Restaurant food is constantly evolving, from new cooking techniques, indulging fad diets and special superfood ingredients given prominence in menus. The hospitality business is a reactive one, rebounding off eating trends and consumer needs. What we talk about less often is our relationship with restaurant food and how it has descended into something akin to love-hate.
Twenty years ago, in the tradition of British politeness, there is no way you would order a dish but hold the sauce/mushrooms/fries unless you were deathly allergic to the ingredient. The American trend of ‘cheffing’ (altering the pristine and well-balanced dish on the menu) has slowly crept across the pond as people take more interest in their diets and what they are putting into their bodies.
Food is a variable that we have complete control of and in a society that is significantly more stressed than 40 years ago, with Millennials often cited as the most stressed generation, it is no surprise that we want greater jurisdiction over things we can control. This is an understandable coping mechanism to a stressful life and though in extreme cases it can develop into eating disorders, more often it means people want absolute clarity over ingredients, calories and sugar intake.
Our food choices do not only impact us, but also our environment. Sophie Egan has written a book Devoured that analyses the American psyche towards food and says: “In the daily game of food decisions, convenience and health are veterans on our mental rosters though now they are getting more play time than ever before.”
There is also a level of service that has become the expectation. People can be exacting about their food and expect these requests to be honoured. This may be due to personal taste, dietary choices or allergies; however, the hospitality industry has become a lot more flexible.
There is an element of instant gratification that is ever present in 2017. You can have food delivered to your office via Uber eats or a new dress arriving at your home the next day, so why would you deprive yourself because your local coffee shop has a limited menu?
According to a Starbucks spokeswoman “If you take all of our core beverages, multiply them by modifiers and the customisation options, you get more than 87,000 combinations”. Of course, Starbucks in the USA has more options, and no one truly is going to want some of these strange concoctions. However having that level of choice is almost a safety net, no coffee request will be too strange to be made.
Social media may be blamed for a whole raft of problems, but one thing it has caused is our awareness of our personal brand. Whether or not people actively post on social media platforms, we are more aware that our choices define us, and one enormous decision we make on a daily basis is diet.
There is also an aspect of creating something unique and delicious. Look at the Magnum Pop Up shop that is open every summer in London. Dip your delicious frozen treat into a variety of attractive toppings and chocolates, then post it on social media. Of course it is called ‘The Pleasure Store’ so everyone knows you are treating yourself, but you are also proclaiming to all your friends and followers that you are creative and defined by a dark chocolate, pistachio and rose petal incrusted ice cream.
But what customisation really comes down to is that continued distrust. By altering dishes on restaurant menus the customer is saying ‘I know best’ and taking back control. The customer actively participates as opposed to taking a passive role and has the confidence to not compromise on what they eat.