It’s hard to miss the impact these buzzwords are having on the restaurant industry today. But do you know how important healthy foods and sustainable business models really are to your consumers?
According to data from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to building consumer trust in today’s food system, these topics aren’t just trending. They’re taking over. Among the general public, concerns about food safety and affordability trump even concerns over the U.S. economy, rising energy costs, and many other widely discussed life issues.
In fact, for their 2014 Consumer Trust Research, “Cracking The Code On Food Issues: Insights from Moms, Millennials and Foodies,” the survey statement “I am concerned about the affordability of healthy food” had the greatest level of agreement ever recorded by CFI, with a whopping 95 percent either moderately or strongly agreeing.
And it’s not just their pocketbooks that consumers are concerned about. According to CFI’s data, nearly 90 percent of people surveyed agreed that organic food is more healthful than conventionally grown food — the highest level of agreement recorded in the 7 years of the study — indicating that a greater number of people are engaging with organic growing methods. And another 91 percent suggested they make a special effort to purchase foods grown locally in the United States.
Even the humane treatment of animals is growing in importance for Americans. Fifty-five percent of respondents strongly agreed that the humane treatment of animals affects their decision to eat meat — a 5 percent increase over the previous year. And the number of respondents who would support a law in their state ensuring such humane treatment is at its highest since the survey began in 2008.
Science versus Stories: Why Just Information Doesn’t Sell
It’s clear from CFI’s research that these issues strongly impact your customers’ dining decisions, but the Center’s data provided valuable insights on how they make these decisions, as well.
Much of their research centered around the concepts that regulate decision-making processes, including
- cultural cognition, or the tendency for individuals to conform their beliefs about controversial matters to the values held by the group that most defines their cultural identity
- bad news bias, or the idea that negative information weighs more heavily on our decisions than positive information, regardless of accuracy
- confirmation bias, the tendency to favor information that confirms our existing beliefs.
What does it all add up to? Unfortunately, we’re left with the tendency of consumers to prioritize information that fits within their own cultural and social viewpoint — even if it is incorrect. And negative information — such as the idea that certain foods are bad for you — has lasting power, even if scientific evidence suggests otherwise.
So how do you appeal to consumers who are inundated with information about their food choices — and very selective of who to believe?
1. Establish shared values first.
CFI’s research showed that confidence, or shared values, is three to five times more important than competence in building trust.
So, when marketing to potential customers, don’t just tell them that you have what they want. Also tell them that you have what they want because you share their concerns.
If you’re transitioning to a more sustainable model, for example, take the time to discuss with your customers why you chose that route. Post pictures of your progress on Facebook, and include information about how the new process or equipment will ease your concerns about the carbon footprint of your operation. Or write a blog post on your website about how using more of each ingredient will ensure you’re not taxing the food supply. And, regardless of what changes you choose to enact, engage with customers one-on-one, telling them what your concerns are and inquiring about theirs.
2. Leverage your expertise and other trustworthy sources.
Although people tend to trust those with shared values initially, once more information is being traded, expertise becomes more important — but only when that information agrees with the recipient’s original opinion.
Once you establish shared values, hit your customers with verifiable information that supports your decisions (and, by extension, their decision to visit your business). Your status as a restaurant owner means you’re already a food expert — all you need is information from your vendors or other local experts that supports your mission.
If you’re concentrating on sustainability, research the environmental issues in your area and actively discuss them with customers. If you want healthful eating to be your business’s primary focus, take the time to document the nutritional value of each dish — and make a point of celebrating the areas where you’ve replaced what could be considered unhealthy foods. Regardless of what you choose to address, as the popularity of any number of social media personalities shows us, once people find a like-minded — and well-informed — resource, they can’t help but share it.
3. Commit to engaging over time.
Building trust doesn’t happen overnight — and maintaining it is even more work. Both require consistent engagement and continuity in your messaging. The key? Being authentic to your restaurant, and your mission, and taking every opportunity to discuss it.
To ensure you’re always on track, try developing a mission statement with your staff detailing what you’re trying to achieve and the language you will use to discuss it with customers, no matter the medium. Regularly offer each staff member the information you wish to share with your guests, and encourage them to have discussions with any interested people they meet, even those outside your restaurant.
Just be sure to stress that at no time should they memorize a speech. Instead, work on educating your staff, as well as yourself, so that each person can honestly and intelligently speak to the restaurant’s efforts at any time — whether it’s online, at an event, or while working onsite.