Authentic Southern cooking gets reinterpreted in a French bistro setting at Macon Bistro & Larder in Washington, D.C., with dishes like deviled eggs, biscuits with honey butter and pepper jelly, and mac and cheese with cheddar Mornay and panko. Defining authenticity in foodservice is more difficult than in everyday life. As citizens, we look at it as a clear-cut expression of being genuine. “Live your authentic life,” says Oprah. Most of us try, since it’s a value we hold dear. That value shape-shifts when it’s applied to foodservice, but it’s an important one to get a handle on, because authenticity continues to be a driving, sustaining trend. How is it evolving, and how are brands evolving with it?
Brands that articulate authenticity gain a clear competitive advantage. Today’s diner will drive by countless restaurants to get to the one that expresses values of authenticity. Chipotle’s moniker of “food with integrity” has seeped into the collective culture and motivates purchasing habits. Diners look for local and seasonal beyond white tablecloth restaurants. They want narratives that link them to their food sources. They seek out signs that someone in the back (or the open kitchen) is stirring the pot and preparing the food—in-house, pickled, preserved, handmade, hand-pulled, hand-torn, house-smoked, freshly squeezed. Through all of those cues of authenticity, brands need to express what makes them different. And they need to make money. How does striving toward authenticity affect a brand’s DNA? How do they do it honestly, strategically and profitably? We asked a handful of industry experts to define authenticity and share ideas on how restaurant concepts can connect to it in a meaningful way.
What does authenticity mean to your brand?
Determining what’s authentic is an exercise in subjectivity. As it’s informed by personal and cultural experiences, a rigid definition is elusive. “Authenticity is a connection point for consumers to a restaurant brand, and for a restaurant brand to their current and potential customers,” says Rob Corliss, chef-consultant and founder of ATE (All Things Epicurean). “To me, it is about creating an honest dialogue, where a chain earns consumer trust versus catchy marketing or buzzwords. It is an ongoing process and will naturally evolve.”
That very evolution makes authenticity difficult to capture, bottle and sell. So for each brand, interpreting authenticity becomes paramount. “It’s defined through our values and our experiences,” says Mindy Armstrong, director of insights and innovation for Food IQ, a consumer insight-driven innovation firm in Springfield, Mo. “That’s still intact but is becoming more complicated. We have to redefine what authenticity means individually, restaurant to restaurant. Consumers are really skilled at identifying what’s real.”
Transparency and consistency, then, become crucial in successfully conveying authenticity. “If a restaurant chain decides to tout authenticity, then the chain should define what it means to them and then live and breathe it,” says Corliss.
Brand specificity requires close assessment. “What has the brand stood for? What is the history of the chain restaurant?” he says. Authenticity can be expressed through an ingredient, a technique, a menu item or a best practice. And it has to make sense for the brand—Panera’s “live consciously, eat deliciously” is not only a slogan but a guiding, transparent principal. In fact, taking a look at fast-casual’s approach to authenticity reveals sound strategies. “The booming fast-casual segment is tapping into a consumer desire for real food, less processed food, craveable wellness, local usage and authentic flavors and experiences,” says Corliss.
In large part, the evolution is being driven by Millennials, who demand transparency and connection in exchange for loyalty. That demographic’s social game also informs what authenticity looks like today. “They hold our feet to the fire more because they’re so connected globally,” says Rick Perez, chef and founder of R&D Culinary Consulting in Jamestown, N.C. “They know what a Peruvian pepper is, or what Brazilian food looks like. Authenticity has evolved from Asian to Filipino or Thai, for instance,” he says. Digital connectivity makes Millennials better informed and more engaged. He also observes that authenticity looks different to this younger cohort than older generations. “They haven’t necessarily experienced the original so their context is different.”
The technology that brings the world closer together and makes our foodways more interconnected also divides us, putting a screen between us and authentic interactions. That loss of human experience is one of the drivers for authenticity in dining out.
“The more virtual our lives become, and the more exposure we have to new flavors, the more we crave something real,” says Armstrong. “What consumers want now is not just a product or service, it’s an experience—an honest and real experience.”
Artisan touches, wood-fire grilled items and root-to-stem produce provide authenticity cues at The Thomas in Napa, Calif.
Moving authenticity toward accuracy
Molding these values to fit the restaurant concept is helping redefine authenticity as accuracy. Is this true to your brand and an accurate representation of your food philosophy? “This is how you define authenticity as it relates to the brand,” says Steven Goldstein, partner at The Culinary Edge, a San Francisco-based foodservice consultancy. He cites pho as example—replicating pho from the streets of Vietnam would deliver an authentic experience, but it wouldn’t convey an accurate representation of a brand. Taking the idea of pho, or tortellini in brodo as another example, and making a broth-based dish that expresses your identity—that’s where authenticity lives today.
“That accuracy gives you license to expand the painting palette,” he says. “You expand the canvas while giving yourself guideposts of what you should be shooting for. You get license to be accurate to your brand.”
This distinction is important when looking at the evolution of authenticity. Diners don’t want replications, necessarily. That’s why mash-ups are doing so well on menus today.
“They don’t want authenticity for authenticity’s sake,” says Bill Briwa, chef-instructor at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. “Instead, they want a version of the recipe that’s served up thoughtfully by a chef who has chops. It’s the notion that the chef is reconsidering the tradition, understanding it, and with sensitivity.”
Linked closely to authenticity and accuracy is honesty. “In fact, an alternative for authenticity as a descriptor might be honesty,” says Briwa. “It puts a bit of responsibility on the chef to connect it to trustworthy.” That trust is built through delivery of values—real food made with care and expertise. And whether it’s called authenticity or honesty or accuracy, if a brand makes the claim, it has to back it up. “If you don’t, you lose credibility and you become almost an adversary,” he says. “Historically, there’s a distrust between restaurateurs and consumers in the value-versus-profit model. Now, restaurants are asking, ‘What do you want from us and how can we deliver it honestly?’”
When authenticity is expressed by a brand and appreciated by a guest, then loyalty and repeat business can flourish. “Let’s not make authenticity a trend,” says Corliss. “Let’s give it the respect and homage it deserves. We can still evolve and discover new or modern iterations of authenticity while honoring the permanent fixtures of the past.”