Restaurant chef preparing food. Chef working in a commercial kitchen.

When millennials go out to eat, they consider more than just the food, experience, and cost. Diners want food with few ingredients that is clean, organic and minimally processed. They want to know if and how your establishment contributes to the community and how you treat your employees. The environmental impacts of creating the food—including land practices, animal handling, and management of water, energy and waste—all matter to them.

Consumer demand for more detailed and easily accessible information about what is in their meals is skyrocketing. Assuming a broader sense of social responsibility might not have been at the top of your list for successful restaurant management plans, but it will be. Chances are you’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. Here’s the full picture.

What Drives the Hunger for Transparency?  

There are six factors driving the demand for transparency:

  • Food safety
  • Affordability
  • Nutrition
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Fighting hunger
  • Transparency in production

Social media and technology have been instrumental in publicizing food fails, such as McDonald’s pink slime, genetically engineered food, processed food, unhealthy sugar/salt/fat content, and Big Food profiteering at the expense of consumer health. A review of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s safety site shows that since the beginning of 2015, product recalls, withdrawals and safety alerts are almost a daily occurrence in the U.S.

Ingredient labels and public relations efforts present only part of the picture. Deeper consumer awareness has also driven the perception that food producers and restaurants aren’t doing enough. Your guests want to see what’s behind the curtain.

Busy chefs at work in the restaurant kitchen

What is Food Transparency and Why is it Important?

Food transparency is the process of being open and honest with guests about food sourcing, ingredient lists, nutrition facts, allergy concerns, and social and ecological impacts.

According to the Mintel Report on Global Food & Drink Trends 2018 Report, consumers are demanding “total transparency and accountancy” about the food they eat. Consumer distrust in government and media has spread to restaurants as the demand for truth and transparency in ingredients and food production intensifies.

Guests lack access to the complete set of information they’re looking for in order to make informed decisions when dining out. Another study reported guests were confused about what the ingredients actually were, which a third of respondents attributed to Inconsistency, information-overload and misinformation. The study finds that restaurants have an opportunity to gain market share by providing increased transparency, with more than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) saying they would be willing to switch restaurants if another eatery shared more detailed ingredient information that they could understand.

Does your restaurant have the guest experience today’s consumer demands? Learn how to make it unique and worth coming back for with our Restaurant Customer Service Strategy Guide.

Guests don’t expect perfection, only honesty. In fact, 85 percent of participants in a Cone Communications/Echo study said it’s OK if a company is not perfect, as long as it is truthful about its efforts. Transparency is what matters. Today’s guests want to know as much as possible about what they’re eating: 65 percent say it’s important to understand how their food is produced, 51 percent want clear and accurate labeling, and 47 percent want clear information on ingredients and sourcing.

Social media has created an open guest culture that restaurants are expected to embrace, forcing them to be more transparent, especially since guests are more likely to share complaints than praise. Restaurants and food producers are less able to control the message, and a lack of transparency can be interpreted as having something to hide.

Why Transparency is Good for Business

What’s in it for owners, producers and growers? For one, operating with transparency creates a more personal connection between your restaurant and your customers. A restaurant that is perceived to be more honest is considered more human. You stand to develop more trust than you had before—and greater trust leads to greater patronage and loyalty.

Clear information about where food is sourced and what the ingredients are—for example, no artificial preservatives, flavors or colors—builds consumer trust and adds to the awareness that food is healthy and fresh. It also drives sales.

Chef pouring sauce on dish in restaurant kitchen, crop on hands, filtered image

How Transparency is Linked to Health Concerns

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, when companies are required to list unhealthy ingredients, they tend to put less of those ingredients in their products. Consumers are steering clear of processed food with empty calories and embracing foods made with whole ingredients. Artificial preservatives, sweeteners, and colors are on the hit list for elimination, along with refined grains and trans fats. Dairy products and chicken are expected to be antibiotic-free; guests prefer free-range or pasture-raised eggs. Likewise, guests are concerned about sustainable environmental and agricultural practices, including animal welfare, the use of pesticides, and genetically modified crops.

The definition of healthy can change from person to person. Transparency levels the playing field by letting guests know details about what’s on the menu so they can draw their own conclusions and not rely on unintentional bias from a server or chef.

In the 2016 Label Insight Food Revolution Study, more than half of the survey respondents (53 percent) reported that they dine according to a specific diet. Access to detailed, comprehensive food ingredients helps them make decisions to meet their unique needs. Translation: Transparency creates satisfied customers.

Transparency levels the playing field by letting guests know details about what’s on the menu so they can draw their own conclusions and not rely on unintentional bias from a server or chef.

In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved menu labeling and trans fat mandates to provide diners with more access to nutritional information. Although the mandate targets larger chains with 20 or more locations, the new regulations are a start at forcing foodservice operators to respond to customer demand for full transparency. By providing complete and accurate product information, restaurants empower guests to make decisions that truly meet their personal dietary and health needs while simultaneously giving restaurateurs the responsibility to be knowledgeable about the ingredients and nutrient makeup of their menu items.

What is Ingredient Transparency?

Ingredient transparency presents an opportunity for restaurants to build trust with guests. Life cycle ingredient statements expand transparency to include externalities, or hidden costs, of food production on the environment, factors like oil and energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and impact on workers.

Guests expect restaurants to provide easy access to the complete ingredient list on the restaurant’s website as well as on the in-house menu. This is especially appreciated by diners with food allergies. Blended seasonings and sauces can pose a risk to allergy-sensitive guests. Knowledge creates trust, which is linked to loyalty.

