When we try a new recipe, we’re always tempted to add an unexpected seasoning or sneak in some extra ingredients. Just to make the experience a little different, right? Foodies are always experimenting—looking for new and unexpected ways to add creative savor, color, and texture to shake up the taste buds. If you’re a food enthusiast—and who isn't?—you’ve almost certainly tried to replicate a tasty dish that you’ve enjoyed when dining out but with your own twist at home. Restaurant and food service operators are the front line of food innovation, and the dishes they create and their guests relish often find their way back to the family dinner table in one form or another. A good operator has the ability to shape consumer expectations and preferences—both in the restaurant setting and later at home. Food is a medium that shapes culture and trends around the world. With consumer spending on out-of-home dining now topping $800 billion annually, how could restaurants not shape the American food experience?
Sit down at any restaurant, and you know what we’re talking about. It’s more than food alone; it’s an experience that comes with the food. An experience meant to subliminally bring them back time after time and create a preference towards your menu items and your dining atmosphere—that’s the objective. Create an experience built to exceed expectations and the perception of value and quality, and you have a winning recipe for success.
The subliminal dining experience runs across the board, from fast food to fine dining and everything in between. Standards are set, consumers take note, and soon after, they begin to build a preference towards what they consider to be the norm and what they seek out and prefer. Think about fast casual vs. quick-serve. The food is similar, but fast casual bumps up the dining experience with a more comfortable environment, décor, and accoutrements that justify a higher spend. Little things like the quality of utensils, plating methods, and personal, tableside service may make the difference in a return visit versus a guest trial with a competitor. It’s all about keeping guests happy since the landscape of "normal" has been on shifting sand in our post-COVID world. The rise of meal kits, the fall of family-style dining, and the drive for fast and efficient drive-thru lines are a few examples of how restaurants have been locked in a game of keeping up with the competition for the last two years. In 2022, with food and labor costs rising, many operators are looking for cost-saving alternatives on their menus while maintaining their status in the psyche of the consumer.
Following the norms in terms of dining expectations can help operators cut costs while still delivering the envisioned experience for the consumer. It’s not so much about cutting costs across the board, but more about cutting costs where your consumers won’t miss them because they’re part of the experience they have come to know.
Here’s what we mean: someone stopping in for a fast-food dining experience is looking for a cost-effective way to get in and out and back to their activities; restaurateurs can focus on shifting to lesser cuts of meat, pre-seasoned and precooked varieties for kitchen speed and consistent quality, and a consistently fast and reliable experience. This provides the same experience a consumer was seeking while providing budget relief for the operator. Mid- and high-tier establishments would do better to focus on smaller portions while keeping higher-priced cuts of protein on the menu, and can also consider the utilization of high-quality pre-cooked or par-cooked options to aid in quality and reduce labor costs without losing the quality and service expected by the consumer. Considering high-end protein as an ingredient rather than the center of the plate is another option to give some relief to tight kitchen budgets—think chicken casseroles and meat pies, or pastas, rice, and vegetables blended with a protein favorite. The meat is still king, but the accompaniments stretch your dollars while adding color, flavor, and texture.
Another way to cater to more than one audience is by offering different meal-size options at different price points. More popular in fast-food establishments, this creates a perception of value, and allows you to cater to all types of consumers.
Smart operators should consider getting on the front edge of food trends now by offering new flavors focusing on health and sustainability—it’s what guests are coming to expect. From seasonings and sauces to highlighting the origins of ingredients, consumers are showing an interest in bold flavors, humanely-sourced ingredients, animal welfare, and social responsibility. So many different tastes and preferences line up nicely for today’s operator, trying to find a niche that provides perennial revenue and builds a loyal guest following.
Finally, new dining service experiences are also finding their way onto nearly every mainstream eatery: mobile ordering apps, digital and QR code menus, food delivery partnerships, and even controversial robotic kitchen staff are taking over kitchens across the U.S. Our take on this is to utilize the tech that makes sense for your business. If you are a high-turn fast food establishment, a meal delivery partnership may provide you with an opportunity to reach an even larger network of customers who not only want fast convenience; they’re willing to pay someone to bring it to them! Keep in mind that delivery partnerships can eat into profits by charging up to 40% commission on orders. Bringing people to your establishment with apps and in-app promotions for dine-in and take-out may be a better spending option to bring your restaurant into the future without cutting into future profits.