What to eat: Voice of the people

A new study of how consumers choose where and what to eat packed some surprises for the researchers who compiled it.

“Determining what’s for dinner was once a simple decision, but today consumers’ path to the plate is chock full of intricacies,” says Colin Stewart, senior vice president at Acosta Sales & Marketing, the sales and marketing agency that conducted the research in collaboration with Technomic Inc. voice of the people

“As factors such as family and friends, convenience and value intersect with the exponential growth of meal solutions, diners are influenced by overlapping and interrelated variables at every meal,” explains Stewart.

Technomic, a research and consulting firm that specializes in foodservice, sees two broad variables that add up to new challenges. 

“Our research indicates dining decisions are both situational and budget-driven,” says Bob Goldin, executive vice president at Technomic. “Without a common path across consumer groups, it’s more challenging than ever for foodservice operators to compete. However, by better understanding diners’ key behaviors, operators can not only maintain but grow their share of the plate.”

At FoodService Director, we’re also curious about what drives the decisions your customers make about dining. So, after reporting on operators’ perceptions of what their customers want (Which Flavor Is Your Customer?, October 2014) we decided to ask customers directly.

We reached out to a handful of diners at each of five different foodservice operations in discrete parts of the country. We asked them where they like to eat, and why; what influences their dining decisions; what they like about their company’s or institution’s dining facilities and what they’d like to see more of. We hope their insights will help readers grow their share of the plate.

Florida Blue, Jacksonville, Fla.

If there is a commonality among employees who eat at this business-and-industry facility, it would be the desire for customization and personalization. Jay Farley, an executive assistant with the Florida Blue Foundation, is a perfect example. Farley, who eats in the DCC 100 cafeteria, says he prefers the deli station “by far, for two specific reasons. First, it’s quick, fresh and customized to your liking. Second, it’s having Miss Anita and Miss Valerie making it for you. These dedicated ladies have a knack for lifting one’s spirit in the middle of a busy, hectic work day.”

Farley says when he dines out, he is a creature of habit, visiting a regular group of eateries depending on his desires for “either healthier fare or taste-specific cravings, such as for barbecue.” He also lists his dining drivers, in order, as nutrition, price and travel, with fast casual being his favored type of restaurant.

Rebecca Westbrooke, senior manager for employee engagement, is another customer who places emphasis on nutrition when she dines.

“I prefer independent restaurants to chains, all things being equal,” Westbrooke says. “Nutrition and interesting food choices are important. I enjoy lots of different foods, so variety is key. I enjoy a nice atmosphere in a mid-level restaurant with a variety of healthy choices.”

Westbrooke, who says she eats breakfast and lunch at Florida Blue about three times a week, frequents the salad bar—“it’s quick, nutritious and easy”—and occasionally orders wraps. She also is a fan of Anita at the deli station: “I like the sandwich line because Anita rocks.”

Sourcing manager Ron Johnson says he’s a fan of customization, and appreciates operators who go the extra mile. “I don’t consider myself a foodie, but I won’t eat fast food or at restaurants I feel don’t go above and beyond,” he says. “At breakfast [I choose] the grill for made-to-order omelets [because] I can control the ingredients. At lunch it’s typically the deli or the salad bar. It’s the same reason: It’s simple food done well, but I can control the ingredients.”

John Troy, a network engineer, is another employee who doesn’t think he’s a foodie. But he may be selling himself short.

“I like to look for new places whenever possible to experience different dining atmospheres and cuisines,” he notes. “I watch the Food Network almost every day. These shows definitely influence my decision to look for different places to eat or [food to] try at home.”

Troy would classify himself as a healthy eater who occasionally indulges.

“The salad bar is the best for me, especially for eating healthy,” he explains. “There’s no extra salt, sugar or sauces and I know exactly what’s in there. Plus, it’s a good way to trim the calories if there’s a decision to eat out for dinner.”

