A Breaking down of the Food Chain(s)

Firstly, I cannot believe that Happy Gilmore is nearly a 20 year old movie! I can vividly remember watching it on the old wooden-box-tube-TV and then going and listening to some terrible 90’s music on cassette (there will be no disclosure of said musical tastes…). It’s funny how things have changed in that time! It’s just one of those movies where the story is timeless, but little things will remind you of how subtly different things were “just” 19 years ago.

Secondly, who would have thought that Subway, the World’s most expansive food chain, would be mentioned in media articles as having “lost its appeal” with an “uncertain future” today? And it’s not just Subway. McDonald’s is actually closing stores (a major one in Sydney’s CBD recently closed, for example) and major competitors are appearing in what’s become known as “Fast Casual” food (or as I like to call it, ‘slightly leisurely paced food’).  It’s an example of something I’ve mentioned before in my post regarding Print Media. Fragmentation.

Blame the 7-Year-Itch…?

You know what they say (and you’ll ponder on whether this is true for you now…), every seven years, a person goes through a complete change in tastes. Of course, you don’t wake up on your 28th birthday all of a sudden different to your 21st! There are gradual changes in peoples’ personas, attitudes, behaviours, tastes and motivations! Basically everything. It’s part of the natural way that people adapt to the systemic social changes around them.

When it comes to food, the level of change that a person will experience is almost as much as their changing taste in music (in my opinion anyway). And in the past 20 years, the pace of social change is faster than it ever has been in the past 1,000 years! Can you think of why (and no, it’s not because Adam Sandler’s movies have become much, much worse…)? Yep, the internet, in particular, social media… And you’re not surprised I said it.

Sustainability has also become the hot-button topic and polarises a LOT of societies politically. But it has created greater awareness in people for other things, such as the processes that go into their food options, as well as giving a greater understanding (unless you follow some sort of fad diet!) of what healthy food choices can do for them. And let’s face it, if a major food outlet makes poor ingredient choices or uses unethical sourcing practices, they’re just one #Hashtag away from disaster!

With greater information, people are now thinking with their heads, as well as with their stomachs. It’s driving greater demand in choice for higher quality, healthier, fresher, sustainable, local, ethical food options… And let’s be honest… Who of the fast food majors really offers options for those criteria?

I have never wanted to try a burger more than in any other time of my life!
I have never wanted to try a burger more, in any other time of my life!

Have it your way…

Let’s get back to the whole ‘fragmentation’ issue… In Western society, we’re not exactly the most time-rich peoples… The fact that we are more connected, always online, means we are never far from our jobs! Our commutes are long, so what can we do? Get on our phones, laptops or computers and work more! We are so time poor, we have far less time to cook for ourselves (see this) and we eat out a lot more. This tends to create more poor food choices, but our demand for better choice is immense.

And the food services industry has recognised this for some time! The majors still hold huge market share, but it’s shrinking fast due to other, more premium options (for example, you say KFC, I say Nandos!) becoming more widely available. And I’m not just talking about fast food outlets. 10 years ago, here in Sydney, there were few smaller, intimate bars and they served terrible snacks… Now, there’s hundreds and they serve all kinds of signature food dishes to complement the huge range of beers (another majorly fragmenting sector) on offer, restaurants in the USA particularly have food trucks running around or almost always have takeaway options and small, signature food stores are everywhere and are able to pump out food at the same rate, if only slightly slower, than major fast food chains.

Many of these ‘slightly leisurely paced food’ options are also more expensive! But we are earning more and given our lack of time, feel that it’s better to pay more for better food, for better health outcomes. So not only are we happy to have greater choice in our food, but we’re even more happy to pay for those options. And why wouldn’t we… I can go to a particular bar in Sydney (Mary’s!) and buy a burger made from premium Wagyu beef and cooked by a former head chef of an exclusive restaurant, or I can go for lunch and wait 10 minutes of my hour for Pork and Prawn Dumplings served in a Spicy Szechuan soup… All for less than $15. Our tastes are endless, and thanks to that demand, so are our options.

This is from Mr Crackles... A place you can't even sit in and it is amazing.
This is from Mr Crackles… A place you can’t even sit in and it is amazing.

Fast Food, just not ‘Fast’ enough

The pace at which our demand for new things has moved has caught the major fast-food outlets off guard. Yes, we have had an increasing dependence on convenience, but the demand for greater variety, quality, nutritional value and the occasional, #foodporn, Instagram opportunity is something that the traditional chains have taken too long to clue on to.

If you think about fast food options, McDonalds tastes like McDonalds, Subway is like Subway and so-on and so-forth. They are introducing new options, but there’s a perception of a complete lack of credibility. If they were so interested in providing better food options and choice, then we probably wouldn’t even have Whoppers or Big Macs anymore. Instead, we have boring salad options (healthy food doesn’t just mean salad, thanks Ronald!) or newer variations on what is essentially the same, mass produced, cheaply sourced and questionably created formula. And consumers understand this and see it for the game of Keeping Up with the Jones’ (not Kardashians) that it really is.

The point is, that food chains are stuck in a consistently branded, well manicured box of their own making. It’s restricted them from being able to truly identify trends and fill in the perceived market gaps, given the false belief that they would be on top forever because people like them for what they are. The lesson for these chains? There is nothing more demanding than a person hungry for change. In order to catch up and maintain their ever tenuous grip on the food services industry, they will need to fundamentally alter their offerings, down to the method of cultivating their source produce!

In times of great changes of social ‘ages’, cultures shift rapidly and in no more significant area is this seen than food. We are said to be experiencing the beginning of a new social epoch… And I sincerely doubt that fast food will look anything like it has for the past 50 years.

We're going to White Castle!
We’re going to White Castle!

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