Farm to table. Sustainability in restaurants. The celebrity chef. A focus on GMOs, additives, and menu labeling. Experiential dining. Clean eating. All big topics broached by panelists and guests at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, Illinois. All hot button issues for industry professionals and consumers alike. And all of them have one core thing in common:
We want to be closer to our food.
It’s not surprising, really. Last year was the first ever to have spending on dining out in the United States overtake spending groceries, consumers are growing more and more distant from the products we literally consume. But rather than whiplash us back into the kitchen, this growing distance is inspiring a new desire to understand what goes on behind the closed doors at the back of restaurants, to share in the excitement of food preparation and service, and to get back to basics in what we eat.
Reconnecting around the dinner table.
Dining out has always been largely a communal affair, for good reason. The experience of a meal is intrinsically a shared one when it’s prepared by someone else. But in a restaurant setting, unlike in the home, you rarely get the opportunity to share that experience with the cook or chef, so dining with colleagues, friends, and family is a way to maintain that expected intimacy, even if it’s not with the food preparer themselves.
We’ve seen this desire expand to welcome those with whom we didn’t even plan to sit down with. Large communal dining tables and cafeteria-style restaurants are becoming more and more popular as foodies are willing to reach out and share themselves over the course of an hour or two.
Supper clubs and dinner party businesses rooted in communities large and small bring people together that may not know each other at the beginning of an evening — but could be your next best friend by the end.
And particularly for restaurants in neighborhoods with a lot of foot traffic, this phenomenon will only grow over the course of the next few years. Consumers — particularly those of millennial age and motivations — want to feel connected to their local community again. And they expect that chefs do as well.
Think fresh. Stay local.
The idea that food should be locally sourced is a fairly new phenomenon. That is, until the advent of successfully refrigerated boxcars in the late 19th century, all we had to eat was what was locally grown and farm-raised.
Today, our produce and proteins come from all over the world, but many chefs have taken to the idea of farm-to-table dining with vigor and enthusiasm over the past few years.
Developing relationships with local farmers, in fact, has led many chefs and restaurateurs to begin expanding their own operations from their back doors to the fields. Adam Eskin, founder and CEO of New York City’s Dig Inn restaurant, believes in food as a mechanism to build community, and he networks with small and medium-sized farms to bring the freshest ingredients to his daily menu.
In fact, Eskin describes his seasonally-driven quick serve restaurant as “farm to counter,” de-automating preparation and making every dish from scratch every single day. It strips out a lot of costs associated with distribution, meaning both the restaurant and the farmers benefit more fully from their purchase.
Eskin’s commitment to farming doesn’t stop at purchase, however. Yes, Dig Inn partners closely with 19 different neighboring farms, but it has also expanded its own role by managing their own farm land as well. Their private farm won’t necessarily produce enough stock to fully support their demand as a restaurant chain, but it functions beautifully as an ecological and experimental “test kitchen” source for Dig Inn’s chefs.
Dig Inn is not alone. With rooftop gardens becoming more and more common for restaurateurs looking to get closer to the produce they work with, consumers are seeing more and more food that was literally grown, picked, prepared, cooked, and served within a matter of yards, not miles.
Only what I can pronounce.
And knowing where the food on their plate comes from — and what it includes — is more important that ever to the discerning diner. There’s a lot of debate about what constitutes organic farming, how dangerous (or advantageous) genetically modified foods (GMOs) are, and the process of removing preservatives, additives, and artificial coloring from the meals we consume.
Transparency in ingredients has become more important than ever with new rulings being put into place by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with an expectation of compliance from some restaurants by April 2017. But the reality is, even for restaurants not bound by the statute, consumer expectation remains.
Restaurants are stepping up to the plate, and not just those in the traditional fine dining sector either. Quick serve legend Chick-fil-A is on a self-described journey to get their menu as clean and relevant as possible.
In the course of the last few years, the company has eliminated trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and all artificial colors and flavors from their menu items — from their chicken to dressings and sauces. They’ve voluntarily lowered their sodium content, moved their milk from 2% fat to 1%, and made switches to all-natural ingredients in their oatmeal, yogurts, and sides.
One of their premier items, their freshly squeezed lemonade, is another good example of Chick-fil-A’s commitment to transparency. This heritage item for the chain universally contains only three ingredients: water, lemons, and sugar. No preservatives or artificial flavors. It’s all part of letting their consumer know exactly what they’re eating at any given time, and enriching the trust they enjoy from those who dine at Chick-fil-A.
Show me how you do it.
Transparency isn’t just about knowing what’s in the food we eat, or where it came from, but how it’s being prepared as well. And that desire from the average consumer has transformed the restaurant industry in a variety of interesting ways.
Certainly, the rise of big name chefs in the fast casual arena is a big development. We’ve seen Rick Bayless, Richard Blais, Art Smith, and Bobby Flay all dip their toes into the waters, with Jose Andres committed to doing the same in the near future. Diners feel an affinity for the chefs they watch religiously on television, and that translates into a closeness that, while contrived, still feels genuine. Knowing who is behind the food we consume is important to us.
In fact, statistics bear it out. According to a 2014 Harvard University study, overall customer satisfaction with their dining experience shot up 10 percent when customers and chefs can see each other clearly. And what’s more, service time decreased 13 percent on average as well.
This physical transparency is translating into more open kitchen designs for restaurants on the entire industry continuum — from quick serve to fine dining — and a number of other spatial adjustments as well.
More and more, food preparation areas are being designed with glass enclosures so that customers can watch cooks and chefs in action — just like we are used to doing as they appear on television. Juicing has become prevalent, as well as open air pizza ovens, as consumers want both freshly prepared ingredients and the experience of seeing their food made.
The evolution is striking, but so is the demand on restaurant staff to maintain safe, clean, sanitary, and environmentally conscious conditions. Everything from soundproofing to avoiding cross-contamination in a preparation line (as well as the expense) has to be considered, but the results are priceless.
Because getting closer to the food we ingest — experientially, intellectually, and geographically — isn’t just a passing fad. It’s a way of negotiating ourselves back to something tremendous that we may have loved and lost.
Want to see how farmers and restaurants are working together — today more than ever?