Interest in health and sustainability — and plant-centered foods — will drive consumer behavior post-pandemic.
Consumers aren’t the same people they were pre-pandemic. Foodservice consultant and thought leader Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, a consulting firm for foodservice manufacturers and operators, offered insight into how the pandemic fundamentally changed consumer perspectives and behaviors, and that impact on foodservice, at the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, Thursday, Dec. 16, a post-show event of the New York Produce Show and Conference. She recently spoke with Susan Crowell, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, to describe that new consumer and the role produce and foodservice will play in the future. One big take away: Sustainability, in its new, broader definition, is huge.
Q. First, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what shaped what you’re doing today. How did you find yourself in the food world with your MBA?
A. While I was getting my master’s (at the University of Illinois-Chicago), I was trying to figure out, what was the next step? Where did I want to head from there? I had always been interested in food, always loved cooking and baking, and while I was in the process of evaluating and investigating different industries, Dave Henkes from Technomic, who was a graduate of the program that I was in, came to campus to recruit. And I thought, well, this seems perfect, right? It’s using my business degree; it’s in food; I’ll be doing consulting and research, but also be in the industry, even if I’m not cooking or baking. I ended up interviewing and got a job.
After a couple of years of working at Technomic, I ended up moving on to Datassential, but at the same time I was thinking, you know, I love doing this. I love the research and the consulting part, but I still love the cooking and the baking, and want to get more involved in that. So I ended up going back and getting a culinary degree (Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago) while I was working. And I have to say, while I’ve got 21 years of experience in consulting and research, the culinary degree on its own, helped in my conversation, particularly with R&D and chefs, so I could speak their language and understand what they were talking about in some of their issues.
Q. You actually owned a cafe, too, right?
A. Yes. I ran a cafe in Bennington, VT, for four years, which closed about six months before the pandemic. It used all my skills — all the consulting, all the culinary. Owning that cafe was an experience that completely reshaped the way I consult and reshaped the way I look at data and consider issues. It really was a transformative experience.
Q. Could you give us an example of how owning the cafe transformed how you view research and data in the real world now?
A. Beforehand, I was looking at the trend data and when I would talk with chain operators or manufacturers, I would say, “Here’s a great trend and this is something you should consider,” or “This is how it may mesh with your products, based on the flavors and the categories or whatever.” Now, I don’t just think, “oh, here’s a trend that you should think about,” I think about what is sourcing going to be like, how difficult is that going to be to use internally? How hard is it to communicate that to whatever your target or core customer group is? What’s the shelf life? All of those different issues are much more a part of my analysis and my consulting. Just because a trend is growing does not mean that it’s something that should even be on your radar — it might be completely inappropriate for you from an operational point of view, from a customer point of view, from a whole host of different issues.
Q. At the New York Produce Show and Conference, you spoke about the new consumer emerging from the pandemic. Who is this consumer and why?
A. For almost two years now, consumers have essentially been forced into a siege mentality. Psychologically that means they feel that they’re under attack from everything. It started with a pandemic, obviously, so for some, it was the mask mandates and the vaccine; for others, the supply chain issues, and now, we’re heading into inflation. That siege mentality changes the way consumers approach problems, make decisions, how they go out into the world. For an example, before the pandemic, if you couldn’t get a table at a restaurant, it might be frustrating, but your life went on. If it was serving you slowly, it might be annoying, but few people freaked out about it. Now, what we saw over the past year, were so many consumers freaking out about it, to the point that restaurants now have had to post signs saying, “if you are not going to be respectful, don’t enter our establishment.” Because of the siege mentality, it’s not just “I can’t get a table at this restaurant,” they see it as yet another instance of them being under attack.
All of this is really changing the way consumers approach everything, but the food industry and foodservice in particular.
Another example is Gen Z, now the youngest consumers who are actively involved in foodservice decisions. They are incredibly technologically forward, and were very engaged in everything that was remote and tech driven and social media. You would have thought that they would have come through the pandemic with no problem, right? They barely talked to people face to face before, so why was the lockdown an issue? Interestingly, that generation suffered more psychologically and mentally. Before the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about Gen Z, and everything’s going to go tech — the order kiosks and things of that nature. The reality is that they are still tech driven. They’re still engaged in tech, but the need for hospitality has increased and they place a greater level of importance on human interaction to some degree, so it’s a balance of tech and human interaction — and that is a fundamental shift for that generation.
The pandemic also shortened people’s outlook. Before the pandemic, most people thought long term — not just what am I going to do tomorrow, but next month, next year, and what’s my life path? The pandemic immediately shortened that perspective. People were quite literally just thinking, “How do I get through today? How do I get through tomorrow?” That’s why we saw so much of the indulgence, comfort, throwing out any kind of concern about health issues — “I’m just going to eat whatever I want to eat,” because they were only thinking about today or tomorrow or next week.