Guests also expect to see a list of the source of main ingredients—the city or the farm where meat or vegetables originated, for example. Is it local, organic, or neither? If guests want additional information, resources should be readily available to dig deeper into recipe ingredients and origin.

chef preparing food in restaurant in a line

How Open Kitchens Help with Food Transparency

Another prediction by the consumer-research company Mintel is that more restaurants will adopt an open kitchen approach and use their premises to practice truth and transparency.

First introduced to fine dining by Wolfgang Puck in the 1980s, the open kitchen has proliferated into all restaurant types. In addition to providing constant live action, open kitchens also provide transparency. Concerns about food quality, safety and culinary standards are addressed when they can watch how their meals are created. It’s as if the restaurant is proclaiming, “Look, we have nothing to hide!”

A study by Harvard Business School found that food prepared in restaurants where chefs and patrons can see each other were rated highest in food quality and service. Open kitchens invite diners to see the ingredients for themselves, reassuring them that they’re being served what the menu claims. The report further notes open kitchens encourage cooks to do better since they could see who was eating the food and how their food was perceived. They found satisfaction went up 17.3 percent, and service was 13.2 percent faster.

“Having transparency about how we prepare the food guarantees that everything on the guests’ plates was carefully and creatively prepared and with no extenders added,” says Michelle Garcia, marketing communications director of Marriott’s Cru Steakhouse.

How to Promote Transparency in Your Restaurant

Getting your business to be transparent is like starting a turbine. It might take some time to spin at full speed, but once you’re there, it’s easier to maintain. Five actions will get you up and running.

1. Gather your recipes and ingredients.

Consider working with a third party to generate the nutritional information for each of your menu items. Although it is possible to do this in-house, the perception of impartiality and the work of providing constant updates can both be delivered by a contractor.

2. Verify your information.

If your nutritional information is more than two years old—or you’ve changed suppliers and/or ingredients—have someone double-check your menu items and verify it for accuracy. If you change just one manufactured product, it could alter the nutritional calculation of all your menu items. As you execute, prepare for increased scrutiny. Whether you promote local farms or explain the rising costs that prompt a menu price increase, you open yourself up to people researching your claims. Be sure you’re operating with integrity.

chef in restaurant preparing a menu item

3. Identify allergen-containing and gluten-free menu Items.

Once you produce your nutritional information, identify items with allergens, like gluten, with the help of a nutritional analysis partner. Place an asterisk or special image next to the menu item to communicate its particular designation. This will help your team respond to allergen requests and reliably communicate a guest’s special dietary needs to the kitchen.

4. Communicate your nutritional information.

Once the nutritional information of your menu items has been gathered and verified, have a plan ready to communicate the information to guests. Use in-store charts to highlight the nutritional calculations of restaurant menu items. Post the information on in-store menus and menu boards as well as your websites and social media.

5. Maintain your information.

Be prepared to publicly state who provides your nutritional analysis. Retain a good working relationship with your nutrition analysis provider so your information is always up to date, even when you add new items or change your ingredient supplier.

Food transparency is the new normal and an essential part of building loyalty and keeping guests happy.

The Benefits of Restaurant Transparency

Whether you’re a mom and pop diner or a national chain, there is always something that can be done to increase transparency between your kitchen and your guests. Restaurants that bridge the gap for guests between information available and the ability to use it effectively will have tremendous advantages in the marketplace. Guest are willing to pay more if they know what they’re consuming.

Food transparency is the new normal and an essential part of building loyalty and keeping guests happy. Guests will stay loyal to an establishment that provides easy access to trustworthy information. Trust guests to understand your business and its intentions. Don’t dismiss guests as uninformed or disinterested; instead, treat them as stakeholders, not marketing targets. Don’t be afraid to ask loyal guests for help or advice.

Consider the approach of The Plant cafe, a five-location Bay Area restaurant group that has an active loyalty program for guests who love the dishes made with organic, local produce. The Plant Cafe’s website features a “Why Organic?” section, and even a list of the ethical farmers and producers it sources from on a regular basis.

Restaurants should demonstrate their commitments, achievements, and setbacks openly. People want to be able to see on Twitter that their favorite restaurant just dropped a grower that was not improving poor working conditions, or that a restaurant switched to a local supplier to provide fresher vegetables and support the local economy. Collaborative efforts to uncover and share obstacles to progress, as well as lessons learned, will compel more restaurants to improve their transparency and accountability while underscoring the collective responsibility of business for societal improvement.

happy guests

Dining out has changed forever. Does your restaurant have the guest experience today's consumer demands? Learn how to make it unique and worth coming back for.

Written by   |  
Author, Lecturer, and Professor Darryl Benjamin is passionate about sustainable food and nature, and cares deeply about social justice. His book, "Farm to Table: The Essential Guide" (Chelsea Green), co-written with Chef Lyndon Virkler, was published in October 2016. Benjamin lectures and blogs on sustainable food systems. He holds an MFA in Writing as well as a Certificate of Leadership in Sustainable Food Systems from the University of Vermont. He is founder of Real Food Seminars and The GMO Breakthrough Education Project, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming global food systems through education. Benjamin teaches in the Online MS in Sustainable Food Systems and Master of Science in Resilient and Sustainable Communities grad programs at Green Mountain College. Benjamin taught writing, marketing, and sustainable food issues at New England Culinary Institute for seven years. Presently, Darryl delivers workshops nationally and internationally (in October 2017, he delivered a workshop at Roma Tre University in Rome, Italy, at the Seventh International Conference on Food Studies) on The Future of Food and Farm-to-Table challenges and solutions.