Before the advent of chain restaurants, transparency was not a question so much as an implicit assumption; local establishments sourced locally and were honest in how they promoted their products. Since then, restaurant fare has become something of a mass-produced commodity, with the inner workings often hidden behind closed doors.
But in recent years, concepts of all sizes and cuisines have begun to pull back the curtain, revealing everything from ingredients to sourcing to business practices. In fact, many fast casuals are competing to have the cleanest labels, freshest ingredients, and most ethical business models, says Elizabeth Friend, strategy analyst at Euromonitor International.
Grabbagreen is one such concept. Stepping into the Scottsdale, Arizona–based concept is an exercise in transparency. Customers can see the ingredients that go into their salads, wraps, and smoothies. Guests also have a clear view of the kitchen, where they can see staff preparing food. The walls are decorated with informational signs about sourcing and quality, calling out Grabbagreen’s farming partners, antibiotic-free meats, and the fact that 70 percent of ingredients on the menu are organic.
“Transparency is everything to us. It’s fundamental to the concept, because we’re all about eating clean,” says CEO and cofounder Keely Newman. “We want people to know that we’re proud of our ingredients, which are just whole foods—nothing more, nothing less.”
Transparency and clean labeling are often thought of as the province of health-food brands like Grabbagreen. But Chicago-based Honey Butter Fried Chicken, which has more of an indulgent menu, also manages to be transparent about everything from sourcing partners to business practices. The fast casual 2.0 restaurant serves crispy fried chicken, as well as innovative takes on Southern classics, such as creamed corn with green Thai curry.
Honey Butter also makes clear through décor (including napkin holders describing sourcing and community connections), menus, staff interaction, and its website that the chicken is humanely raised, antibiotic-free, and cage-free, and that the frying oil is free of GMOs and trans fats.
“We’re committed to serving really wonderful food, and that has meant finding great ingredients,” says Joshua Kulp, executive chef and managing partner. “More often than not, finding wholesome, real ingredients means finding them from a local or sustainable source. One of the benefits of that for us is that it almost always tastes better.”
Neither Honey Butter Fried Chicken nor Grabbagreen claims to be 100 percent anything (organic, local, etc.), but therein lies the key to effective transparency: genuine honesty. Honesty builds trust between the brand and consumer. It also aligns with what Friend, Kulp, and Newman all see as the fundamental purpose of transparency.
Perhaps contrary to expectations, transparency does not necessarily serve to communicate healthfulness to customers. Rather, it pre-emptively answers questions and grants customers permission to spend their money at the restaurant.
“Consumers want reassurance that they’re making good choices and getting good value,” Friend says. “Transparency is as much about the perception of quality and care being taken with food and with the products as it is with any particular health trend or ingredient.” Given the plethora of dining options, transparency can make or break the decision of where to eat. People are increasingly embracing the concept of voting with their dollars, Friend says, so they want to find restaurants with values that align with theirs.
For Grabbagreen customers looking to eat clean, transparency about ingredients supports their values. For Honey Butter customers—Kulp estimates about half are “foodies”—high-quality ingredients support their value of eating the best, most carefully prepared and sourced fare, even if it is decadent fried chicken.
Transparency is not restricted to food quality and sourcing; it can also communicate the “healthiness” of the business itself. Honey Butter Fried Chicken is open about its business principles, which may also resonate with guests. The brand pays a living wage and offers employees vacation time, full benefits, and parental leave. It practices open-book management, so everyone on staff knows the company’s financial situation and goals and can offer input. Chickens are humanely raised, and all packaging given to customers is compostable.
“We let customers know that when they support our business, they’re supporting 40 or 50 good jobs in our community and supporting our local farmers,” Kulp says.
Still, transparency shouldn’t be confused with bragging. Grabbagreen makes it clear that its salmon is farmed in the Atlantic, which is not as good as wild-caught, Newman acknowledges. Customers occasionally complain about it and the fact that not all ingredients are organic. But Newman points out that farm-raised Atlantic salmon and inorganic fruits and veggies are still healthier than burgers and pizza. Plus, the decision to source those items maintains Grabbagreen’s affordable prices.
Some brands might try to shroud or even misdirect customers away from any details that could be construed as unflattering. But doing so undermines the concept, Newman says. Taking the bad with the good is part of the radical honesty of transparency.
“Consumers appreciate the openness and honesty. I am a consumer who wants to know what I’m eating and where it’s coming from. I wouldn’t have gone down this road otherwise,” she says.