Back in the day, diners looking for healthier fare searched for icons that symbolized a “good” but often bland choice. Thankfully, the industry has long since moved beyond the token cottage cheese platter into better-for-you fare. Operators have either made an inviting home on the menu for it, or have incorporated better-for-you cues in subtle but meaningful ways throughout the menu. And flavor. The industry has learned that today’s customers are unmoving in their demand for flavor. At the altar of health, they may sacrifice portion size, calories, fat and sodium, but they will not surrender flavor.
Now we’re looking at the next step in the evolution of health and wellness, into a more esoteric feel-good platform. It’s not just about calories—it’s about nutrient density. Fad diets have morphed into lifestyle behaviors. Atkins and the cabbage soup diet are being replaced with overall strategies like gluten-free and paleo. That shift has moved the emphasis from weight loss to feel-good. Also, it’s no longer just about what’s on the plate, but about the brand behind the plate. Today, consumers are asking: When I push away from the table, do I feel good in my belly as well as in my head and heart?
Today’s modern lifestyle has helped pull this trend into sharp focus. “The driver for a new approach to health is a better informed guest, affected by a cultural shift in what food can provide, and a growing number of eating occasions that didn’t exist 20 years ago,” says Eric Stangarone, creative director at The Culinary Edge, and chef-owner of En Su Boca in Richmond, Va. “No longer are there three meals a day, and no longer is simple satiety the end goal. Guests now want food that does more, on their terms, at their convenience.”
With this shift in consumer values, convenience is what lets fast-casuals pull ahead. Wrapping feel-good up in all-day availability and speed of service makes this segment a perfect vehicle for forward movement. Another way fast-casuals win here is with the inherent freshness and transparency cues of open kitchens and custom prep. California’s five-unit-and-growing Asian Box guarantees “Real Food. Fast.” in its mission statement, delivering choices like brown rice or chilled rice noodles, proteins like lemongrass-marinated pork or six-spice chicken. And on the East Coast, Sweetgreen promises that its menu sees “passion and purpose come together.” Its model lets guests pick two bases (maybe organic baby spinach or chopped romaine), four ingredients (including spicy broccoli and roasted Brussels sprouts) and a choice of dressing.
Simplicity and customization are perhaps the biggest reasons for the feel-good movement’s deep ripples. “The feel-good approach is in direct response to consumers being bombarded with difficult-to-understand and even contradictory health information,” says Chris Koetke, vice president of the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts and Laureate International Universities Center of Excellence in Culinary Arts. “The result has been a sense of confusion, with the consumer feeling less empowered to make decisions about healthy food.”
More concepts are breaking out and hanging their key branding and core values on feel-good cuisine. Fast-casual LYFE Kitchen, now with 15 units in six states, carved out a niche with its “eat good, feel good, do good” mission. True Food Kitchen, now with 10 units in six states, touts its core values as “we want you to feel better, live longer, and make your mouth happy.” Hu Kitchen in New York takes a more aggressive stance in positioning itself as “real food for humans,” announcing itself as “a trusted partner in the shared goal of reclaiming what it means to eat and live deliciously.” And Reviver, also in New York, promotes the union of culinary art with nutrition science.
But feel-good’s audience extends outside of a niche market, and the opportunity to capture diners looking for these qualities is too momentous to pass up. Full-service chains can certainly key into this. “The cultural fact is that we’re eating out more than we used to,” says June Jo Lee, vice president of strategic insights at The Hartman Group. “Today’s consumers are saying that they don’t need an indulgent experience every time they eat out. It’s now everyday food.” A recent study from The Hartman Group clearly illustrates how younger diners seek out menu choices that make them feel good about themselves. Their values are inextricably connected to their purchasing decisions, and they demand transparency so they can make those decisions armed with authentic information.
Good for the Body
Before delving into the emotional and intellectual factors that are linked to feel-good food, it’s important to explain the physical dimension of this trend. It’s absolutely tied to health and wellness. “Food is the foundation of that health and wellness,” says Lee. “More consumers today care about the food they put in their body and how they physically feel after they eat it. Some even take it as far as looking for food that encourages good digestion. It’s connected to gluten for some, probiotics for others.” The Hartman Group’s study shows that 45 percent of Millennials surveyed have tried or adopted special diets, such as vegan or paleo, while 36 percent are deliberately adding probiotics to their daily diet. And 29 percent report that they have food allergies and/or sensitivities. “They see food as the starting point of wellness, and they’re seeking out these qualities when they purchase food away from home.”
