The new, more demanding foodservice customer

Peter Backman
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Peter Backman is managing director of Horizons, the UK-based analyst and specialist information consultant for the foodservice and hospitality sector. An expert on the structure and dynamics of the international foodservice sector, and its supply chain, below he explains why operators need to embrace new dishes and new trends in order to keep up with their competitors as the foodservice sector experiences growth across the UK for the first time in several years

There is no doubt the UK has become a nation of diners. Now, with the economic downturn well and truly behind us, British consumers seem ever more willing to eat out, whether it’s for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner or a snack in between.

Horizons’ own research has shown a rise in the frequency, spend and penetration of eating out, with particular growth in fast casual dining and the managed pub sector.

The recovery in eating out has largely been driven by those on higher incomes (ABC1s) and has varied from region to region with the North and East showing the highest levels of growth, according to our most recent Eating Out-Look research (Spring 2015).

Some 71% of consumers in this Horizons/YouGov survey said they had eaten out in the previous two weeks – that’s a rise on last year’s figure of 69%. Not only that, but the average frequency over that two-week period was 1.94 times, up from 1.8 times a year ago.

Average spend on eating out, including drinks, has risen to £14.48, up from £13.41 last year, with 25-34-year-olds being the age group most likely to eat out (80%).

Eating Out-Look did reveal changes in eating out amongst the older age group, with the over 55s now eating out the least and no longer spending the most when they do eat out. Young people are reportedly eating out less too, with 73% reporting that they’d eaten out in the past two weeks, compared with 81% a year ago.

So while we might sit back and think we are now seeing recovery, it’s true to say that it’s still patchy, suggesting that consumers are still watching their budgets. Of the 28% of adults that said they hadn’t eaten out in the previous two weeks, expense was the most commonly cited reason.

However, what’s interesting for observers is that while there has been a strong recovery, it’s not a recovery that has taken us straight back to the eating out market of pre-recession times. The eating out landscape has changed and is changing, so it’s important for operators and suppliers ensure they can best provide for it now and going forward.

Our research, both amongst consumers and operators, demonstrates that consumers are no longer restricting their eating to three meal times a day, preferring to snack when they feel hungry, whatever time of day.

We also know that they expect to be able to eat wherever they are – whether it’s at work, shopping mall, cinema, leisure centre, train station or on a motorway. Operators have been quick to fill this gap, with many smaller units cropping up in unusual places, meaning the focus for eating out isn’t necessarily on the high street.

Breakfast is king

Breakfast has been one of the success stories of the past decade, with many operators adapting quickly to this trend by opening earlier and adding breakfast menus to their repertoire. No longer is breakfast limited to a full English either, a number of high street chains offer healthy breakfasts such as granola, pancakes or porridge – all with the option of being served with fruit, yoghurt and honey, to eat in or take out.

No-one could fail to notice the ever-growing march of coffee shops on our high streets, as well as in leisure clubs, shopping malls, garages and transport hubs. Coffee chains are now improving their food offer to make the most of this breakfast and snacking opportunity, with more varied fresh pastries alongside other breakfast and snack items.

We believe the breakfast market will continue to develop as consumers become accustomed to breakfasting outside the home, in particular with healthy options as consumers become more concerned about their fat, sugar and calorie intake.

Health options are vital

We know that sometimes diners do want to treat themselves to something indulgent. But they don’t always, particularly if they regularly eat out. This will mean there will be a real need for healthy options on menus, with relevant labelling for gluten-free, meat-free, five-a-day, low calorie or low fat.

Our latest operator survey backs this up with 79% of operators surveyed saying that health issues were already affecting the dishes they were serving, with gluten-free being the most commonly cited, but overall there is a general increase in free-from foods.

A third of adults who eat out say their choice of establishment or what they choose on the menu is affected by health and lifestyle factors, with 15% of women looking for vegetarian options and 15% wanting calorie information on dishes.

This concern over the food extends to provenance too, with half of Britain’s eating out public saying that it was important for them to know the origin of main ingredients.

The consumer of today is many things, but one thing they are not is static. New influences, new concerns and new experiences help adapt the consumer’s expectations of the food they want to eat, and while burgers may still be the most commonly listed dish on British menus, it’s vital that operators embrace new dishes and new trends to keep up with their competitors.

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