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Over recent decades eating habits have undergone significant transformations in what, when, where, and how we eat, both inside and outside of home; and at the core of many of these changing eating behaviours lies the consumer. One of the most significant changes rests upon a simple notion for success – give the people what they want.  Do we now live in a food democracy where consumers know and get exactly what they want, or are we still dictated by the shackles of ordering from traditional menus.  The rise of fast- casual dining, and the vast array of ‘build your own’ food options on the high street would uphold the former. The immense popularity of highly customizable dining restaurants is nothing new to the food industry, but it does demonstrate a shift in general to a customer-centric approach that other sectors of the industry have also cottoned on to. With the likes of Crussh, GBK, Nando’s and Leon ruling supreme on the high street, what specifically makes this category a winning formula?


Success rests upon a number of principles that are highly attractive to consumers. Offering superior ingredients to traditional fast food options, fast-casual dining often benefits from the transparency of ordering visibly fresh ingredients that are offered in enticingly presented ways. Consumers are assured of high standards as gourmet burgers, burritos, pizzas and salads are built to order to their exact specification, even to specific customer dietary requirements. Interacting with those creating your food remains something far more satisfying for the consumer, as they see their dish personally prepared in front of them. With customisation being nothing new, it may be a sign of the times that in the age of social media, and user led review sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp! more and more restaurants are becoming more accustomed to giving control over their menu to consumers. This notion of complete customisation is creeping more and more upscale in the out of home dining market. Venturing into more upmarket casual dining, independent gastro-pub chain Lintot Square now allows customers to build their burgers from scratch starting with the bun, and Chiquito allows customisation to the last exact detail by even allowing consumers to create their guacamole.


In efforts to counter the freedom of choice that the more upmarket fast dining options offer, traditional fast food purveyors are doing a number of novel things to put the customer in charge.  Reigning supreme in the fast food stakes, the US has been indulging customers for some time now,  and this is most clearly demonstrated by the practice of ‘menu hacking’. Taking Scottish chip shops ‘we’ll batter anything’ policy to new levels, a string of fast food chains including Wendys, Arbys and Taco Bell offer customers secret off the menu options for a personalised eating experience. Ask for a side of Frings at Burger King, and you’ll obligingly receive, you guessed it, a half portion of fries and onion rings; or ask for a “Suicide Burger”, and you’ll receive a coronary inducing burger with 4 patties, 4 slices of cheese and 4 pieces of bacon. Whilst these secret menu items give off the feel off a clandestine fast food fraternity, restaurant chains have taken note of the public desire for autonomy of food choice by opening up to the concept. Last year, McDonalds successfully trialled the use of iPads for a ‘create your own burger’ ordering system; and Subway, Dennys, Tim Hortons, and Boston Pizza have all recently ran ‘design your own’ competitions. Allowing consumers to enter by designing their own donuts, sandwiches, pizzas or burgers to feature on nationwide menus, the UK fast food industry has followed suit with similar concepts. McDonald’s  X factor-esque ‘My Burger’ competition pits 5 consumer designed burgers against each other in a public vote, with the victorious burger rightfully taking its place on the menu permanently.


Does this then indicate a complete in shift in who controls the menu in the food industry?  Not necessarily. It appears at the higher end of the market the menu still remains a more rigid concept, however, a recent Mintel report has attributed the customer-centric shift to the much lower age demographic that that fast dining restaurants tend to attract. The report argues that the attraction lies in the fact that younger consumers are wanting to try new flavours and ingredients, whilst not wanting to break the bank, citing that 52% of the Millenials age bracket consider themselves ‘adventurous eaters’. In general restaurants are less likely to offer consumers as much ordering autonomy the more upmarket they are, however, the rise of tapas style, sharing food, and home style dining may indicate that the trend of increased adventurousness is more ubiquitous. I, like many, am almost always caught up in a soap opera like love triangle of food envy every time I order at a restaurant. As recent Bournemouth University research has shown,  there can often be a burden of choice when making that important decision between fish or chicken. Too much choice at the higher end of the food industry can actually put off consumers. Sharing , however, has been proven to relieve the decision making process, and the rise of Persian sharing plates, sliders, and fusion tapas may just demonstrate that it’s not that consumers don’t know what they want when it comes to food, but that they want it all!*


One of the most enjoyable meals I have had recently was a trip to Arabica in Borough Market, where a “one of everything” ordering policy produced a Middle Eastern smorgasbord of deliciousness. Rather than being caged by a single dish, the menu offered up lush pastures of ordering freedom for us to explore our culinary curiosities. Whilst I myself sometimes prefer the element of choice being removed from the dining equation, and placing trust in the skill of the chef’s culinary inspiration when paying that little bit extra, it is clear that consumers, myself included, are becoming increasingly knowledgeable enough to make well informed choices. If you see food trends as a linear dribble down from the top restaurants, you could argue that Noma’s recent habit of making the customer cook their own food predicts that the next is step is handing over complete control of the dining experience, bar washing up (highly unlikely though!).  What is obvious, however, is that more and more consumers know what they want, and the food Industry is increasingly giving it to them at many levels.

Author – Jack Cliffe – Marketing and NPD Assistant

*Guardian/Mintel Aug 2014