Foodie culture and its impact on the culinary landscape
There has never been a time in the history of man when food hasn’t been an integral part of our daily lives. Though its main purpose has always been a means of survival, the role food plays has evolved into so much more. Today, the act of eating is expected to yield a heightened sensory experience one can enjoy alone or share with others. It’s become a vehicle for self-expression and reflection; an excuse to get together; a way to learn, listen and bond.
How and when did this shift happen? Cue the rise of the foodie movement — a gourmet crusade of sorts that has, and continues to shape the modern culinary landscape. Spawning a subculture obsessed with ethics, nutrition and innovation, this movement has picked up much momentum; forcing those in the hospitality industry to tailor their craft to its ever-expanding list of demands.
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What is a foodie?
Coined in the 1980s by Ann Barr and Paul Levy in their book The Official Foodie Handbook, a true prophecy of what the food industry has since become, questions still abound over the term’s meaning and proper use. Is it a real word? Is it slang? Does it have positive or negative connotations? Does it refer to a subset of people or are we all foodies in some capacity?
Some define them as people who equate food with art. Others view them as people who enjoy cooking, eating, reading and talking about food. Most, however, agree that modern-day foodies are hobbyists with a keen interest in the sourcing, preparation, presentation, consumption and discussion of food. The movement largely consists of millennials, who are more educated, health-conscious, well-travelled and tech-savvy than the generations before them.
Armed with smartphones, social media profiles, blogs and forums, the modern-day foodie has a direct impact on the success of a restaurant business, and chefs, managers and owners must be ready to adapt.
The evolving western foodscape
It seems as though we, as consumers, are more concerned than ever with where our food comes from, whether it’s healthy, who prepares it and how many Likes our food pics get on social media. No longer a niche cohort obsessed with the latest restaurant opening or food trend, foodie culture has penetrated consumer eating habits so deeply that our foodie-like preferences can be spotted in our everyday dietary choices.
1- We’re eating local again
According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2016 culinary forecast, locally-sourced meat and seafood is the hottest food trend of the year. Local produce and hyper-local sourcing (in-house restaurant-grown materials) are not far behind coming in at number 3 and 4 respectively out of 20. The trend is not only apparent in the number of farm-to-table eateries popping up; it can also be seen in the rise in popularity of local farmers’ markets and Whole Foods locations.
Knowing that one’s meal is comprised of ingredients that come from the farm down the road reassures us that what we are eating is fresh and that the price we pay for it is money well-spent supporting local businesses.
2- We’re making healthier choices
What’s happening to the state of the Fast Food Nation? With over 200,000 fast food restaurants in the US, it’s no surprise that almost 30% of the population is obese. Yet, in recent years, big box chains have added healthier options and customizations to their menus. You can now rest easy knowing that the beef in your burger was grass-fed and humanely treated, ditch that bun in favor of a lettuce wrap and swap out your fries for a salad.The rise in health-conscious fast-food establishments such as Chipotle and 5 Guys, and vegan chains like the US’ Native Foods Cafe and Canada’s Copper Branch also highlight the shift towards health-conscious “fast eating”. Though partly a response to the obesity epidemic, the shift also shows a change in consumer preferences.
3- We’re playing the fame game
What about the celebrification of cooks? Today’s big-name chefs have their own shows, restaurants, cookbooks, autobiographies and food brands, and today’s home cooks will stop at nothing to achieve these same milestones — cue popular cooking reality shows such as Masterchef. Sure, Julia Child helped pave the way, but who would have thought 40 years ago that consumers would regard chefs the same way they do rock stars or oscar-winning actors?
Word-of-mouth marketing at its best
Almost no meal goes undocumented these days. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest feeds are continuously flooded with an abundance of food pictures. The popularity of food-related hashtags has skyrocketed (we’ve all posted a #foodie, #foodstagram, #foodporn-worthy picture). Everyone’s following their favorite restaurants and snapping shots of their meals.
We’ve all become food photographers in some capacity — our smartphones and photo editing apps producing magazine-like pictures shared across a slew networks. The pictures we take not only advertise food quality but convey the extent of the experience an establishment offers. Interestingly, consumers aren’t the only ones snapping up a frenzy. Restaurateurs, chefs and caterers are also taking ‘food pics’; marketing their businesses by sharing their creations and spreading the word about their fine fare across every social platform imaginable.
Then there are the food blogs and review forums — platforms once solely governed by foodies that are now championed and frequented by anyone with an internet connection and an appetite. These channels transmit content at the speed of light and have the power to make or break any business. Food bloggers and restaurant reviewers aren’t necessarily famous nor do they have as refined a palate as professional food critics. They simply share an appreciation for great food and service. Regardless of their qualifications, food bloggers’ and amateur reviewers’ experiences more closely resemble those of the everyday diner, which is why their opinions resonate so well with us, shaping our choices when it comes to when, where and what we eat.
An industry blessing or curse?
Foodie culture has caused the industry to evolve at an astonishing pace; forcing restaurateurs to rethink their entire approach to food. Whether it be flavor combinations, food pairings, plating style or quality of service, innovation is at an all-time high. As for consumers, the majority of us have become more knowledgeable than ever about what we eat and where it comes from. We want organic, sustainable and locally-sourced food partly because it’s all the rage, but mostly because it’s better for our health, our environment and our economy.
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Our heavy reliance on social media, blogs and reviews, on the other hand, should be considered a double-edged sword. Though social platforms are effective marketing and advertising tools, that patrons constantly snap, load and hashtag their meals results in slower table turnover and longer wait-times. As for the bloggers, whether or not you respect them, they will continue to influence people’s perceptions and opinions, no matter how qualified they are. As for review forums? Though helpful to consumers, they can be quite detrimental to businesses if not properly managed.
Perhaps the foodie movement can be considered both a blessing and a curse. It all boils down to how easily restaurateurs can pivot and adapt their operations to meet this growing group’s changing needs.