The key to running a successful restaurant is finding the balance between what you cook best and the ever-changing demands of your diners. While there can be value in giving people something they didn’t know they wanted, you can’t rely on cooking alone to lead you to success — you must speak to larger food trends and changing behaviors. When those forces are spoken to effectively, you elevate your brand in the minds of your consumers and feel fresh, exciting, and trustworthy.
The most tangible way consumer preferences make an impact is through restaurant menus. A thorough menu analysis toward consumer trends, like sustainability, is something you can do without changing the fabric of your restaurant’s brand.
We’re going to cover nine ways consumer behavior has been affecting restaurant menus, and speaking to these in your menu is the key to flipping more tables.
Nine Ways Restaurant Owners Are Adapting Their Menus to Consumer Preferences
1. Allergen Menus are Common These Days
Similar to how nutrition labels on grocery store items require certain ingredient types to be clearly displayed, allergen menus denoting everything from vegan options to gluten-free or dairy-free options are no longer the exception but the norm. That way the consumer can easily navigate your menu with their preference in mind. Many restaurants are opting for a short legend that contains a few different symbols such as V for vegetarian, GF for gluten-free, and DF for dairy-free.
2. Healthy Menus are Desired by Today's Diners
“The reason that health in general is getting so prominent is people are finally starting to connect the importance of what you consume in your body to longevity and your health overall,” she said. “There’s almost nothing off limits now.” – Mareya Ibrahim
61% of diners say they’re making healthier choices dining out than they were two years ago, and once someone becomes mindful about how food plays into their lives, it’s difficult for them to go back. This trend will only continue, and it’s important for restaurant owners to know what healthier choices mean in practicality.
Providing healthy options means having a healthy mixture of cleaner food options alongside any heavy hitters such as fried chicken or cream-based sauces and not adding them in as an afterthought. Regardless of what type of restaurant you run, you need to have interesting, delicious, and healthy options to satiate someone who wants to eat a bit lighter. This is especially true for restaurants that get a lot of business travelers. Eating healthy on the road has become front and center for business travelers, which is why 77% of business travelers consider it to be important when traveling. Additionally, 64% prefer healthier menu options and 43% want to see published nutritional facts.
If you want to remain competitive, think critically about what and why diners come to your restaurant and see if you can better speak to their desires from both a taste and health standpoint.
3. Health-Oriented Substitutions Becoming Normal
Similarly, menus are offering a variety of substitutions as a way to be more health-friendly, and consumers are willing to pay — especially for meat substitutes: The US plant-based meat market size is expected to reach values of around $3 billion by 2024. It is growing at an impressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 24% during 2018-2024.
The meat substitutes trend has accelerated these past years but took another significant jump during 2020 and into 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Revenue Management Solutions conducted two surveys in January of 2020 and then again in August. The number of consumers that stated they would switch to a restaurant brand offering plant-based products increased from 23% to 30%.
This gives a clear green light for restaurants to start incorporating more meat substitutions. From burger joints to taco stands, there is a demand for meat alternatives, and consumers are willing to pay for it.
These substitutions apply to all other ingredients and types of dishes as well. The key is to experiment with those substitutions in your recipes, see which ones still maintain the taste quality your diners expect, and then offer those specific substitutions. You don’t want to sacrifice your restaurant’s image by offering a tasteless meal at the expense of health, but there is almost certainly room to find and provide alternatives.
4. Menus Using Ingredient Transparency Highlight Community Involvement
Announcing where and why you chose the ingredients you use in your dishes on your menu is a common and effective way to highlight your restaurant’s role in its community. Today’s consumers want to see how their decision to support your restaurant affects their environment. If they see that you are supporting local farmers, then they are more likely to develop a sense of pride when eating at your restaurant, and this pride acts as a mechanism for increasing referrals and regulars. Take a look at your menu and see where you can highlight interesting ingredients and their stories.
5. Restaurants Making a Note of How They Use Waste
Today’s diners also care more about how a restaurant uses waste, and finding ways to include waste-reduction missions into your menu is worth your time. For example, you could talk about how you donate portions of your leftovers to a local shelter or offer a discounted dish that uses typically discarded parts of vegetables.
