The restaurant industry is always shifting. Fast food reigns supreme for decades, and now fast casual is forcing them to reevaluate their menu strategies. Quinoa takes over the world one year, and then it’s just another grain. Sometimes trends last so long it’s hard to even call them trends, and that’s because they aren’t really — they’re fundamental shifts. They are tied to other cultural institutions like politics, art, and fashion, and the food industry is both influencing and being influenced by these forces.
One such shift is the idea of transparency, and one of the sharpest examples of that is within the restaurant and food world we operate in. Simply put, today’s consumers want to know what they’re eating and why you chose it.
The Rise of Foodies Who Care About Restaurant Decisions
Today’s diners are interested in having as much information as possible about the sources of their food. They want to know where it comes from and the environment it was raised in, whether that was cage-free, grass-fed, organic, treated with GMOs, or antibiotics. They also want to know if the farmers you work with are local, paid well, and treated fairly.
These feelings are found in more than just millennials, too. At the heartland of this trend are Millennials and Gen Xers who adopt the label as “foodies” wholeheartedly, but Baby Boomers are joining the movement as well. 48% of Americans say they plan to change their consumption habits to reduce their environmental impact, and another 67% say they want to know everything that goes into the food they buy (1).
In other words, transparency is here to stay, and today’s diners are getting savvier by the year. Americans are wary of the tricks employed by industrial food companies over the past twenty years, and they recognize that marketing can disguise additive-ridden foods in clean-label wrappers. If your restaurant wants to stay competitive, you will have to approach transparency honestly.
At a fundamental level, today’s consumers want to take pride in what they’re eating, and knowing the sources of a dish’s ingredients plays directly into that. Consumers are willing to pay for that pride, too. If a restaurant charges more for eggs that are from a local farm, they understand why there is a premium cost associated with that.
So what does this mean for restaurants like yours?
How Restaurants Around the World Are Adapting to Food Transparency
Restaurants adapting to transparency operate on two main fronts. Existing brands are introducing transparency in more bite-sized ways, and new restaurants are building transparency into their model from the beginning.
There are many ways to demonstrate transparency in a restaurant — you’ve likely seen some strategies already. These mechanisms will not work unless you’re committed to adjusting your supply chain to promote sustainable farming practices, but remember that you don’t have to do this for every aspect of your restaurant. Start by highlighting your top-selling items or ingredients and go from there.
6 Steps to Immediately Add Transparency into Your Restaurant
Now that you have the big picture, let’s look at the six steps you can take to start your journey toward a more transparent restaurant, happier customers, and more sales.
1. Understand food labels and the supply chain options
The first step to improving transparency is to understand the food provider options you have in your area and knowing what the various food labels like organic or cage-free mean. Consumers rely on you to choose sustainable partners, but they will be unforgiving if you try to market disingenuous transparency and break their trust.
Start by outlining your existing supply chain and look into the direct sources of your ingredients — if they fit into your vision of sustainability at a price that makes sense, great. If not, highlight the areas of your chain that could be improved and then research local substitutes in your area.
2. Adjust distribution without alienating regulars
Once you’ve identified substitutes, get an estimate on a similar shipment, and see how that compares to what you usually pay. Depending on the costs, you may have to adjust your menu prices. The happy medium is to find options that may require you to bump your prices a bit, but not too much that your core customers will feel the need to question it. Pulling back the curtain and explaining why prices are increasing is exactly how you justify the increased cost to your customers.
3. Consider launching new lines or brands
Sometimes products will be fundamentally changed when swapping distributors to introduce transparency. If you don’t think a distribution change is realistic, try adding alternative dishes that reach your foodie activist demographic while still allowing space for your other customers. Ideally, as the transparency trend progresses, you’ll be able to phase out the older menu items completely.
4. Educate customers on products and key ingredients
Again, the best way to explain changes in prices and menu items is to be as open as possible. Tell them why the local butcher is worth paying for. Hang up custom art that outlines your supply chain. Make it easy for customers to understand why the changes you’re making are for transparency and sustainability, and they will reward you.
5. Take pride in your supply chain through specificity
At its essence, a lot of food transparency can be introduced at the forefront by taking pride in your supply chain. That means talking about the pig farmer that you get your bacon from and knowing about their processes. Or how awesome the strawberries from the farm in the city next over are. Information about the origins of meats, vegetables, and processing methods helps add value to your brand and increases modern consumers’ trust in it.
Sometimes transparency can be as simple as providing names in your menu descriptions.
Take this menu revision, for example:
Example 1: Bacon, egg, and cheese on sourdough toast.
Example 2: Benton’s bacon, Baker’s Farm cage-free eggs, and muenster cheese on our in-house sourdough toast.
If we assume in this example that Benton’s and Baker’s Farm are local institutions, then consumers now understand that they are supporting local farms. By adding descriptions to your menu and mentioning the local institutions you support, you’ll be able to provide the food transparency that customers are looking for.
Make your restaurant seem like a community effort, and you’ll be well on your way.
6. Make continual, gradual improvements
Transparency is an ongoing process, so don’t feel like you have to revamp your entire restaurant model overnight. Take it one step at a time and work with what you have to begin with. Ask for feedback from your customers as you make changes, and involve them in the process as much as you can. And remember that these changes aren’t just in your physical locations — make sure you incorporate these ideas across your entire brand and marketing materials. Don’t wait to start implementing transparency in your business. Consumers are demanding it, and that demand will only rise.