Wanna Build Up Steam for your Restaurant? Try Adding Some Chili Pepper

February 26, 2009

During an economic downturn, things have a tendency to stop happening.

Auto salesmen, when not pacing and sighing, spend hours over-grooming their stalled vehicle inventory. Homes sit vacant while For Sale signs half-hang from single unsnapped chains, blowing and squeaking in the breeze. But if there’s one necessity which keeps the money flowing, no matter how thin our wallets get, it’s this:

“Ya gotta eat.”

Without sounding too much in line with Stephen Harper’s ill-timed “pre-recession” comments, this adjustment period WILL create exceptional opportunities, or at least a chance for industries to creatively add value to goods and services while minimizing customer inconvenience and stretching out everyone’s dollar as much as possible. This isn’t the time to stop investing, but to start investing smarter. It’s true that hunkering down and waiting for the economic tide to turn is like not trying to swim if you’re drowning. As Wayne Gretzky once said: “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.”

Never is this truer than in the food and beverage industry. Food is an essential but also discretionary item, especially in fine dining restaurants. But people visit fancy eateries for the experience just as much as the meal, and often for reasons that are primarily social, cultural and atmospheric. They also don’t want to be bored eating the same things at home week in and week out. Conclusion: people want to dine out, but their entrée selections are heavily influenced by the economy.

For example, as people curb their discretionary food spending, recipe websites have seen a 10% increase in visitors, or double the rate of total internet growth. eMarketer reports here that the leading recipe website in the US, Allrecipes.com, has seen a jump in visitors and searches, especially those focusing on specific, less expensive ingredients. In response to these trends, the site launched a “cooking economically” section, where users and editorial staff submit articles, videos and tips on how to enjoy food while saving money.

One inexpensive dish being embraced by consumers is pasta, a staple which provides unlimited potential for creativity and added value. As reported by the Associated Press, “Sales of pasta products in the United States – including frozen and refrigerated pasta, canned pasta, soup mixes and prepared dinners – rose 5 percent last year to $6.4 billion…” The increase in sales couldn’t have come at a better time for the pasta industry, as low-carbohydrate, high protein diet fads have whittled away their profits.

On the flip side, American’s consumption of seafood has leveled off. Rising prices, contamination worries and cooking difficulties have all contributed to the decline. However, cheaper and easier seafood, such as canned tuna and salmon, has remained steady. And it seems people don’t care to prepare seafood at home: “About 70% of all seafood consumption takes place in restaurants,” according to a Packaged Facts report.

Chicken is another product emerging as a consumer preference powerhouse. According to Technomic, people are bypassing beef for inexpensive proteins such as chicken. Consumers also think poultry is healthier than beef, which will further influence their decisions. When they do order beef, especially steak, consumers “…expect more quality, better cuts, aging and seasonings to justify paying a higher cost.”

An emerging trend which creates a tremendous amount of opportunity for restaurants is ethnic food preference. The Technomic report reveals flavours such as chili pepper, chipotle, garlic, black pepper, and bourbon, and other hot and spicy twists are building steam (no pun intended) amongst students, which is a good demographic to explore when considering trendy-ness. Even more telling, according to a Marketing Daily report, is that infusing those traditional staples with a little ethnic spark is just what the consumer ordered (or wants to order). Flavour fusions are also becoming big: “Any kind of fusion is very big right now – meals and dishes that combine flavors, mixes and spices from different categories – Pan-Asian foods, sushi/samba trends. People are looking for those new flavor combinations.”

This is where the food and beverage industry needs to get creative. If consumer value has been recognized in pasta, and seafood consumption has waned (though still preferred, but labeled discretionary) then featuring dishes that combine the two will bring people to your establishment. Ethnic flavours are big? Devote some of your menu to spicy chicken dishes, combined with pasta, and experiment with flavours for beef and pork.

Foodservice professionals must research consumer trends, and brainstorm value-added strategies so their customers feel like their getting a good deal on something different. As food is an essential item, the industry will continue experimenting with creative selling and re-proportioning, of which other industries providing non-essential goods and services should take note. Oftentimes a subtle slant, turning an idea on its head, changing a simple flavour, will make all the difference.

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