Kathleen Zwart, who handles corporate meetings and travel services, is a very practical, and thrifty, shopper when it comes to food or restaurants. She says she often chooses a restaurant “based on whether I have a coupon or discount.” She’s also a fan of healthy food and healthy—as in smaller—portions.

“One thing we’ve started doing the last few years is ordering three or four appetizers and splitting them as our main course, rather than ordering two entrees that are too big, have too many calories, etc.,” she says.

Zwart adds that she doesn’t eat in the café often because “my willpower is weak, and if I go to the café I’m sometimes tempted to buy something that isn’t the best choice for me or to spend more than I really want to.” Her station of choice is the salad bar “because I can take as much or as little as I want and choose exactly the ingredients that I like.”

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, New Brunswick, N.J.

Heather Famularo is a lunchtime regular in this hospital, eating in the café “three or four times a week.” She says she loves the salad bar “because it always has the freshest vegetables and greens, with excellent toppings to complement each salad.” She calls herself “a moderate foodie.”

“I love food and the experience of trying new foods,” she says. “Whether the food comes from a small, family-owned restaurant, a food truck, chain restaurant or local bar, the exploring of taste is quite addictive.” She also watches food shows, such as Chopped and Top Chef, regularly. “I like to find places that serve dishes seen on these shows.”

By contrast, Harriet Black eats out only occasionally, and never watches food-related TV. But she does love dining in the hospital’s café “four to five times a week.” Hot food and specialty salad stations are her favorites.

“I love the display cooking,” she says. “I like getting the variety of hot cooked vegetables and entrée items. I find this section offers at least one healthy entrée choice and vegetable. The salad bar is very nice, too, but I like the variety on the hot food station.”

Rachael Fonseca, director of marketing operations, says that she pays attention to what other people say about food. “Based on running events for the hospital and senior leadership, I do spend a lot of time concerned about food: taste, cost, presentation, etc.,” Fonseca says. “Referrals are most likely the way to get me through a restaurant’s door. I’m open to any price range or location if the food is good.”

She eats lunch in the hospital café four times a week, noting that she is currently partial to the Mediterranean salad station: “Fresh salad with olives, feta, onions and a side of falafel.”

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

As you might imagine, price and convenience are at the top of the list when college students talk about eating out. Nutrition also plays a part in the decision-making process. One thing that doesn’t seem to factor in, based on the students we spoke with, is The Food Network.

“The main factors are price and convenient location,” says Brianna Bannon. “I am much less likely to eat somewhere if it takes a 40-minute bus ride to get there. I usually pay careful attention to price and order something reasonable.”
Bannon isn’t a foodie, and notes, “I can’t remember the last time I watched a food-related show,” she says. “They are usually a last-resort TV show.” She admits that, when she does watch, what she sees “will make me want to eat certain foods or try nearby restaurants, but this is restricted by time and opportunity.”

Crystal Zhang is another student for whom price is a major influencer. “If a meal is going to be $25 or more, then I would reconsider going or not,” says Zhang, who adds that she loves Chipotle when she’s not eating in a dining hall. “I like their burrito bowl. It has rice, meat, veggies and corn, and the price is fair.”

She adds, however, that price sometimes goes out the window when she’s traveling. “I love all different kinds of food. “Most of the time I’m able to taste the ingredients and I’m able to differentiate and compare to other dishes.”
Sean Keane says price isn’t as important to him as convenience.

“I am often facing time constraints, so time and convenience are often a factor in my dining-out options,” says Keane. “Additionally, cleanliness and overall aesthetics of the [restaurant] play a major role.”
His favorite food show is Chopped. “While this hasn’t directly impacted my food choices, it has convinced me to be creative and open-minded,” he explains. “I really enjoy trying new foods that are popular.”

Jennifer Kaczwarek and Lauren Williams are two students majoring in food science-related fields, so that affects their dining choices.

“I love food,” says Kaczwarek. “I am a dietetics major so I also love the science of food, and I love to cook. Nutrition definitely impacts my choices, but I’m not a food snob or super health-crazy.”

