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In Pursuit of Something New and Different: Food Culture’s New Vitality

taking a picture of dinnerIn our most recent excursion into the realm of the American consumer’s curiosity about all things cooking and eating, we detected a resurgence in the broader culture of food and beverage. This is not about how many people prefer lemon over lime or mashed potatoes over baked potatoes or Chipotle over McDonald’s. Those are individual preferences. They may be important, depending on the context, but when we are considering food culture, it is more about the collective than the individual. It is about what is going on “out there” and not inside the person. And there’s a lot going on out there today.

A number of vectors of change in ideas, beliefs and practices are fermenting in American food and beverage culture. Recognizing these shifts in consumers’ eating and drinking habits was at the heart of our Culture of Food 2015 syndicated research study. The outcome of this deep dive into the World of Food today details how consumers are trading out traditional food routines for new ones that reflect the desires and challenges of expanded variety in a complex food landscape.

Our Culture of Food: New Appetites, New Routines report gives you an up-close look at the messy and yet-to-be articulated opportunity spaces in our food and beverage culture that are fertile hunting grounds for innovation in products, services and menus.

What are some of the vibrant changes going on “out there” today in food culture?

Quest for New and Different

As part of their search for foods and beverages that are new and different, consumers are looking closer to home: cities from Pittsburgh to Kansas City and Los Angeles are redefining local food culture to be food of their people, by their people and for their people. When urban core food explorations reach critical population density and diversity, they become incubators for authentic culinary experimentation, entrepreneurism and innovation. Consumers are increasingly trading out mass-market food brands and chains for these unique, local and fresh food experiences: in essence, they want to be closer to their food.

Participatory Food Culture

Food and beverage is viewed as a cultural product to discover, share, make and trade. This shift toward a deeper interest and participation in food culture is not just a youthful trait relegated to Millennials but a true cultural shift. As food is created, food-engaged influencers across generations are increasingly insisting that fresh, less processed food experiences should connect participants more actively. Consumers want to engage with food and drink.

The Meaning of “Fresh” Is Moving Beyond Less Processed and Toward Transparency

Transparency is a small but growing driver of evolving ideas about fresh. Fresh, less processed (FLP) continues to be the dominant consumer frame for understanding and procuring higher quality in food. But those who are most engaged and influential in the World of Food now associate higher quality with knowing where food comes from and who made it. In the future, transparency is poised to align with a deeper understanding of “fresh” beyond less processed (what’s in it).

New Food Routines Reflect Desire for Expanded Variety

The everyday "foods I grew up with” used to be foods for life. Now they are often relegated to comfort foods for special occasions as consumers add new foods, dishes, flavors and ingredients to their everyday consideration set. Desire for this expanded variety is expressed through wanting new and interesting foods that engage consumers in experiences that cue to culinary, wellness and fresh foods, while creating deeper connections through cues that link to transparency. Eating more local and seasonal vegetables and fruits in varied preparations is a symbolic way for consumers to expand their everyday food repertoire. “Ethnic” foods often represent ready-made forays into eating what are viewed as more fresh and flavorful vegetables, spices and proteins.

New Food Routines Necessitate New Ways of Cooking

Cooking is becoming a skill consumers aspire to develop, not just a domestic (previously gendered) chore. Cooking is seen as a basic life skill, cultural capital, geek exploration, life passion and participation in fresh as less processed and transparency. This is not to say consumers want to cook all the time but that they want to have the choice to cook or to outsource to food companies, retailers and food service.

An appetite for fresh and interesting foods inspires consumers to learn about new ingredients, flavor combinations and techniques. Rather than help with planning and list making, they are looking for food inspiration and cooking tips to simplify or improve their investment of time, effort and money.

Food for Thought:

Fresh, less processed has evolved and fragmented as a touchstone for food quality. While fresh, less processed remains central in today’s quality paradigm, it now captures less fully what it means to eat well. Culinary exploration and transparency distinctions hold more sway among more food-engaged consumers. Eating rhythms and variety are key eating goals not captured by fresh.

Solving needs for variety must avoid complexity for mainstream adoption. Mainstream consumers desire expanded variety in their eating routines, but they lack support to achieve it. Mainstream consumers fear that variety adds to their food-prep burdens, lacking the planning structure and culinary fluency that those more engaged in food have mastered.

culture of food 2015


Food & Beverage Occasions Culture Trends


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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