6. In-Season Produce Dictates What's On the Menu
Using in-season produce is a win-win for both restaurants and diners. The food tastes better, and usually, it’s cheaper for your restaurant to buy. Use this to your advantage — make rotating specials and dishes that are specific to this season’s harvest. This will make your menu feel more organic and demonstrates an awareness of your environment.
7. Menus are Including More Functional Ingredients
Functional foods are in: “I don’t see it going away,” Lizzie Kasparek, a dietitian at the Sanford Sports Science Institute, said
“People are interested in their health, and if they can pay the price for the option that has added fruits and vegetables, or added omega-3 or added probiotics, they are looking for those different packages that make it seem like they are getting benefits from those foods.”
Any way you can find to add in fermented foods that contain trendy probiotics and highlight the nutritional benefits a dish provides will be worth it. Nutrition is a charge diners are taking upon themselves these days, and when they see the types of foods they’ve been recommended to eat out on a menu, they are more likely to buy that food.
8. Mounting Pressure to Have Ethnic and World Flavors
World flavors are here to stay. Today’s foodies want exotic experiences in the comfort of their neighborhood, and they get there by seeing items like shakshuka, Korean barbecue, single-origin saffron, and many more. See what dishes on your menu are apt for a bit of exoticism or try to think of a new dish that utilizes world flavors.
9. Diner Preferences Can Reflect Importance of Menu Changes
Smart restaurant owners are learning to conduct a menu analysis that reacts to diner preferences based on when they are most likely to eat, healthy foods. Consumer preferences can change by meal, day of the week, and by certain months when weight loss is more of a priority. This is important for chefs and managers to understand because they can plan their inventory and menu around these changes in demand. For example, an American fare restaurant may offer significantly more health-oriented options during the week but then reduce that during the weekend.
But none of this matters if you don’t take action in your restaurant. Here’s how to immediately start organizing your future menu changes.
Four Smart Tips for Creating a Better Menu
How menu items look, taste, and describe can play a critical role in your restaurant's success. Menus should live, breathe, and change to customer preferences. You can always optimize your menu at your restaurant or bar.
1. Hone In On Your Core Demographic
How well do you know your core customers? Are your most loyal customers similar people to the people who make you the most money? Take time to think critically about who comes into your restaurant and why. Once you’ve done this type of menu analysis, imagine your ideal customer and use that customer persona to educate the decisions you make.
2. Menu Analysis and Areas for Improvement
Good decisions start with a menu analysis. See where your menu stands according to these forces, and see what makes sense for your restaurant to change. Start by asking these questions:
- Is my data accurate? In other words, can I trust my numbers?
- What are my most popular items?
- Is there a core demographic that favors certain types of foods over others?
- Which foods are most popular when?
- What items exist in my menu that I could make more exciting?
- Are there opportunities in my dishes to use more compelling ingredients without jeopardizing its flavor?
- How are my healthier options organized at the moment?
3. If You Can’t Change Menu Entrees, Experiment with Sides
You don’t always have to change a dish that brings in a significant portion of your revenue. It could be as simple as highlighting the ingredients you use in a new light. If you are searching for tangible ways to speak more to the health trend, for example, you can also see where you could use in-season vegetables or world flavors in your sides first before tackling entrees.
4. Listen to Customer Feedback
Take some of your regulars that are also your core demographic and involve them in the process. Ask for their honest feedback about the changes you’re making and make sure you are improving their experience.
While no one could've predicted the restaurant industry would have turned upside down in 2020, we're now in a new "normal" for restaurants in a post-pandemic world. Our Restaurant Trends 2021 Guide will take you through every trend you need to be aware of so you can stay on top of the new year.
Our guide goes into depth on the benefits of introducing sustainable food practices in your restaurant, what restaurant technology looks like today, and how changing consumer's expectations will have an impact on your marketing in 2021. You’ll finish the guide knowing exactly what steps you need to take to be successful.