Terms like natural, organic, and clean have been popping up across the industry with increasing frequency over the last few years, and that is largely due to increased consumer demand for foods that they perceive as healthier than processed foods.
A 2014 Neilsen study showed that 60 percent of Americans said that the absence of artificial colors or flavors was important in their food purchasing decisions. Since then, the National Restaurant Association has named clean menus, natural ingredients and minimally processed foods a top food trend every year, showing that this continues to be a top-of-mind consumer concern. As the natural food trend continues to grow, restaurants are tasked with serving cleaner menus. Holding out to see if the natural food trend will slow down is no longer an option.
“We all need to [serve healthier foods] because it’s really not much more difficult to serve people a good, high-quality product rather than food that is enhanced with colors or that has been modified,” says Ype Von Hengst, co-founder and executive chef of Silver Diner and a leader in the natural-food space. “There is no need for that. We’re living in a society where people now appreciate much better high quality foods than 10 or 15 years ago.”
For restaurants that have not yet embraced natural foods, there are simple ways to get started.
1. Do Your Research
Committing to serving more natural products requires up front research to ensure that you are not only able to find the right ingredients that you need at the right time, but also that understand exactly what each ingredient you would be serving is. It isn’t enough to simply look for labels that say natural. Truly understand what each ingredient in the products you source is.
Once you do that, determine what is acceptable for your brand and what isn’t. Different concepts will have different standards, but a general rule will be that foods should be fresh and free of additives where possible.
2. Source Local Ingredients
When you use local produce and ingredients, food is fresher and is less likely to contain additives and other chemicals that consumers don’t want. Shopping seasonally can help, too, as it will eliminate preservatives.
“I prefer to get my local tomatoes now that they are in season,” Von Hengst says. “They may not all be the same shape and size, but I know they all came out of the ground and were grown the old-fashioned way and were picked a day ago, rather than a tomato that’s already a week old by the time I get it. When you get tomatoes and strawberries that have been on a shelf for six to seven days, you know they have to be enhanced.”
3. Find Good Partners
You probably can’t find every ingredient you’ll need locally all year round, and some products may be too burdensome to make in house, such as select jellies, some condiments, and more. When you need to work with suppliers, find ones you trust. A good starting point is to target companies that have missions that align with your own and that create products you believe in.
Additionally, consider vendors that already supply products that your customers use regularly. Suppliers that your customers already trust can be of tremendous benefit in building guest loyalty.
Foster open lines of communication with vendor partners so that you can get a better understanding of exactly what is in each product you serve in your restaurant. Vendors that have been focused on natural products for several years can also give you valuable advice and tips for following the trend in your own restaurant.
4. Communicate with Customers
Once you have a clean menu in place, share details about it with diners. Your customers will look for information on where your foods were sourced, so be open with them about the types of ingredients you serve. Kyle Algaze, chief operating officer of Iron Rooster, says that this requires regular communication with your customers.
“You need to get in front of your guests, and a lot of it starts with the initial introduction to the restaurant and letting them see and know and touch and feel and taste all the different places you get food from,” he says.
Once you customers come to understand your mission and how your menu relates to clean eating, continue fostering dialogue with customers about what they like and don’t like.
“You’ll continue to see that trend taking on more of an active role, but it always starts for us with guests and knowing what they and being able to provide that to them,” Algaze says. “We are past the day and age where we think we know better. We really want to know what we need to know from our guests, and I think that’s how most restaurants should act.”