Once considered to be just another fad, the clean label trend is here to stay. The year 2017 is positioned to be “the year of clean label,” remembered as a time when restaurants embraced customers’ expectations for natural ingredients as the new normal. Whether they advertise published lists of ingredients they no longer use or keep their reformulation efforts quieter, quick-service restaurants and more formal establishments have embraced the clean label trend.

The “farm to table” movement has already impacted restaurants in a big way. This year, however, experts predict the clean label trend will influence sweet items like baked goods. This means diners who order baked goods will show more interest in a shorter, simpler ingredient list—and diners who previously weren’t interested in desserts may be persuaded by the promise of a clean label.  

When considering what the clean label trend means for your restaurant, it’s important to remember that a shorter list of more natural ingredients isn’t anything new. Historically, baking didn’t involve artificial preservatives, flavors or colors. In that way, the move toward clean label can even be seen as a return to traditional techniques and recipes. The old adage is true: Everything old is new again.

Opportunity Awaits

Clean label is currently a major area of opportunity for restaurants. Since today’s diners are willing to pay a premium for foods with shorter, easier-to-understand ingredient lists, restaurants stand to ultimately profit from investing in the movement.

However, restaurants should act now, as the opportunity to charge a premium for clean label foods may be a narrow window. As this trend continues to gain momentum among diners, a clean label may soon become a baseline expectation.

The Bigger Picture

As restaurants respond to this trend and prepare for future developments, it’s important to understand that clean label is only one part of a broader consumer movement. 

Increasingly, consumers want transparency at every level of the supply chain. Today’s diners want to know more about where their food comes from, how it’s made and even how it’s transported. Restaurants should keep in mind that, while a clean and clear ingredients list can score major points with diners, it’s just one part of a brand’s larger transparency strategy.

Another trend related to clean label baked goods is the movement toward a balanced diet that incorporates “good fats” and “good sugars.” Not long ago, fats were disparaged as the root of all ills. Soon after that, sugars became the culprit. Now, consumers approach food with a more nuanced understanding. In fact, when asked to define a “healthy eating style,” in a recent survey, consumers’ top three responses were as follows:

  1. The right mix of different foods
  2. Limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives
  3. Natural foods

Rather than disparaging fat or sugar, consumers are increasingly interested in a balanced diet based on ingredients they perceive as more natural. That means a clean label can make a difference, even when it comes to sweet treats like baked goods.

How Quick Service Restaurants Can Offer Clean Solutions  

This plan of action can help restaurants take the first step toward serving more clean label options that draw a premium price and position your brand as a leader, keeping pace with consumer trends.

Start the conversation. Consider conducting an online survey to understand which ingredients your customers are trying to avoid.

Create a definition. Different ingredients matter more—or less—to different diners. Determine what clean label means to your customers based on conversations and research. The ingredients they are most concerned about are the ones you should eliminate first.

Work with your suppliers. Your suppliers are partners in your business and can help you serve great-tasting foods within your new clean label definition.

Educate your customers on your definition of clean label and why it matters on menus and menu boards as well as social media and other marketing channels. Develop talking points so your staff can spread the word and help tell your transparency story.

2017 and the Future of Clean Label

In 2017 and moving forward, quick service restaurants would do well to embrace the clean label trend, leveraging the opportunity to serve premium offerings and position their brand as a leader. In addition, it helps to understand the greater implications of the trend.

The clean label trend is not just a rejection of certain difficult-to-pronounce ingredients. Rather, it is a symptom of a larger movement toward authenticity. By approaching this shift in a holistic way, restaurants can simultaneously win over diners while predicting their next concerns and laying a foundation for the future.

It all starts with a dialogue between you and your customers. By talking to them about their needs, concerns and desires, you can develop a clear idea of what clean label means to them and why it matters.

Erik Enyedy is the director of marketing at Dawn Foods. He has 17 years of experience in the food and beverage industry, including business management positions at Kraft Foods and Dawn Foods.
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