Thursday, December 6, 2007

Thursday Talking Points Memo: Food, Society and Marketing

RIP: The Dinner Entree?
Some say the traditional dinner entree-side-dish-dessert dining tradition is nearing extinction, or worse--that it's already dead. Others say it's not true. Rather, they say, its merely becoming another option, along with a host of new ones, for diners and eaters. We agree more with the latter than the former argument. However, the entree is losing its luster at many higher-end restaurants, and that has implications for food marketers and retailers.
An eye-opening and interesting piece by writer Kim Severson in yesterday's (December 5) New York Times has a number of very successful and well-known chefs and restaurateurs predicting the extinction of the dinner entree--that "center-of-the-plate" piece of protein-packed meat, fish or fowl. This phenomenon also has implications for food marketers and retailers, especially those in the natural and specialty foods categories.

Severson writes that in top restaurants in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, "the main course is under attack." In it's place, top chefs say instead they're offering small plates, sample and snack menus, enhanced appetizers, salumi plates and cheese boards and similar offerings, which provide diners with small tastes with lots of variety rather than the standard entree, side dish and vegetable combination.

"The appetizer, once a loyal lieutenant," Severson writes, "is now demanding more attention on menu's. Side dishes and salads, fortified by seasonal ingredients and innovative preparations, are announcing their presence with new authority."

The chefs say the entree has been losing its cachet for some time. "I think the entree has been in trouble for a long time," chef Tom Colicchio says. "Eating an entree is too many bites of one thing, and it's boring."

In his Manhattan restaurant Craft, which he opened in 2001, Colicchio no longer offers the standard appetizer-entree-dessert menu, according to the Times' piece. Rather, at Craft he's created a menu of meats, fish, fowl, side-dishes and sauces to be mixed and matched by diners and combined into a meal. He still offers desserts though.

This trend of pushing aside the appetizer-entree-dessert format is a growing movement at restaurants. Severson sights the Spotted Pig in Manhattan's West Village, where the menu is categorized by the following: snacks, plates and sides. It offers a variety of each. The menu only has five entrees on it.

Other Manhattan restaurants doing similar include Gemma, in the Bowery district, Boquerra, in the Flatiron District, Maze, British TV star-chef Gordon Ramsey's restaurant located in the London Hotel, and others. Maze's menu lists a long list of small plate items of all varieties but doesn't designate any of them as either a starter or a main course. The word entree appears nowhere on the restaurant's menu.

Popular New York chef Maio Batali has his own theory about the eventual extinction of the entree. He tells Severson: "As a diner, the idea of me chewing 17 bites of one thing and another 17 bites of another is absolutely boring, and not how I want to eat, chef Batali says. Two of the restaurants he owns in New York City, Otto and Casa Mono, offer no main course entrees at all.

Other's in the Times' story suggest health concerns, global travel, and the desire among diners to experience multiple tastes over a meal rather than gorge on a single entree and just a couple of side dishes, as partial reasons for the entree's fading from the dining scene.

Although we believe the demise of the dinner entree is likely rather far off in the main, in reality it isn't that old of a dining concept. Paul Freedman, a professor of history at Yale University and author of a new book, "Food: The History of Taste," tells Severson that "although it's hard to imagine a time when the single-entree meal wasn't the norm, the concept is only about 75 or 80 years old, and not necessarily something to be cherished."

Not all chefs believe the entree is doomed to the garbage disposal of culinary history however. Popular San Francisco chef Michael Mina, who made famous the concept of multiple tiny courses embedded within a single entree, believes there's room for both the alternatives and the traditional entree in dining. Mina just opened an upscale steakhouse called StripSteak in Las Vegas. At StripSteak, the entree--prime steaks of various cuts and sizes--has a home in the center-of-the-plate.

On the other side of the menu, Mina is in the process of planning a restaurant and wine bar in San Francisco, scheduled to open next year, that will offer no main courses at all. Rather, it will offer 25 same-size dishes divided into five categories. Diners can mix and match the dishes as they please to make a meal.

Severson's New York Times' colleague, food critic Frank Bruni, agrees strongly with those like chef Mina who believe there's still plenty of room left in the culinary scene for the entree. After reading Severson's piece, which he complements, Bruni then wrote his own retort to those wishing the entree's extinction in the Times' food section blog called "In Defense of the Entree." Bruni says he loves small plates and such but, quoting Mario Batali's 17 bites comment, says "Sometimes that's just how I want to eat." His piece is a good complement to Severson's.

Analysis: Implications for food marketing and retailing
There's without a doubt a trend, especially at higher-end restaurants, towards smaller plates and variety. We see it weekly. The introduction of Tapas at restaurants in the U.S. started this trend. Health concerns--diners today in the main just don't eat huge dinners like was the norm in the 1960's and 1970's--play a part as well. People would rather in many cases eat less but have better quality in a restaurant.

Variety also is key. The old rules of a meat, poultry or fish main course, along with a starch and a vegetable on the side, just don't make sense to many diners today, especially younger people and those who've traveled and sampled foods from other cultures--or for that matter just watch the world of food on The Food Network or PBS.

It's a fact food trends often start at restaurants first, especially innovative ones. These trends then work there way down the "food chain" to specialty stores and supermarkets. So, how goes this trend towards more limited entree or main course dining for marketers and retailers?

First, we don't believe the entree is going away anytime soon. However, we do believe it's becoming less important in dining and to diners. Mix and match is cool. Multiple tastes are part of the eating experience. Also, the more restaurants that offer small plate and other similar alternatives--and do away with entrees altogether--the more the trend will grow. Trends are a two-way, push and pull concept: consumer demand fuels them (pull) while at the same time what restaurants and other food venues offer and how they offer it influences consumer choice (push).

Second, we believe the trend towards limited and non-entree dining is important for food marketers and retailers to recognize and understand. It means things like smaller portions and more variety in terms of in-store fresh-prepared and manufactured frozen foods. For example, It might be smart (and profitable) for a frozen food marketer to come out with a line of "small plate" frozen foods to complement the traditional frozen entree. A quality, upscale, global-flavored line of all-natural or organic "small plates" or Tapas is a perfect fit for a natural or specialty foods company looking for a new niche. All-natural, premium, fresh, convenient--these are among the current top food trends and will be for the next couple years.

At retail, the trend has implications for fresh meat departments for example. Cutting and merchandising smaller pieces of steak, pork and other meats makes good sense. Instead of cooking say four medium sized steaks, many people enjoy buying and preparing smaller pieces of a variety of meats and fish, for example, so they can offer their own variety at home like is being done at the restaurants described in the Times' piece. Doing this also means more incremental sales for food retailers.

The examples go on, and extend throughout the store--and throughout the food manufacturing and marketing chain. In fact, we're starting to see a number of savvy food marketers already picking up on this trend. They're offering smaller and mini-versions of everything from fresh produce and prepared desserts, to frozen foods, pizza's, gourmet groceries and more.

In many ways this trend away from the larger, center-of-the-plate entree reflects the "less is more" flight to quality we're currently seeing in consumers. In other words, they would rather eat less of foods that are superior in quality and taste instead of having larger servings of mediocre foods. (We call this the "anti-belly-fill" phenomenon.)

Nowhere is this phenomenon being seen more so than in the natural and specialty foods categories. As we write often, there are numerous convergences going on between these two categories and sister industries. Chief among them is the combining of natural and organic product attributes with those of quality and premium taste. The melting away of the dinner entree is a good analogy to that trend in terms of diners' wanting to combine multiple premium tastes and variety into healthier-oriented meals.

No comments: