There was a time when stating that your restaurant had strong ties to local farmers and producer’s was an exciting marketing advantage. This was a statement to the public that the chef and the restaurant were concerned with quality, support of local businesses, minimizing the operations carbon footprint, and the health and wellbeing of every guest. Those days are quickly becoming a thing of the past, but, at the same time, farm to table has not lost its importance. Strong relationships with local producers are now a customer expectation. It is a given that a restaurant will be concerned with product quality and their impact on the environment; after all; it is the right thing to do. Seeing a “big box” purveyor’s truck parked outside your restaurant is something to avoid or you may face public scrutiny.
Building those relationships with local producers has not been easy. Menu planning is now a reflection of what the farmer has available as much as what the chef would like to prepare. This has meant that menus are often in a state of flux making consistency a challenge, yet if presented properly and supported by well-versed service staff, this can be an advantage. There is a downside, as has been pointed to in a few recent articles. Finding service staff members who insist on explaining the farm and farmer who touched each vegetable before it arrived at your kitchen door has become a bit tedious, and in some cases pretentious. The guest of today assumes: “Of course you buy local, work closely with regional farmers, insist on the best quality and the freshest ingredients, and change your menus based on what is available. Isn’t this what I am paying for?” Yet, with this tired reaction comes a real need to make sure the restaurants that a guest patronizes are as concerned about these issues as the consumer. We typically know that a trend or a paradigm shift in restaurant operation is gone the course when it appears in quick service operations. Once the Quick Service big guys started promoting “Farm to Table” then the expectation is no longer a novelty.
So, it is probably safe to say that buying local and considering ingredient integrity is now a part of our standard operating procedures. The question now is: “What’s next.” The following is a list of possible ideation questions that every restaurant might consider posing to their staff and decisions makers:
 WHAT ARE GUEST CONCERNS THAT MIGHT PARALLEL THEIR INTEREST IN LOCAL SOURCING?
- Could the restaurant focus on the concern for employees, a respectable quality of life, fair wages and benefits, and other forms of staff investment? This is certainly something that is center stage in the press, but is it really a concern that guests share? Aside from it being the right thing to do, will it attract new business?
- Is there a stronger market for healthier menus; or do guests really put health concerns aside when they dine out? Aside from it being the right thing to do, will it attract new business?
- Should the restaurant take a stronger political stand on ingredient integrity (like Chipotle) and remove any items from menus that are of concern (GMO’s, growth hormones, antibiotic use)? Aside from being the right thing to do, will it attract new business?
- Should the restaurant take a stand against excessive portion sizes on menu items? Aside from being the right thing to do, will it attract new business.
 ARE THERE NEW RESTAURANT TRENDS THAT MIGHT SIGNAL ANOTHER PARADIGM SHIFT IN HOW RESTAURANTS OPERATE?
- In recent years there have been movements towards small plates and tapas, gluten free cooking, in-house charcuterie, pairing menus with wines, beer, and cider; and over-the-top salads. Will any of these trends stick for the long-term? Are there rising ethnic cuisines that stand to be the focus of the next wave of cooking?
- Should your restaurant become pro-active with home meal replacement options?
- A few restaurants have been experimenting with minimizing service staff interaction with guests through the use of iPad stations; is this the beginning of a new long-term trend in front of the house operation?
- The face of fine dining has been changing for the past two decades. Formal dining rooms, pretentious menus and implied dress codes have been replaced with less formal, fun, and very active environments with equally great food as a centerpiece. Is this a direction that more restaurants should connect with?
 WITH THE RISING COST OF RENT AND LEASE OPTIONS FOR RESTAURANTS, IS IT LIKELY THAT MOBILE OPTIONS WILL BECOME EVEN MORE ATTRACTIVE TO RESTAURATEURS AND CHEFS IN THE FUTURE?
- What does the restaurant space look like in the future?
- What does the restaurant experience look like in the future?
- Will food continue to fill the role of sustenance and entertainment and can these roles be addressed properly in a roving mobile operation?
Note, these sample questions do not focus on “trends” that may come and go like styles in clothing, rather the intent is to look at those changes that fall under the heading of paradigm shifts; changes that will re-direct a business or industry, just as Farm to Table has for restaurants. These significant re-directions will require operator’s to think to the future and see the restaurant business through a different set of eyes.
Farm to Table has become an underlying philosophy that is shared by chefs, restaurant owners, and guests. This is the manner of doing business for the foreseeable future. In recent studies conducted by the National Restaurant Association and the America Culinary Federation, chefs and restaurateurs point to sourcing local, use of organic ingredients, health consciousness, and sustainability as topics with the greatest impact on restaurant operation.
So, what is the next big change? It behooves chefs and restaurant operators to take pause and begin the process of defining and anticipating what those changes will be. It is a marketing decision that may just be the right thing to do for your business.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Have you purchased your copy of: “The Event That Changed Everything”,
A novel by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures? This work of fiction is an interesting and current portrayal of life behind the line and the challenges of the “big issues” that are and will continue to play a role in our restaurant decision-making.
Right on Chef. Good job of getting me to pondering the next levels of customer expectations! I expect they will be higher than we’ve all been ‘expecting!’ We should get ready to accommodate those needs/wants. As they are coming soon.