Now that we are, hopefully, despite a momentary Omicrom pause, emerging out of that mentality, and our outlook and our perspective is shifting again, to a longer-term perspective. As that happens, consumers are thinking more about eating better and thinking about health — and here’s where the plant-based items and produce, fruit and vegetables in particular, start becoming even more important. The interesting thing is, comfort and indulgence isn’t going to cease to be an issue, but health becomes the forward issue. But now, it’s not about ‘health for health’s sake’ or strictly health foods — it’s going to be health foods with a little indulgence; plant-based, but how do I make that craveable and something that you really want to eat. So even if some of the changes are subtle, some of them are actually pretty significant.
Q. So how does foodservice begin to prepare for that, and where does produce fit in?
A. Foodservice has been shifting in this direction, so it’s not a complete about-face, but it’s designing these plant-based or plant-forward options, not just for the vegan or vegetarian or the super-healthful consumer. It’s designing foods that are gorgeous, with great texture, amazing flavor, and they fit with whatever your menu is — and they just happen to be plant-based and plant-forward. It’s the right blend of all of the different plant-based elements that can create the texture, the flavor and the visual appeal, balanced with breads, or different types of fats, even animal protein used more as a garnish or to complement the plant-based elements, rather than be the primary showcase.
There are a lot of different ways to do that, and I think there’s a growing list of products that provide a lot of different options. I’m not talking about the hyper-processed, animal protein replacement products that are out there. For chefs, in particular, there are products that help them shift the texture of fruits and vegetables, or there are other ingredients they can start leveraging, like aquafaba, that help them mimic other products they may have used, while still having that incredibly, craveable experience on the back end.
Q. Can you tell us more about protein alternatives in foodservice?
A. In September, I worked with another organization, and I actually presented some of this public data when I was in New York. It was a nationally representative study of consumers to understand where they’re at with this whole protein alternative issue — which, of course, brought up a whole host of other questions about where they’re out with fruit and vegetables. There were many interesting findings, and I will go through a number of them in New York, because this protein alternative is such a hot topic, and these hyper-processed products seem to be disruptors.
The reality is, from the data, we found that while (particularly) younger consumers are open to the idea of these types of hyper-processed products, and they’re willing to try them, the reality is they are little more than a niche — kind of unique items to try, rather than something to adopt long-term. What they’re really looking for is a better balance in their diet, having the right balance of plant-based versus animal-based. In fact, Gen Z is significantly less likely to say that they are abandoning animal products, they’re just looking for a better balance in their in their diet.
More importantly, I think, the big Achilles’ heel for these hyper-processed products, is that particularly younger consumers, and this is statistically significantly true for Gen Z, are increasingly concerned about the lack of transparency in the ingredients. And, while I think these products are focused on mimicking the animal product experience, I think they’ve got a blind spot for this growing concern about “what exactly am I eating here?”
Q. So food transparency and sustainability concerns are growing?
A. I think people are becoming even more concerned about or they’re more focused on: What am I eating? What am I buying? How is this impacting me, my family, my community, the community at large? People have a much broader perspective on the role that their behavior plays, not just for themselves, but overall.
Sustainability is no longer just specifically environmentally based water and air quality, etc., it incorporates animal welfare and animal rights, workers’ rights, social justice. Sustainability now is this incredibly, hugely encompassing term. And I think that’s because people are far more conscious about these type of processed products. I see chefs, in particular, and some chain operators are increasingly moving away, or who have chosen not to bring in one of those branded products, but rather to develop their own products back of house based on whole ingredients, like fruits and vegetables. Because ultimately long term, they will be able to defend that product and they know exactly what’s in it, they control it, they control the ingredients, they can defend it, they can stand behind it.
Q. What else did you share in your presentation?
A. I unveiled a great deal of proprietary research in the presentation, I gather information from a ton of sources that’s very recent, and distill that down into “why should this even matter?” It’s not just a matter of “here’s some interesting facts,” but why it’s interesting, but how it’s going to fundamentally impact what’s going on the menu, how you need to think about sales, and what that’s going to look like, not just for the next six months, but for the next year, or the next couple of years.
I love to have robust conversations with the audience, so I always encourage people to come in and pepper me with as many questions as they want. That’s what I’m there for, and the more questions they ask, the more it makes me think about that data in potentially different ways, to re-examine what’s happening. Engaging with this type of audience, with industry professionals, is as beneficial to the speakers as to the audience. Ultimately, we all want to do a better job as we move forward.
The Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum is the best kept secret in the industry. The most thoughtful and insightful speakers… and Maeve was exemplary. We can’t thank her enough for joining us.
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We thank Maeve Webster for keeping us thinking in this age of reinvention of the foodservice sector!