My Way! The future of foodservice is customised

Customised drinks

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With apologies to Sinatra, we are all getting used to having things ‘my way’; ideally fast.

It’s been a very long time since your coffee choice was simply black, white, with or without sugar. In fact, I was amazed to find out that by adding syrup to a latte, Starbucks offers more than 200 million variations!  Overwhelming for some but for many, it’s a proof that the company is paying close attention to the specific needs of the consumer. We crave buying choices that are “original, specialised and personal”, a trend which has been hurting giant business like Starbucks, Subway or Chipotle. 

According to MCA , over 20% of consumers customised their dish on their last meal out and 45% of consumers believe customisation is important. Modern customers don’t want full package offered to them. They want to pick and choose which parts they want, and then discard the rest. 

Let me tell you how I like it.

We are definitely becoming more picky. It is important to get the details just right and it is not enough to ask whether my steak should be medium or rare! That's why I like places like Gaucho, where if in the mood for beef I can choose my favourite part (rib, sirloin, fillet or rump), but also the thickness like medallions or spiral cut. I can then decide on a marinade, what sauce I'd like with it and whether Stilton, fried egg or anchovy butter is my garnish of choice.    

When it comes to the customisation of dishes, the fast-food industry used to be ahead of the game. But now, many casual dining outlets are offering more individual choices for certain parts of their menu. For example, chips could be fries, curly, triple-fried or made from sweet potato and covered in coconut flakes.

Vapiano has taken customisation to the next level. There are 6 pasta types made in house and 16 different sauces to choose from. The pizza and pasta dishes are cooked by chefs in front of you so you can be sure it is done exactly to your taste. Added to that, there are fresh herbs and oils on the table for the final twist to ensure its just the way we like.

The story is similar with drinks. You know you are somewhere special when, ordering a classic G&T, you get presented with a selection of gin brands and variety of mixers, both packaged and crafted onsite. The garnish must be expertly matched to enhance the gin’s botanicals. Sometimes it will be dried apple and lavender and other times, cardamom, cucumber, star anise or edible flowers. And let’s not take ice for granted, cubes, crashed, big rocks, punch ice or Collin spears can truly make the difference between a good cocktail and a great one.

The best bars engage in intimate conversations with their audience to emphasise the flavour preferences, mood and occasion in one perfect cocktail. This personal approach creates memorable experiences and a powerful emotional connection between the drink, the drink connoisseur and the venue where such customised experiences are made to order. 

But don't overwhelm me! 

Some brands seem to believe that offering a vast number of options will increase consumer satisfaction. But they need to tread carefully. Not only is the kitchen going to suffer but consumers really want to be more like partners in the creation, not a stressed worker. Online offerings such as Adagio teas in the US allows consumers to create their own blends but at the same time, offers recommendations on popular combinations if more guidance is needed. The chosen tea blend can then be named, personal artwork created and finally shipped. A true co-creation!

In a restaurant setting, the options offered can be streamlined. For example the ‘build your own’ model (for pizza, burger, salad etc) still gives control but won't result in customer - or kitchen - panic! Chipotle is a great example of giving the consumer (almost) limitless options, but still taking them through a simple journey starting with a simple burrito/bowl/tacos choice. Other innovative solutions include using technology to help the consumer, whether it is touch screen ordering from iPads, or offering beers and wines on a self-service system with automated billing. 

I'm an individual.

Food and drink businesses that are able to move from mass customisation to personalisation will be the true winners. Vegetarians and vegans are often catered for but for those who are lactose or gluten intolerant, suitable products need to be more widely available. Beverages need to give more options for those who want a lower/no alcohol or no sulphite choice. In soft drinks we want to have different options for the amounts of sugar or sweeteners they contain. Eventually we will see food products tailored to the individual’s nutritional needs, but the idea of food as medicine still has some way to go. Eating and drinking is so much more than refuelling, so expect more emphasis on delivering exactly the tastes and experiences we crave. 

A flash in the pan or an ongoing trend? 

Customisation will certainly continue, because the 'one size fits all' label is destined for the dustbin of history. The desire for a personalised option is recognised by both small start-ups and global businesses. Coca Cola has invested €100m into its 'freestyle' vending machines, which are supplied with 100 of their brands and allow each consumer to create their own drink. Even if your 'creation' does not turn out to be your favourite, Coca Cola has tapped into our need for self expression and is thereby increasing brand loyalty.

In the US, fast-food chains such as Arby are experimenting with 'secret menus', which allow those in the know to ask for specific items. The customers become brand advocates and also return to the store either to try out more new offerings, or re-order old favourites while feeling exclusive. 

Considering our desires for new tastes and experiences, love of eating out, busy lifestyle and highly individualistic, even narcissistic tendencies, customisation will undoubtedly prevail. It can be hard to get the offering just right but for businesses and brands that do, the cliché ‘win-win’ is an accurate one!