Mass-produced “fast food” first found its way into the U.S. consumer’s conscious in the 1920s. World War I had come to an end and working families were in search of cheap, fast food. A&W and White Castle were the first two restaurants to lay claim to the fast-food empire, with White Castle the first to standardize food production. Thus was the mass produced, ready-made meal born.
Fortunately, times have changed. Gone are the standardized hamburgers with pickles, onions and tomatoes. Did you say hold the pickles? I’m sorry…that will be extra. And in are the triple venti soy no foam lattes. Thanks to Starbucks and other mega-consumer pleasers, we, as a nation, have come to want what we want and just the way we want it. That includes gluten-free pasta and pizza, hold the marinara please. What? My Italian grandmother is rolling over in her grave.
As restaurateurs, you’ve been advised to keep your menu size in check. Just watch any Gordon Ramsey to the rescue episode and you’ll see that one of the first steps he takes is to turn the massive five-page menu into a few delectable menu items. It makes one believe that if they’ve got one chicken, fish, meat and vegetarian entrée—they’re good to go! While streamlined menus definitely reduce operating costs, today’s world of individuality is bucking up against the trend of one-size fits all entrees, no matter how delicious they may be. Blame Starbucks.
The Future Foretold
Alvin Toffler, American writer, futurist and businessman, who spoke about customization as early as 1970, said that “Customization will proceed with a kind of gravitational force because, as Americans become more affluent, they have wanted greater individuality.” Chief economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “If you don’t customize, you’re going to lose business in today’s marketplace.” But what does this concept mean to restaurants? Is it possible to customize without increasing costs and creating a kitchen nightmare?
Restaurants Embracing Customization
According to Technomic’s Flavor Consumer Trend Report, 72 percent of consumers expect restaurants to accommodate customization requests. These customized requests range from “hold the lactose” to practically reinventing an entrée. Instead of fighting the flow, some restaurants are embracing it.
These restaurants are offering “create your own” dishes by providing a select option of proteins, vegetables, sauces and spices that customers can then pick and choose to create their own unique meal. Square Roots Kitchen has installed kiosks that make it easy for patrons to customize their orders. In addition to giving their independent guests a better experience, it also gives the restaurant lots of data that allows them to switch up the menu accordingly.
bd’s Mongolian Grill defines themselves as the “World’s number one Create Your Own Stir-Fry restaurant concept.” Their moto? “Stir it up, your way!” Guests have a plethora of choices: meats and seafood, fresh vegetables, sauces, and spices. Once selected, their meal is prepared on a 500° 7-foot grill.
According to the president of SaladWorks, Patrick Sugrue, “Excellent service to them (millennials) is not so much having a friendly person waiting on them, it’s being able to get the food the way they want it.” Which leads to the second issues restaurants are facing. A person ordering a customized order is not likely to see the order as a reason, or excuse, for a longer than normal wait time.
About 50 percent of full-service restaurants are open to adapting their menu and processes in order to accommodate individual tastes. One way to adopt this trend without slowing down production and increasing labor and food costs is to create specific dishes that lend themselves to customizing. These include burritos, pizzas, salads, and bowls. Think bold flavors with various herbs, spices, and seasonings.
According to a survey conducted by Accenture Loyalty, 54 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds revealed that they were more loyal to businesses that gave them the opportunity to personalize or create something unique. If you, as a restaurateur, are looking to appeal to this large segment of society, it may be time to consider implementing a customization strategy.