Phoenix-based True Food Kitchen is in growth mode, capitalizing on this modern demand from diners. “Eating better is the easiest way to heal your body from the inside,” says Arik Markus, True Food’s brand chef. “Trust is a big part of that relationship with the guest—they come in knowing food is going to taste great and make them feel great.” The bestselling Mediterranean Chopped Salad resonates with seasonally driven flavors and coming in as both a gluten-free and vegetarian option. Beverages can help relay wellness cues, too. Diners here can order from a menu of “Natural Refreshments,” including the Medicine Man (sea buckthorn, pomegranate, cranberry, black tea and soda).
The strategy here includes managing food costs through portion control and leveraging the advantage of scale. “You won’t see 12- to 16-oz. portions of protein here,” he says. “Most of ours average 5 ounces.” Recipe development is driven by density of nutrients instead of calorie count. “I think that’s the leading difference in what diners today are looking for,” says Markus. “They might be okay with a higher calorie spend if the dish is full of good calories. They want to be able to get up from their meal and get on with their day. They don’t want to feel sluggish. That personal experience with our food drives repeat business because they trust we’re taking care of them.”
That guest expectation needs to be underscored. “I absolutely believe that one of the biggest impacts Millennials will have on the menu is a rethinking of what the ‘healthy’ menu is going to look like,” says Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. “These consumers, more than any before them, don’t subscribe to diets. They focus far more on balance, general ‘good-for-you’ eating, and have a far different way of looking at food and its overall role in their overall health.”
New York’s Reviver, a newer concept with assertive plans for expansion, provides scoring on each of its offerings, measuring nutrient density, not just calorie count. Prices for dishes fall between $8 and $12. Bestsellers include gluten- and dairy-free entrées like Carolina BBQ Chicken, a grilled chicken breast with roasted tomatoes, onions, peppers, sweet corn, baby kale and red quinoa in a Carolina BBQ sauce, finished with scallion and cilantro. “Primarily we targeted office workers for lunch because there’s a population that eats lunch on a regular basis, and we didn’t see anything out there that offers this kind of healthier, but still delicious food for that time of day,” says Scott Leibfried, co-founder and executive chef.
Reviver scores its menu based on 10 key nutrients: vitamins A, C and E, folate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, omega-3 fats and fiber. It sets targets based on the recommended daily intake, using 2,000 calories a day as its guide. This system of measuring what makes something a healthy choice goes above and beyond calorie counts, and is especially appealing to frequent restaurant consumers.
Good for the Soul
More and more consumers want to feel good about the food choices they make. The heart-and-soul part of feel-good cuisine is driven by the trends in authenticity, local, seasonal, sustainability and transparency. “Good concepts are allowing guests to feel good with more than just subtractive health,” says Stangarone. “It’s about transparency, sourcing, nutrition, philosophy, choice and value. The more a concept can address, the more ways to connect with guests.”
In 2014, Culinary Visions Panel surveyed more than 1,200 diners about what motivates them when dining away from home. Mindful dining is now a huge factor here: 73 percent choose to patronize restaurants that support the local community, while 68 percent care about ordering protein that is sustainably raised or caught.
The Hartman Group’s findings mirror the same drivers, confirming that value comes from what’s behind the food. “They’re seeking food with heart,” says Lee. Seventy-six percent in that study prioritize quality products. “They want to know that their values align with the values of the products they’re consuming. Restaurants need to start thinking about how consumers are assessing how they feel about them.”
Authenticity of message is crucial here—no whitewashing allowed. Firehouse Subs, with more than 800 units, connects to local communities through the company’s Public Safety Foundation, which benefits local first responders. Through initiatives like these, even national brands can successfully create authentic ties to communities.
Consumer demand for compelling narratives affects practically all aspects of foodservice. People want to hear why something is feel-good. “Tell the story of the product—who produced it, where it came from, how it was produced, why it is sustainable, what health attributes it brings,” says Chris Koetke. “Make the information accessible.”
Food indeed equals mood, as The Culinary Institute of America revealed in research last year conducted by Connie Gutterson, R.D., CIA nutrition instructor. The findings highlighted a shift in mindset in which consumers are equating what they consume to how they feel overall. “Great concepts and chefs are using this momentum of ‘feel-good’ to become known for a signature offering, approach, food item or brand that will resonate with consumers,” says Stangarone. “Now is an excellent time to be a first mover at scale, with an offering that is believable and genuine.”