The Fresh-Food Movement Could Be Deadly for Restaurants

Brands That Don't Adapt to New Consumer Demands Could Suffer

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Steep discount promotions, décor upgrades and a few new menu options aren't enough for restaurant chains confronting growing demand for unprocessed, higher-quality food. Consumers' demand for fresher food and a unique brand experience continues to grow rapidly. New restaurant brands are popping up everywhere waving the fresh-food flag, but as this movement invigorates the masses it could also be destroying restaurant brands that fail to adapt to new demands.

TGI Fridays took a lot of heat a few weeks ago for its latest ploy: endless appetizers for $10. One headline predicted the promotion would "destroy" the restaurant. Although the outcome remains to be seen, the basis of the prediction is that TGI Fridays seems to have lowered the quality of its food and service over the years. The promotion is just another example of the chain's lack of dedication to a better experience in line with market demand. Instead of pushing a better product, the brand continues to push a lower price.

Some may argue that struggling sales happen because of poor service and an outdated image. I would agree that those issues have played a role in declining financials, but there is a larger issue negatively affecting older restaurant chains: People want fresher, healthier food options, and they're seeking out restaurants that deliver it through an engaging brand experience.

Case in point: As a reaction to poor performance, Olive Garden started rejuvenating its brand earlier this year. It announced "the most significant evolution in the restaurant's history," and added new ingredients like polenta, capers and pistachio-crusted truffles as new items intended to increase the culinary quality of its food. The chain continued its push toward a renaissance more recently in the form of a new brand identity rolled out across brand touch points and new architectural and interior designs seen in two concept locations in Florida. But it continues to face problems even though it's stepped up its brand identity and food offering, because it's done little to address Olive Garden's stigma for low-quality, processed food and the story around it.

What's driving this fresh-food frenzy? For the consumer, eating healthier and fresher isn't solely about trying to lose a few pounds. The long-tail effect of the farm-to-table trend has left consumers wanting to know the source of their food, how it's made and the story of its journey. It isn't as much about actual health as it is about the quality and "realness" of the food they're eating. Coupled with the growing popularity of food-related TV programming, the American palette is expanding with the desire for broader, more sophisticated flavor profiles. Additionally, better understanding of the negative effects on the body from eating processed foods over the long-term has left consumers shunning anything less than fresh.

The fresh food movement is clearing the path for restaurants that focus on bringing better-quality ingredients, more responsible sourcing and new flavors to market. Brands like True Food Kitchen are usurping the once-loved casual restaurant brands with their focus on better, fresher-quality food that's healthier than deep-fried bar standards doused in sauce. The restaurant goes beyond the food and includes the consumer in its story to garner participation in its brand. Although the food comes at a higher price point, people choose the brand with which they connect on multiple levels: fresh food and a story they can get behind.

Even in the far reaches of the U.S., the healthy food movement is dominating once-popular establishments that serve lower-quality food. Hawaii's Grylt, a restaurant touting "good food that's good for you," is opening a fourth location, continuing its push against lesser-quality restaurant brands. The concept of offering fresh-grilled food and a story built on a better product fulfills the needs of tourists and Hawaiians alike who are into diets like paleo and fitness trends like cross-fit. As a result, Grylt continues to successfully strip market share from the island's less-than-fresh counterparts who are content to slop together foods with a discount price tag.

The moves toward fresher, higher-quality and more culinary-focused offerings are not a fad. Rather, they are growing rapidly alongside other healthy-living choices, and are successfully threatening the traditional restaurant brands that haven't kept up with the demands of the market. Fresh is no longer a point of differentiation -- it's now a consumer demand. As "fresh food" inches ever closer to parity, the only question that brands must answer will be: What's the brand story?