Restaurants not only feed us, they shape our food preferences

June 13, 2018 by Michael Von Massow, Alfons Weersink And Bruce Gregory Mcadams, The Conversation
Canadians are spending more of their money on restaurants. In turn, restaurants have an impact on what we eat at home. Credit: Shutterstock

Restaurants are playing an increasingly important role in the food culture of North Americans.

In the United States, food prepared outside the home represents more than 50 per cent of the food dollar, or more than US$800 billion a year.

Canadians spend $80 billion annually in restaurants, spending almost 30 per cent of their food dollars in restaurants. They also buy a lot of prepared food for consumption at home.

But the rate of growth in spending is greater than it is for stores. This spending has an impact on the food market in a variety of ways. Most importantly, however, restaurants are changing how we think about food and what we choose to eat.

Restaurants make choices for consumers. They choose menu items and they decide how to prepare those items.

Grocery stores want to give consumers as much choice and variety as possible, but this causes issues for restaurants.

In a grocery store, for example, there may be many choices of eggs (white, brown, different sizes, organic, high Omega-3, free-run, free-range and cage-free), breakfast sausages (beef, pork, turkey, enhanced-animal welfare, reduced antibiotic use, low sodium, mild or spicy) and English muffins (regular, whole wheat, multigrain, gluten-free and low sodium).

By comparison, in most restaurants you only have one or two options for a breakfast sandwich —likely with or without the sausage. Not only do restaurants make the choices for us, they communicate the value of those choices and can raise awareness of issues.

Nonetheless, it was quick-service restaurants like McDonald's and Tim Hortons that drove animal welfare discussions with respect to layer hens and eggs. This may, to a degree, have been driven by activist pressure, but was not due to consumer demands.

Fast-food restaurants have helped affect change

Large restaurant chains drive significant volumes of business. Their demands can drive changes in how food is produced by creating the critical mass of demand to justify those changes.

Restaurants also have a better opportunity to communicate their choices to consumers than retailers do. In a full-service restaurant, the server can describe important attributes of the dishes on offer; furthermore, a limited menu provides the opportunity to highlight those special qualities.

Canadians are spending an ever-increasing portion of their food dollars in restaurants. Credit: Shutterstock

Chain restaurants, particularly fast-food outlets, advertise and differentiate on those attributes and raise them in the consciousness of Canadians (for example, A&W and its commitment to antibiotic-free meats). Through this communication, restaurants are not only attracting new customers, they're having an impact on the choices people make when they grocery shop too.

Like food retail, restaurants are low-margin businesses. Rising costs in food, labour and rent are forcing restaurants to look for cost savings in different areas. This has driven a shift, first to lesser cuts of meat (the biggest expense for most restaurants) and smaller portions, and now often to alternate sources of protein.

This helps to drive changing perceptions of plant-based proteins and even insect proteins.

The lines between food retail and restaurants are increasingly being blurred, which extends the influence of the "restaurant experience."

Food kits gaining popularity

Retailers and online services are increasingly offering meal kits that come completely portioned and ready to prepare. These allow consumers to have the comfort and convenience of eating at home while also enjoying a more sophisticated meal experience.

These kits usually come with premium attributes (for example, ingredients with enhanced welfare and sustainable production attributes) that also increase awareness. Some food retailers are even opening restaurants (often termed grocerants) to offer more options for customers.

Restaurant food delivery is also becoming more common. Uber Eats, Skip the Dishes and other services offer delivery from a much broader range of choices than the traditional pizza and Chinese food.

This has not been without its hiccups. Some food doesn't travel well, and using a third-party delivery service eliminates the restaurant's control over quality and, therefore, the complete consumer experience.

Retail food delivery or order pickup is also becoming more common. We heard a lot about Amazon's entry into the market and the acquisition of Whole Foods but there are other well-established players around, and new ones entering the market too.

Grocery delivery is difficult, particularly in the early days as routing and timing are complicated. This has lead more companies to follow the "click-and-collect" model where consumers order online and pick up their groceries at the store themselves. This also allows consumers to buy some of the fresh produce separately.

The desire for variety and convenience is increasing the role that restaurants are playing in our food experience. More importantly, though, restaurants are also playing an increasing role in how we think about .

Restaurants, in fact, matter more than ever.

Explore further: Reducing salt in restaurant food—some progress made but more needed

Related Stories

Reducing salt in restaurant food—some progress made but more needed

October 19, 2017
Restaurants are reducing sodium in some newer items on their menus, but when it comes to existing fare and use of sodium overall there has been little change, according to research led by the University of Michigan.

Nutrition guidelines needed for full-service restaurant chains

January 8, 2014
Food prepared away from home is typically higher in calories and lower in nutrition than food prepared at home, but it now makes up more than one-third of all calories purchased in the United States. Consumers tend to view ...

House bill would limit some calorie labels

November 18, 2015
Supermarkets and pizza chains would get some relief from government calorie labeling rules under legislation approved by a House committee Wednesday.

Recommended for you

Love organic foods? Your odds for some cancers may fall

October 22, 2018
Paying extra for those pricey organic fruits and vegetables might pay off: New research suggests eating them might help you dodge a cancer diagnosis.

A topical gel that can prevent nerve damage due to spraying crops with pesticides

October 22, 2018
A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in India has developed a topical get that can be used by farmers to prevent nerve damage due to chemical crop spraying. In their paper published in the journal Science ...

Modern conflict: Screen time vs. nature

October 22, 2018
Even rural kids today spend more time in front of screens and less time outdoors, according to a new study of middle-school students in South Carolina.

Moderate exercise before conception resulted in lower body weight, increased insulin sensitivity of offspring

October 22, 2018
Men who want to have children in the near future should consider hitting the gym.

Community health workers can reduce hospitalizations by 65 percent and double patient satisfaction with primary care

October 22, 2018
Community health workers—trusted laypeople from local communities who help high-risk patients to address social issues like food and housing insecurity—can help reduce hospital stays by 65 percent and double the rate ...

Juul e-cigarettes pose addiction risk for young users, study finds

October 19, 2018
Teens and young adults who use Juul brand e-cigarettes are failing to recognize the product's addictive potential, despite using it more often than their peers who smoke conventional cigarettes, according to a new study by ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.