How Consumer Preferences are Dictating Restaurant Industry Trends
How Consumer Preferences are Dictating Restaurant Industry Trends

1851 connected with two fast-growing companies in the restaurant space to learn about the ways in which businesses are evolving in response to changing consumer habits.

As technology continues to permeate through nearly every aspect of society, our habits and expectations as consumers are affected as a result. We’ve grown to prioritize convenience, yet aren’t willing to sacrifice quality, forcing restaurant operators to adapt or sink into irrelevance faster than you can download a third-party delivery app from the App Store.

While some believe these technological advances signal impending doom for restaurant operators, others see opportunity in the innovation that changing consumer tendencies and preferences compel. 1851 caught up with two companies that are leading the charge in evolving alongside these changes to learn more about how consumer preferences are dictating current trends in the restaurant industry.

Health consciousness impacting menu creation

Andrew Infantino is the Global Director of Marketing for Copper Branch, a Montreal-based restaurant franchise with an exclusively plant-based offering. The brand was founded on the idea that there was a gap in the marketplace as it relates to clean eating, Infantino said. Sure, other concepts were and are billed as “health-focused,” but the gap to which Infantino referred was related to a true vegan offering where taste wasn’t lost in the execution, ultimately creating a concept where the entire menu is whole food plant-based, with non-GMO, organic, specialty and naturally gluten-free foods throughout.

“Since we opened our first restaurant four and a half years ago, we’ve been expanding quickly through franchising as the demand for the demand for plant-based options has skyrocketed,” he said, noting the brand expects to hit 70 locations this year and grow to 130 by the end of 2020. “People are interested in eliminating meat from their diet and have really embraced the chance to do so in a quick-service format.”

Although the entire Copper Branch menu is vegan, Infantino said the company has found that the vast majority of its customers aren’t strict vegans, but rather omnivores who want to eat healthier and more ethically on a more regular basis.

“For any restaurant brand, evolving your menu offering is a huge factor in staying relevant,” Infantino continued. “In general, more consumers are looking to eat more plant-based foods. Growth is huge year-over-year, and we've seen that not only in terms of demand for our food but through other fast-food chains offering these products on their menus and even their growing presence in supermarkets. People view it more as a lifestyle, and are making their decisions in regard to what is better for their body and for the planet.”

Greater emphasis on socially conscious brands

The “planet” aspect of Infantino’s previous statement leads to another trend Copper Branch has identified in the restaurant industry: consumers are placing more pressure on restaurant operators to be socially conscious, particularly as it pertains to the environment. Huge momentum on this front has been gained in the last year, with numerous companies committing to eliminating plastic straws and certain states implementing bans of the use of styrofoam containers.

“Environmental responsibility, especially in terms of packaging, is really important to today’s consumers,” Infantino said, noting that cost is a factor that restaurant operators must consider as they continue to explore ways to improve on their environmental impact. “These trends have affected our decisions as we continue to advance.”

Beyond just packaging, Copper Branch exerts social responsibility through its loyalty program, which is tied to a charitable organization; every time customers use their loyalty cards, a portion of the sale is directly donated to the Rainforest Trust, an international organization protecting endangered forests and animals.

A growing fondness for off-premise dining

The frequency with which consumers prefer off-premise dining has rapidly expanded in recent years. By the end of 2019, four out of every 10 restaurant operators plan on investing more resources in their off-premise strategies, according to Nation’s Restaurant News’ annual State of the Restaurant Industry Report. And according to investment firm UBS, the food delivery market is expected to grow from $35 billion in 2018 to $365 billion worldwide by 2030, an annual average increase of more than 20 percent.  

This shift in consumer preference birthed Kitchen United, an optimized commercial kitchen center that partners with restaurant brands looking to expand their off-premise capabilities, in 2017. The company currently operates locations in Pasadena and Chicago’s River North neighborhood and by the end of the year will have 15 kitchen centers open across the country, each housing between 10 and 15 restaurant brands.

“Delivery has become a major focus and opportunity to grow business for restaurants as consumers increasingly demand convenience in their daily routine,” the company said. “As consumers, we’ve become accustomed to getting everything from cleaning supplies to burgers at the tap of a smartphone, and having it brought directly to our front door. While third-party delivery is still relatively new to the industry, restaurants are capitalizing on the shift toward on-demand delivery as consumer demand continues to grow.”

Realizing that the traditional restaurant setup wasn’t designed to accommodate the level of demand that delivery and pick-up currently bring, Kitchen United streamlines pick-up for delivery service providers and consumers who are taking their food to go, alleviating the friction points inside the four walls, with limited front-of-house space and seating to eliminate traffic and congestion.

“Our commercial kitchen spaces provide restaurant operators the ability to increase revenue by expanding their off-premise delivery, pickup and catering business, as well as enter new markets without the expensive build-out of a new restaurant,” the company said. “We provide our restaurant partners with consumer and operational insights, allowing concepts to tailor their business to best meet local demand, improve efficiency and drive revenue growth.”

Infantino recognized the same trend, acknowledging that the brands that invest in better back-end technology to simplify front-end operations are best equipped to stay relevant amid the rapidly changing restaurant marketplace.

“Technology has increased in usage through online ordering and mobile apps, but also as a way of better connecting with consumers,” Infantino said. “It creates a more personalized experience for customized and repeat orders, which continue to increase. It’s all about finding the right partners to work with so that you can rely on something that works properly and keeps adapting as you do.”

From plant-based protein options to kitchens built to support the rise in off-premise dining, it’s clear the changing habits of consumers are shaking up the restaurant industry across the board. Those that can embrace these shifts influenced by a tech-enabled generation are poised to capture market share well into the future.