‘Local’ Gets Love on Fast-Casual Menus

This week, Technomic released its list of 10 trends for 2015. From “small-minded” (reflecting shrinking, laser-focused menus and smaller-portion options) to “bitter is the new bold,” these trends have important implications for fast-casual restaurants, and we’ll explore several of these in the coming weeks. I want to start, though, by looking at a topic we considered in the fast-casual context earlier this year: local sourcing.

“Micro-local” made Technomic’s 2015 trends list because of consumers’ still-growing interest in where their food and beverages come from. We know that many consumers are eager to support locally based businesses, whether the business is a small family farm or a major local brewer. Their enthusiasm for all things close to home may be rooted in simple regional pride, a desire to support local employers, a commitment to reducing their carbon footprint by buying goods that don’t have to travel thousands of miles to get to their plate or glass, a belief that products that haven’t traveled thousands of miles taste better or some combination of the these. In any case, it’s putting pressure on restaurant concepts of all sizes to fine-tune their menus to acknowledge interests in locally sourced products and items made in-house.

Technomic’s 2014 Generational Consumer Trend Report found that “local” ranked No. 2 (after “fresh”) on a list of menu descriptors resonating with Millennials. Seventy-three percent of Millennials (ages 22 to 37) surveyed said they’d be more likely to purchase food and beverages described as “local.” That compares with, for example, 58% who indicated they would be more likely to buy items labeled “organic.” Another poll conducted this year for Technomic’s Future of LSR: Fast-Food and Fast-Casual Restaurants Consumer Trend Report found that among consumers of all ages, 31% would be willing to pay more for items featuring the “local” moniker. 

We’re seeing fast-casual restaurants respond to this keen interest. Technomic’s MenuMonitor online resource finds that the number of fast-casual concepts using the term “local” on their menus climbed 15% from Q3 2013 to Q3 2014, and the number of menu items featuring the “local” descriptor climbed nearly 13%.

It’s important to note two things when it comes to how the “local” trend is playing out in fast casual. First, fast-casual restaurants incorporating “local” into their menus aren’t just one-offs or concepts with only a handful of units, whose smaller geographic footprints and operational needs might make local buying easier. Columbus, OH-based City Barbeque, for example, closed out 2013 with 24 units in four states; the chain in Ohio uses Ohio-sourced Gerber’s Amish Farm chickens. The second thing to consider is that, as I’ve said before, buying local doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. It doesn’t have to be front and center in a grand mission statement (not that that would be a bad thing). Customers appreciate efforts to tailor menus to local tastes and buying-local preferences, however these are presented.

With that in mind, let’s close by looking at several more examples from MenuMonitor of how “local” appears on fast-casual menus.

  • Apple Brie Thyme Sandwich, Hannah’s Bretzel (Chicago): Local brie, fresh apple crisps, caramelized organic onions, organic field greens and apple-thyme yogurt on organic whole-grain bread
  • Country-Style Rigatoni, Go Roma Real Easy Italian: Locally sourced fresh Italian sausage, rigatoni, mushrooms, roasted red peppers and basil in a garlic cream sauce
  • Highway to Kale, Laughing Planet Cafe: Lacinato kale tossed with local cotija cheese and organic carrots with a lemon-parsley vinaigrette
  • Grilled Chicken and Local Mozzarella Tartine, Le Pain Quotidien: With diced tomatoes, arugula, herb dressing and tomato salsa
  • Local craft beer selection, Smashburger
  • Double Sweet Potato Fries, Village Burger Bar (Dallas): Sweet-potato fries tossed with cinnamon and local honey
  • Smoked Cowboy Sausage Sandwich, Armadillo Willy’s (Los Altos, CA): With locally made smoked pork sausage from Cattaneo Bros. in San Luis Obispo

Darren Tristano

Darren Tristano is President of Technomic Inc. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations.

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