As restaurants scramble to satisfy health-conscious consumers, separating fact and fiction when using popular semantics—like fresh vs. frozen and prepared vs. made-from-scratch—has become an important, often confusing, topic of debate.
For many chefs and restaurant operators, the ingredients, preparation, and cooking methods they use are integral both to their cuisine and to the overall perception of the food they create.
Terms like fresh, antibiotic-free, made-from-scratch, and organic increasingly appear on menus of full-service restaurants, from white tablecloth settings to family-style diners. These labels denote a certain aesthetic for many consumers: a higher quality, healthier restaurant. For restaurants, the use of these elevated ingredients and techniques underscores the credibility and value of their menu.
“It’s a commitment that we have for all of our products, because at the end of the day, these just taste better,” says Tony Smith, president of Paul Martin’s American Grill, a nine-unit upscale-dining chain based in Newport Beach, California.
At the same time, there’s significant debate and confusion about the attributes of these ingredients. There are even gray areas about some of the definitions.
“Restaurants want to provide consumers with accurate information, but the problem is what something means to one individual is not the same with someone else,” says Beth Johnson, principal of Food Directions, a food-policy firm based in Washington, D.C. “You try to do the best you can with the limited amount of space you have on a menu. It’s balancing what you want to say and telling consumers what they need to know.”
This is important as more Americans are trying to eat healthy, explains Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst with market research firm NPD Group. “Our eating habits are evolving, and more of us know what’s good and not good for us.”
NPD found Millennials have reduced their restaurant visits largely for budgetary reasons, although “a good percentage said they [did so because they] were trying to eat healthier,” she says.
However, virtually none of the Millennials—fewer than 1 percent of those studied by NPD—were satisfied with the choices associated with healthy eating.
More consumers are also looking for menu items with ingredients that are “free” of potentially negative things, such as chemicals and allergens, adds William Roberts, senior analyst, food and drink, at market researcher Mintel.
“It ties into the desire for foods that are more real and fresh,” he says. It’s also linked to food safety concerns. “Consumers have seen recall after recall, so fewer ingredients, particularly artificial ones, are seen as fewer elements to break down in the food chain.”
Restaurant operators who seek to provide fresh food need to consider a wide range of issues, including consistency, the year-round availability of ingredients, and, of course, profitability.
“You need to have a nice balance,” says Walter Staib, award-winning chef, author, and proprietor of Philadelphia’s City Tavern. “You have to consider the prime cost,” he cautions, and that includes all the outlays to do business, from labor and ingredients to utilities and pricing.