, bread and eggs. 

Many grocery and foodservice companies are still catching on to making a business out of offering fewer, better choices and shifting away from selling on large selection and discounts. 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 foodservice sector, a small, curated selection based on a clear culinary point of view is also winning, and not just in the world of fine dining and daily set menus. Chipotle offers its diner just 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 every choice it offers. Fast growing upstarts like Roti Mediterranean Grill, Tender Greens out west and Sweet Greens out 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, are 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 foodservice 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 businesses. 

  

Arlin Wassermanis 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.