Across the country, consumers are adopting new diets with gusto. In fact, the percentage of American adults who follow a specific eating pattern has more than doubled, from 14 percent in 2017 to 36 percent in 2018, according to an annual survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation.
Food is personal, as we all know. Our diets can be influenced by our culture, values, tastes, and other preferences. Age-old eating patterns such as vegetarianism and veganism may first come to mind, but in recent years there has been a rise in consumers going dairy-free, gluten-free, low-carb, and plant-forward.
Diets may come and go, but one theme holds true: many consumers wish to avoid common ingredients or entire food groups. What’s more, they hope—even expect—to have those eating preferences met when they dine with us.
While our registered dieticians do not recommend jumping on the diet trend du jour, we respect people’s right to choose and we want to meet their needs. And while our nutritional promise centers on healthy and well-balanced diets, food trends and consumer preferences do play a role in how we develop our menus.
“Consumers are living this way every day, and then they come to us,” explains Senior Executive Chef Georg Benzinger, who works with business dining clients. “We can meet them where they are, and give them the personalized experience they’re looking for.”
Understanding The “Why”
To serve consumers along this journey, it helps to understand why they follow these diets in the first place. “People aren’t doing this to be difficult. They’re doing it because they’re trying to achieve something,” Benzinger elaborates. It could be how they were raised, or that the diet aligns with their belief system, or it helps them achieve their health goals.
People following specific diets tend to choose their food carefully and ask many questions, especially as they start out. There’s a lot to remember: for instance, maple syrup is a no-go for some diets but permitted on others as a natural sweetener.
The more we educate our teams about different styles of eating, the better our customer service will be in the face of these questions. This type of awareness gives us not only a tactical advantage, but also a more human touch.
Putting It into Practice
The culinary landscape looks quite different than it did even 10 or 15 years ago. Every day brings new fads, riding the waves of social media and the news cycle.
“It used to be that you made sure you had a vegetarian option at any given location or event,” declares Executive Chef Damon Mangano, with our healthcare line of business in the Cleveland area. “Today the mix is quite different.”
So, what does this look like in practice?
Building a menu: We design our menus to be flexible. Many of our concepts allow guests to start with an array of proteins and side dishes and determine the rest themselves.It’s a welcome challenge, according to Chef Masahiro Yamashita, our regional culinary director for higher education: “As a chef, I thrive off of meeting diverse student needs; it’s how I can be creative and make it easy for our guests to meet their specific food needs.”
Benzinger gives our vegan-friendly crab cake as an example: “By replacing the seafood with hearts of palm and playing with the seasoning mix, we’ve developed a recipe that’s a popular part of our plant-forward menu. We can serve it to anyone who avoids animal products, or who just wants to put more plants on their plate.”
Even traditional healthy fare is met with a higher level of scrutiny. “When we put chicken breast and broccoli on the menu, we look for ways to make them really flavorful,” Mangano says. “I use vinegar, herbs, and spices in a way that just about anyone can enjoy.”
Prepping and serving: The strategy is just as much about preparation as it is about ingredients. Take the example of beef brisket at a large company picnic. Rubbed in spices and resting in its natural juices, this dish is fair game for many eating styles. But the minute it touches a sauce, salsa, or glaze, it can become off limits. The solution? Serve those on the side.
“You don’t want to make the decision for your consumers,” Mangano advises. “The last thing you want to do is prep a menu and have a large number of people not be able to eat it.”
Labeling: Whether displayed on a menu board or in a buffet line, labels go a long way toward helping consumers make informed choices.
“Access to ingredient information is a trend unto itself, helping consumers know what’s vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, and so on,” Mangano explains.
Our Healthy for Life program uses “Eat Well” labels to highlight selections on the menu across all our locations that have at least a full serving of leafy greens, vegetables, whole grains, or other good-for-you ingredients. These labels call out vegan, vegetarian, whole grain, and general Eat Well selections. In addition, consumers can now find a plant-forward icon identifying those menu items.
Being a helpful resource: When consumers ask questions, our associates are prepared to point them in the right direction, nutritionally and otherwise. Many common diets promote eating unprocessed, whole foods—in fact, one notable benefit is that they push people to eat more vegetables and fruit.
“With the support of our Healthy for Life 20 By 20 initiative, I’m always pointing to our chef’s plant-forward creations and guiding consumers to make healthier decisions,” says Yamashita.
Plus, many of our locations have full-time registered dietitians on staff. RDs make a great resource for consumers who need one-on-one help navigating the food options available across all our dining concepts.
We want consumers to stay true to their eating plans at any of our locations, and by design many of our stations are good choices right out the gate.
“With every account I visit, I notice that health is increasingly top-of-mind among consumers,” states Yamashita. “Offering a wide range of menus is one way we meet their needs.”
For example, OLILO, our Mediterranean concept with Iron Chef Cat Cora, is a flexible option for diets that emphasize whole foods, such as Whole30 and Paleo. Similarly, Wicked Eats, our Mediterranean street eats concept with Cora, also fit diets that restrict carbs, such as keto.
Meanwhile, our EverGrains concept gives consumers the freedom to build salad bowls to fit any diet, from the base (greens or grains) to the protein, toppings, dressing, and sides. True Balance, our station for college and university students with food allergies, solves for the gluten found in wheat and other grains, making it a convenient starting point for someone on a low-carb diet. And our plant-forward meals are a good fit for just about anyone looking to add more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to their diet.
Our research and client feedback tell us that consumers enjoy being able to customize their menu options. Personalized dining experiences are the new normal, and something to embrace.
This is true even in the hospital setting, where many patients are on restricted diets per doctor’s orders. “Say someone were to call room service asking us to customize a dish. If it meets their nutritionals, we can absolutely do it,” Mangano shares.
A Personalization Trend That’s Here To Stay
Specific diets may come and go (remember Atkins and South Beach?), but the bigger idea that we can personalize our dining experience has taken hold with consumers.
As an industry it behooves us to take notice of popular eating patterns and educate ourselves on their intricacies. When menus are chosen and served thoughtfully, by knowledgeable and compassionate associates, we become part of the support system for people exploring new ways of eating.
“As diet trends evolve, so will our menus,” says Yamashita. “And the better we know the people we’re serving, the better their experience will be.”