Williams is more focused on the nutrition side.

“I tend to look up nutrition facts for restaurants online and use this information when I make my food choices,” she says. Fast casual restaurants are her eateries of choice, both from a price perspective and also because they often feature choose-your-own options. For that reason, she likes Mia Za’s as an off-campus choice.

“It allows me to customize my order to meet my nutritional needs and personal food choices,” Williams says, adding that she is a vegetarian.

Kaczwarek says she prefers Panera Bread and Panda Express. “[They have] warm, filling food that’s not overly greasy,” she explains. “The environment is cozy without being rushed. [They’re] reasonably quick, reasonably priced and in a good location.”

Castle Rock Adventist Hospital, Castle Rock, Colo.

Kathleen Hale, a technical specialist for Patient Access, is a frequent lunchtime diner at Manna, the restaurant in the new Castle Rock hospital. She also considers herself a foodie.

“I love trying new things and experiencing new flavors and textures,” she says. “I watch food-related shows almost every day. It has expanded my view of possibilities and encouraged my kitchen experimentation.”

When she eats away from home, her preferred type of restaurant is fast casual. “I enjoy the prompt service, higher food quality and having less involvement with waitstaff,” she explains. “Price is a factor; however, I am willing to pay for quality and atmosphere.”

One frequent visitor to Manna, who wanted to remain anonymous, says she likes to eat “at restaurants that offer fresh options and fresh ingredients. No fast food.” She also laments that fact that, as a vegetarian, her menu choices often are limited. However, she is a big fan of The Food Network: “It’s great to try new things.”

Jim and Linda Holland, from nearby Sedalia, Colo., eat at Manna often.

“We are retired, so large meals are not what we look for,” says Jim Holland. “Nutrition and price are high on our selection of where to eat.”

He adds that although he is not a foodie, “my wife is. She greatly appreciates an imaginative menu. She watches food shows on a daily basis. She is into a healthy diet and is concerned with calorie intake.” 

Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.

Teri McKay, executive business administrator, is one employee who goes against the norm when it comes to dining out, saying she eats away from home “about once a week or so. We have little children, so we [go to] family places. We avoid fast food.”

She also likes to cook. “We cook from scratch, so we are particular about the balance of foods,” she says. Although she watches food shows often, “I don’t usually cook what they are showing. It’s mostly entertainment.”

When she and her family do eat out, their choices are influenced by “nutrition, well-balanced and tasty food, price and travel. I also like to have options and seasonal offerings.”

On the other end of the dining spectrum is Executive Assistant Genise Dawson, who says she rarely eats at home, and has a list of restaurants where she and her husband are regulars. The list runs the gamut from Aqua and El Gaucho in Seattle to the local 5 Guys and Potbelly.

However, when Dawson does find herself in the kitchen, she enjoys cooking, and she takes her food TV very seriously.

“They have influenced my standards for cleanliness and how food is prepared,” Dawson says. “I am huge on fresh ingredients, learning how to make pretty much everything from scratch. I don’t care for the folks [on food shows] who use processed and ready-made foods.”

When she dines away from home, her influencers are “customer service, cleanliness, fresh ingredients and how the food is prepared and presented.”

Tony East, principal program manager, is married to a dietitian with great culinary skills.

“The Food Network is a very popular channel in my house and is often playing in the background. The influence is more on my kids, 15 and 13, who have very sophisticated palates. My wife is a wonderful chef and has exposed them to a wide variety of foods since they were small. You wouldn’t believe the range of stuff they eat regularly, and they will try anything once.”

Because his wife is a dietitian, “nutrition is always in the picture, though not necessarily dictating choices.” He is not a fan of chain restaurants.

“I love finding hole-in-the wall places frequented by locals,” he explains.  “Our travel experiences as a family are centered around food as much as anything else. I typically spend a fair amount of time researching restaurants when I travel for work or pleasure. Of course, recommendations from foodie friends are the best.”


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