Skift Take

Comfort food needs to go beyond a warm dish of mac and cheese. Diners and travelers are demanding more from their fine dining and their fast food, and smart restaurants are responding.

Skift launched the latest edition of our magazine, Travel in an Age of Permanxiety, at Skift Global Forum in New York City in September. This article is part of our look into the current state of the traveler mindset through the lens of the pervasive state of anxiety felt worldwide.

Download the full version of Skift’s Travel in an Age of Permanxiety magazine here.

People everywhere need to eat. Red state, blue state, traveler, or local. Food is necessary to sustain life, but that doesn’t mean eating — or dining out— doesn’t come with its own particular anxieties. As well-known restaurant chains make the news with headlines of contamination, foodborne illness, or just plain grossness (i.e. the McDonald’s pink slime incident of several years ago), consumers have started to demand fresher, more local, more responsibly sourced food. The popularity of food tourism underscores this phenomenon, too. Much of the value in traveling for food involves a local connection to food, local methods of cooking, and local sourcing.

In part, this has to do with the farm-to-table trend that was thrust into the spotlight in northern California in the 1970s. Nearly half a century later, the principles of connecting ingredients to the final product at a restaurant have forever impacted the way we dine out and the way restaurants are run. A list of farm suppliers on the back of the menu, for example, has become so commonplace that it’s often the butt of jokes and eye-rolls about pretension and yuppie entitlement. But it’s definitely struck a chord as the entire restaurant industry changes around it.

Corporate and chain restaurants — especially fast food — have been working for years to dramatically overhaul their image of commodity and homogenization. The rise of fast-casual dining has come out of our desire for transparency in dining out: One of the core tenets of fast-casual is the promise of higher food quality. And now, fast food has answered, going to great lengths to revamp its supply chain and ingredients to satisfy consumers. For example, McDonald’s recently announced it will make its Quarter Pounders and other specialty sandwiches with cooked-to-order fresh beef by mid-2018, and promises to source only cage-free eggs in all of its restaurants by 2025. By 2018, KFC says that it will only purchase antibiotic-free chicken. Amid all of this, Wendy’s introduced a marketing campaign informing consumers it has never served frozen beef. No one can talk about fast-casual dining without mentioning Chipotle, which has somehow managed to overcome seriously negative headlines and scary foodborne-illness outbreaks while still touting the freshness and simplicity of its ingredients.

The Internet and its powerful social tools have impacted the way we eat, too. Instead of the familiarity of a chain, we look to the familiarity of a friend’s recommendation of where to eat. Yelp has built its business on this. Facebook has made major changes to its product around the concept of recommendations. And Google aggregates everything and puts it on a map, easily discoverable by anyone, anywhere, with the Internet. It’s essentially become a popularity contest, and the winners are the restaurants that cater to our tastes, preferences, and, honestly, feelings of security.

Arguably, dining out has never been an anxious process in the same way that travel contributes to a heightened state of anxiety. The hospitality-fueled restaurant experience is more often associated with happiness, relaxation, and shared time with others. This isn’t by accident; it’s by design. So what do restaurants owe consumers in challenging times? Good food, safe food, and responsible food free of hidden ingredients, hidden origins, or any other secrecy that definitely doesn’t belong on the dinner table.

Download Travel in an Age of Permanxiety magazine here


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Tags: permanxiety, restaurants, sgf2017, skift global forum

Photo credit: Restaurants' use of transparent practices and marketing helps to alleviate anxiety around food safety, sourcing, and sustainability. Patricia Mafra / Skift

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