Redefining The Foodie Customer
Entice diners with the unknown. That’s how most chefs once courted the so-called foodie. But as everything from cronuts to carnitas has gone mainstream, this dining segment is distancing itself from the masses by eschewing obscurity for authenticity.
“The term ‘foodie’ is changing from describing a culinary hobbyist to describing a person who is generally more interested in what’s on their plate and where it comes from,” says Annika Stensson, director of research communications at the National Restaurant Association.
Taste and flavor are still a given, but foodies are far more interested in culinary experiences. They want to enjoy a good meal with an educational or entertainment tie into food culture, such as learning about artisanal products, discovering hyper-regional ethnic cuisines or enjoying a bit of culinary entertainment.
In fact, telling a good food story has cachet among diners. Seventy-six percent of U.S. adults enjoy talking about new or interesting foods, according to a 2013 study by the Institute of Food Technologists. Operators providing these stories and experiences are getting a leg up on their competitors.
Operators should distinguish between “authentic foodies” (those who show a deep interest in the culture of food) from pop-culture eaters (those who constantly chase culinary and health fads), says Melissa Abbott, vice president of culinary insights for the Hartman Group.
Making your own salad dressing isn’t impressive, she says, but housemade butters, breads and vinegars can be. “You don’t want to be over-the-top in your descriptions,” Abbott says. “You want to tip your hat and let people feel like they’ve made a discovery.”
In Seattle, Executive Chef Caprial Pence of Bookstore Bar & Cafe offers foods that diners don’t have the time or equipment to make at home, like house-cured bacon and ricotta cheese.
“To appeal to foodies you need to make sure your menu is authentic,” Pence says. “(They) see through menus that are contrived.”
The key is finding unique ways to share these stories. Chef Chris Franz was years ahead of the trends, making his own bread, cheeses and sausages at RattleSnake Club in Detroit. But it wasn’t until he began producing online videos showcasing techniques and local producers that foodies took notice.
“Our handmade products make us stand out from the crowd,” Franz says. “People see the videos and then they come in and start asking questions. It makes them want to learn more about us.”
Operators hoping to lure foodies with ethnic cuisine need to delve deeper into hyper-regional dishes. A taco is just a taco, unless you can show that it’s from Oaxaca or Puebla.
At Lolo’s in Harlem, New York, co-owners Skai Young and Chef Raymond Mohan stand out from the traditional seafood shacks with riffs on Caribbean fare, incorporating Cape Cod influences into dishes such as Shark and Bake sandwiches (sustainable spiny dogfish served on pita-like johnnycake bread), conch fritters and jerk ribs.
The proliferation of food media exposing foodies to regional cuisines has created demand to try the “real thing,” says Jana Mann, senior director of syndicated services at food research firm Datassential.
“Some people want to relive travel memories,” Mann says, “but some people who can’t afford to go to these places are looking for ways to taste these cuisines closer to home.”
Well-traveled chefs can take advantage by bringing a taste of their journeys into their menus. But even mainstream operations can learn from Hard Rock Cafe. Hard Rock’s World Burger Tour menu gave U.S. diners a chance to taste global riffs on a traditional American classic, including a haggis-topped burger with turnips from Scotland and a Marimba Burger with jalapeño-spiced beans from Guatemala.
“It was our way to strike a balance between our signature flair of authentic American cuisine and the steadily evolving palate of the modern (foodie),” says Darryl Mickler, Hard Rock’s senior corporate executive chef.
Food as Theater
The notion of the celebrity chef has lost much of its luster among foodies. Attain a certain level of fame and you belong to the masses—not the gourmands. But that doesn’t mean chefs can’t make a lasting impression by infusing a bit of theatricality into a dining experience.
Brandon Frohne, executive chef at Mason’s in Nashville, uses social media to occasionally announce a special secret menu item. The hitch: It can be ordered only if customers whisper hilarious passwords like “hold me closer, tiny dancer” or “take my breath away” to their server.
“It was really fun for people,” says Frohne, whose specials range from porcini and brie funnel cakes to Goo Goo Cluster liquid nitrogen floats. “We could hear them laughing in the kitchen.”
In New York, Chef-owner Michael Psilakis has enjoyed plenty of success with his Greek-themed MP Taverna Brooklyn. But he calls his latest outpost, The Hall Brooklyn, a “pimped-out supper club.” It’s designed to offer different dinner parties, such as a New Orleans-themed party with live jazz, Sazeracs and Cajun cuisine one day or ribs and country music the next. The idea is to use food as a platform for an entertaining evening.
“The dining experience is evolving,” says Psilakis. “It’s all about creating a special memory for someone; that’s what it’s all about.”
Peter Gianopulos is a critic for Chicago magazine and an adjunct professor.