Food service at the nexus of value, taste and health

by Keith Nunes
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A survey of 1,046 consumers conducted in September indicates that in the coming year many plan to eat out less. Such a sentiment is not surprising given the current state of the economy, and previous versions of the same survey have pointed to frugality as a key rationale for consumers who intend to eat out less. But the most recent survey adds an additional element into the mix. For the first time, consumers also are saying one of the reasons they will eat out less often in the coming year is because they want to eat healthier, according to the North American Restaurant Consumer Sentiment Review, which was published by the business advisory firm AlixPartners.

Amidst already declining dining-out frequency, consumers who participated in the survey said they plan to dine out even less in the coming year, especially at quick-service restaurants.

In contrast from five previous diner surveys conducted between the first quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2013, where consumers cited the economy as the primary factor discouraging them from eating out, the third quarter 2013 survey found the primary reason consumers plan to eat out less in the coming year is because of a desire to eat healthier.

While the survey spotlights the importance of health and nutrition to consumers, the top three drivers in choosing where to eat remain food quality, which is judged largely on the criteria of taste and freshness, price and value. The survey’s results should be viewed with an eye toward future trends and the realization health and nutrition have the potential to be a driver of foot traffic.

Creating an even greater challenge for food service operators is the fact consumers said they are planning on spending an average of 4.5% less per meal in the coming year than they have in the past 12 months. While the survey found the availability of healthy menu items has an impact on restaurant choice — 51% of consumers rated healthy menu options as “important,” “very important” or “extremely important” in choosing where to eat out, consumers indicated they are unwilling to pay extra for “healthy” or “quality” menu options.

The food service sector has been under increasing pressure during the past few years related to the calorie counts of menu items or the amount of sodium in some dishes. Many consumer, government and public health groups, have decried the lack of nutritious choices on menus and the inability of consumers to determine how many calories or how much sodium is in a dish.

As a result, health has been at the forefront of many menu innovation efforts during the past few years. Whether it is creating menu items that fit within a specific set of nutrition guidelines, or promoting the quality of the ingredients used to create a dish, operators have been working to create a healthy halo over some of their offerings.

Adding to the pressure is competition food service operators are facing from grocery and convenience stores as many retailers have expanded their food service offerings in tandem with consumers expressing a greater desire for speed-of-service and overall convenience. Of the consumers surveyed by AlixPartners, 27% reported going to grocery stores with the sole intent to buy a meal, and 24% reported the same for convenience stores.

In the minds of many, eating out in the past was synonymous with indulgence. For consumers watching their weight eating out often coincides with less knowledge about the caloric density of a dish.

Health and wellness will be a key trend in 2014, whether it is related to such specific issues as sodium or sugar reduction, or to the favorable perceptions associated with the simple label trend. As the AlixPartners survey indicates, those operators that focus on incorporating products with a healthy halo into their menu stand a greater chance of attracting more traffic into their outlets.
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