How restaurants can join the natural food trend.

Consumers are more health-conscious than ever, and with the long-term growth of the clean-eating movement, it is no surprise that one of the top industry trends continues to be natural foods. As one of the National Restaurant Association’s top food trends of the past few years and a Top 10 Concept Trend for 2017, natural ingredients and clean menus are expected to continue growing in popularity.

While restaurant industry leaders know that consumers want cleaner foods, many are still looking for specific steps they can take to harness this trend. Here are four ways restaurants can better prepare for this trend and clean up their menus.

1. Consumers Have Spoken

Though terms like “clean label,” “clean menu,” and “natural ingredients,” are used often, it can be unclear exactly what is meant by these terms. It’s important to understand what your consumers care about, ask them for their input and then set your own standards that you know your consumers will trust.

“We care deeply about the quality and wholesomeness of what we serve our customers,” says Carl Segal, CEO for Roti Modern Mediterranean, a restaurant in Chicago. “We take the responsibility of ‘curating’ a menu so our customers don’t have to think about what they are eating and can choose freely at Roti.”

Nielsen reports in its 2016 Global Health and Ingredient-Sentiment Survey that over 60 percent of respondents try to avoid artificial flavors, preservatives, and colors, while 71 percent of North American consumers worry about the long-term health impact of artificial ingredients. High-fructose corn syrup is another category of high consumer concern.

“To us, a healthy menu has nothing on it that we wouldn’t want to serve our own families,” Segal says. “We work with high-quality suppliers and take pride in sourcing the best ingredients, and preparing them with pride.”

Though the exact ingredients to be avoided will vary by restaurant, noting what your individual consumers worry about can help you ensure you are adequately serving your audience, so take time to find out what your customers think. From there, determine which ingredients are unacceptable for your concept.

2. Assess Your Menu

Once you know which ingredients you won’t serve in your restaurant, start assessing your menu. Think about each element that goes into every dish and look for places where those chemicals or ingredients may hide and then make a plan for how you can eliminate them.

“Typically, [these ingredients] are in heavily processed foods,” Segal says. “We do a lot of scratch cooking from whole foods, so we don’t encounter artificial ingredients or preservatives—those are the things to look for.”

To make it easier to keep these ingredients off the menu, Roti focuses on house-made dishes.

“To us this means starting with whole, real ingredients and treating those ingredients with respect,” Segal says. “This also means taking extra time to prepare ingredients by hand. We make hummus by hand; fillet fresh salmon; chop, slice, and dice vegetables; steam rice and couscous; bake pita fresh to order, and marinate all our chicken and steak in house.”

3. Find Good Suppliers

The reality for most restaurants is that making every single item by hand is not feasible due to time, space, supply, and budgetary constraints. For items you cannot make in-house or ingredients need a supplier to provide, it is still important to know exactly what goes into those items so that you can feel confident serving them and provide information about them to guests.

“[The misconception is] mostly that the restaurants are the ones putting these things in the food,” Segal says. “They usually come from the foods the restaurants purchase from suppliers.”

This makes it vital to find good supplier partners you trust to communicate food contents and that have similar company values as you do. Ensure that you foster strong supplier relationships and start a dialogue about the contents of products.

4. Promote Transparency

No matter how much effort you put into having a clean menu, unless you share that information with your customers, your brand isn’t gaining trust or sales. Not only will today’s more health-conscious consumers look for information on your menu and ingredients, but many will also consider menu labeling and food policies when they make decisions about where to eat.

The Nielsen survey reports that 67 percent of North American consumers want to know everything that goes into their food, so make it a priority to share your restaurants commitment with guests.

“Customers are much better informed and interested in what they are eating,” Segal says. “Post nutritional information and ingredients on [your] websites for those interested.”

You can also include messaging on your menu and train servers to talk about your mission to serve guests cleaner food.

Though a clean menu is a big commitment, it can have a big pay off. Taking steps toward simpler dishes and ingredients can help restaurants reach their customers and drive sales.

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