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What do consumers actually want?

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Has this happened to you?

It’s lunchtime, and you’re busy. You’re just going to run to the cafeteria to grab a salad to eat at your desk. But you return with a cheeseburger and fries.

Every meal we eat comes with its own set of choices, whether we’re reconnecting with friends, shuttling the kids to hockey practice or just trying to fuel up for the afternoon. Intentionally or not, we weigh multiple factors, including cost, convenience, cravings, nutritional preferences, who we’re with and more.

To help foodservice directors unravel some of this mealtime decision-making and anticipate their customers’ needs and motives, we tapped our sister company, Technomic, and its library of consumer data. Sliced and diced and analyzed here, that data helped uncover some trends and motivations behind the interesting choices consumers make.

Healthy people, unhealthy choices

For many years, consumers said they wanted healthy food on menus but rarely ordered it. That has changed. More and more people are purchasing better-for-you food when they dine away from home. But there are still many who don’t choose healthy options when dining out, even when they usually eat nutritious foods.

For example, 51% of consumers say they actively seek out nutritious foods that are good for them, and 45% say they are very health-conscious. Consumers ages 25 to 34 are most likely to agree with both statements (51% say they’re health-conscious; 58% seek nutritious foods). But respondents in that age group are also more likely than average to say that they do not look for healthy options when ordering out at restaurants (39% agree, versus 37% of consumers).

Burger Lunch Salad Popcorn

There isn’t a correlation between how often consumers dine out and those who say they are very health-conscious and/or seek nutritious foods. But there is a trend regarding those who agree that “I usually do not look for healthy options when ordering at a restaurant.”

The more often consumers eat out, the more likely they are to say they don’t look for healthy options at restaurants. This may be concerning to foodservice operators who want to both increase customer frequency and support the general health of their audience and the community at large.

There’s also an income component: The higher a diner’s household income, the more likely they are to say they’re health-conscious and that they seek out nutritious foods—by at least 15% over those with a smaller income. Likewise, the lower a diner’s income, the more likely they are to say that they usually don’t look for healthy options when ordering out at restaurants.

Those with children are also more likely to say they’re health-conscious, and that they look for nutritious foods. Those most likely to agree have kids ages 6 to 11. But respondents with kids at home aren’t necessarily less likely to say that they don’t look for healthy options at restaurants. In fact, they may be teaching children that healthy food is important, but that dining out is a reason to make an exception.

The higher a diner’s household income, the more likely they are to say they’re health-conscious and that they seek out nutritious foods.

Consumers who were looking for a healthy meal the last time they ate said that they’re health-conscious overall and actively seek out nutritious food as a general rule. But those who were looking for new flavors, interesting menu items or unique experiences the last time they ate also tend to be health-conscious and seek nutritious foods.

On the other hand, those who said they were satisfying a craving, or so hungry they didn’t care what they ate, were more likely to say they typically don’t look for healthy options.

Cost concerns

The youngest adults, 18 to 24, are the most likely to say they pay close attention to menu prices to find the best value for the money, at 71%. The figures go down as consumers get older. Agreement also decreases by age for the statement “I always compare prices before deciding what to buy.”

Half of consumers say it’s worth it to pay a little more for name-brand foods and beverages, and the figure is higher for 25- to 44-year-olds. Those age 65 and better are significantly less likely to say name brands are worth more (43%). It’s not because they’re focused on cost: The oldest consumers are also less likely than others to say they pay close attention to menu prices to find the best value (63% vs. 67% of all) and to say they always compare prices before deciding what to buy (53% vs. 60%).

Delivery

The more often a consumer eats out, the more likely that person is to say it’s worth it to pay a little more for name-brand foods and beverages. Frequency of dining out does not significantly affect whether consumers pay attention to menu prices or compare prices before making purchases, except for those who dine away from home every day: 71% of the most frequent diners pay close attention to menu prices, and 64% compare prices before deciding what to buy.

Naturally, the tendency to pay close attention to menu prices to get the best value and compare prices before making a decision decreases as income increases. Agreement that brand names are worth a little more increases as income increases.

Consumers who were looking for a healthy meal or snack, or for meals with real/wholesome ingredients, were significantly more likely to say it’s worth it to pay a little more for brand names.

Peer pressure

Most consumers (73%) say they enjoy the social aspect of going out to eat. Significantly more women than men say they enjoy the social aspect (77% vs. 69% of men).

The more often consumers use restaurants, the more likely they are to enjoy the social aspect. And the higher their income, the more likely they are to agree.

77% of women say they enjoy the social aspect of dining out, compared to 69% of men. 

It may not be surprising that those who said the reason behind their last restaurant visit was “a meal that allowed me to socialize with others” were most likely to say that they enjoy the social aspect of dining out (84%). But those who “wanted a meal with real/wholesome ingredients” (77%) and “wanted a healthy meal/snack” (76%) also enjoy socializing over a meal. The data show that people from higher-income households tend to care more about health and nutrition overall, and the higher their income, the more apt they are to enjoy socializing over a restaurant meal. So the desire for health is likely more closely tied to income than to the desire to socialize.

Eating on the run

Speed and convenience are often reasons people throw health and cost concerns out the window. About a third of consumers (35%) say they have no choice but to eat meals on the run. Younger people, especially those under 45, are more likely to agree.

These are the same age groups who are most likely to eat out for the social aspect. They also tend to be the people who eat away from home most often, so they use foodservice for multiple occasions and reasons. And, generally, the more often consumers eat out, the more often they say they have no choice but to do so on the run.

Methodology: The percentages discussed in this article are the portion of adult consumers, overall or in specific groups, who agree or strongly disagree with the statement. For purposes of the analysis, "agree" or "say" means agree or strongly agree. The data comprises responses from more than 105,000 adult consumers, a group with a demographic makeup that generally mirrors that of the U.S.

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