FOOTPRINT ANALYSES the results of the results of three reports to identify the sustainability expectations of diners.
There was a time when consumers left their ethics at the front door when eating out. Not any more. A combination of everything from macro-economics to the media has changed diners’ attitudes towards sustainability.
The good news is that many are prepared to pay more for sustainable food. The bad news is that their definition of sustainable has changed – and is constantly changing. The question is: has foodservice kept up?
The results of three reports from three different analysts could provide some answers. Mintel, Horizons and the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) have all recently published consumer trend data. The results provide a detailed, if complex, picture of the 2013 diner. Here, Footprint provides a summary of the findings and asks: what do diners really want when it comes to sustainability?
Predicting what your customers care about isn’t easy, especially when it is in a constant state of flux. So many factors can influence consumer attitudes from macro-economics to the media. Has the horse meat scandal, for instance, given rise to more information around provenance? Has the recession affected consumer spending, and how is this being reflected on menus?
What is certain, as the SRA states, is that consumers now have a more holistic view of sustainability, and this means their expectations have shifted. No longer are they concerned only by the food placed in front of them. Today’s diner is more sophisticated than that, with issues such as food waste and carbon footprints key concerns. The importance of single issues can change, but customers' overall awareness of general sustainability is rising steadily.
Is British best?
Food miles were once the darling of sustainable food. An easy-to-understand concept that encouraged people not just
to buy local food but, more importantly, to think about the food they were buying. Provenance was also very marketable – and this is evidenced by SRA findings that local sourcing tops the list of communication activity. This is followed by seasonality and health and nutrition. Food waste comes way down the list.
Horizons’ research reinforces this trend, with “homemade” and “local” both in the top five terms used by operators to tell their sustainability story. Intriguingly, the use of local has dipped slightly in the past six months from just over one in five outlets using it to just under one in five.
According to Nicola Knight, the Horizons director of services, provenance statements are on the rise, but they are becoming more complex. She cites the example of Piccolino which states on its menus: “Our steaks come from British Limousin, Hereford and Angus cattle.”
With the jubilee and the Olympics, coupled with increased interest in provenance and traceability, it is hardly surprising that there has been an increase in the use of “British” or “English” in dish names (up 16% and 29% year on year respectively). The use of “Scottish”, however, has declined by 15%, but may well rise again next year with the Commonwealth Games and independence vote.
The horse meat scandal does not appear to have had an impact on the ethical terminology being used by operators, at least according to Horizons’ research. The SRA, in fact, says provenance is dropping down the list of priorities for diners. The research was carried in the early stages of the scandal so “consumer attitudes towards transparency on food sourcing may well have increased since then”, it notes. While the importance of provenance – at least to customers – has faded, nutrition and health (see p15 of October's Footprint Magazine) and food waste have become top priorities. Many businesses will need to rethink their communication strategies as a result.
Food waste has become a major priority for the sector thanks to pressure from consumers and government (in the form of the voluntary agreement). Dealing with waste makes business sense, but communicating that to customers is not easy. “It’s important for restaurants to find innovative and interesting ways to communicate their performance,” the SRA suggests.
After a survey of its clients, the recycling company Business Waste recently concluded that pubs, bars and restaurants were the worst offenders for not sorting recycling properly. “Many restaurants, takeaways and pubs now have council- sponsored rating schemes on display to show food cleanliness,” says its commercial director, Mark Hall. “Perhaps it’s time to introduce ‘scores on the doors’ to show how good a business is at recycling and energy saving. That will certainly buck up the ideas of a few businesses when their lack of recycling starts to hit their bottom line.”
Unilever Food Solutions has done more than most to encourage better waste management across the sector. Its business development chef, Mark McCarthy, says consumers “respond well” to accreditations, and chefs should do all they can to communicate the work that is going on behind the scenes.
“We know that a quarter of consumers admit to leaving food on their plates when eating out. To avoid this, restaurant staff should ask customers which portion size they’d prefer when ordering.”
This has to be proactive, with Mintel’s research showing that a dish with a range of portion sizes comes way down the list of priorities when selecting what to have – just 16% name it as a factor, with the price and complexity of the dish dominating the decision-making process.
The price is right
Investing in communicating your environmental and social standards – especially those that have piqued customer interest – can also have commercial benefits. More than half (56%) of those surveyed by the SRA are willing to pay more for a meal in a restaurant that is investing in sustainability. But only a little more: 43% said they would pay 10% more.
The more expensive the meal, the more sustainable it should be. But that doesn’t mean cheap meals (under £10) should
be inherently unsustainable – it’s just that expectations shift. The most marked shifts are for sustainable fish, free-range meat and local sourcing – all of which are seen to be more expensive. However, the distribution of tips to staff, free tap water and calorie labelling are perceived to incur smaller costs and are therefore relevant whether the meal is £10 or £30.
There is still a job to be done to tackle the perceptions that sustainability costs more. As Silla Bjerrum, the co-founder of Japanese restaurant Feng Sushi, has noted: “What is important is to make people understand that being sustainable can be very affordable.” Indeed, Asda’s “Green is Normal” study in 2011 also found that over 80% of shoppers expected green products to be priced within their means: in other words, sustainable food is not a licence to print money.
However, outlets should be wary of forcing sustainability on diners. “We can’t preach to people who can’t afford [green] food,” says David Cavalier, the director of food at Charlton House.
Mintel believes tiered pricing structures can be worthwhile. Some 30% of diners are attracted to less expensive dishes, so offering a range of price points – perhaps even with varying levels of sustainability? – could ensure that margins are maintained.
With food prices rising, many foodservice operators have had to “get creative” with their menus (see Footprint September, p12, available online). Horizons’ research, for instance, shows how the price of the average burger in hotels, pubs and restaurants has risen (£9.27) but its dimensions have shrunk (by 17% to 6.35oz since 2010). “Operators are very, very cautious about passing on any increases in the cost of food,” explains Horizons’ Knight. “There’s been a lot of menu engineering going on to strike the balance between appealing to the customer and still making a profit.”
Innovation and indulgence
Half of out-of-home diners say they are drawn to dishes which they cannot or do not usually make at home, found Mintel. That makes menu innovation critical. So what are the things that people want? According to Helena Spicer, a senior foodservice analyst at Mintel: meat in the form of gourmet junk food.
“One in ten [13%] British diners have tried gourmet junk food – with nearly half [46%] who have not ordered saying they would be interested in trying posher junk food such as hot dogs with better quality ingredients,” she explains.
This mirrors Horizons’ research, which found that hot dogs with a gourmet twist are now featured on 85% more menus than they were last year. Beefburgers are also the most frequently listed item on menus. This desire to eat more meat-based, American-style dishes across the menus of a broad range of establishments has “surprised” Horizons’ Knight. It also raises questions about the future for healthy eating. “Since last year we have also seen a decline in the use of healthy eating descriptions, perhaps as operators steer their menus towards indulgence,” says Knight.
This could provide a headache for chefs as they seek to meet conflicting consumer priorities: health and nutrition now top the list of things diners want to know about when eating out (SRA) but they are also looking for indulgent treats and junk food, albeit with higher-quality ingredients. This conflict could in part be explained by consumers confusing quality with health, says Martin Caraher, a professor of food and health policy at City University London. “My suspicion is that the public are confused about healthy eating and are seeing better sourcing and quality as healthier.”
Horizons: “Menurama”, August 2013.
Mintel: “Eating Out”, July 2013
SRA: “The Discerning Diner”, August 2013