Food Porn and the birth of the Fast Casual Consumer

Seared Ahi Tuna Sandwich with Roasted Garlic Mayonnaise and Iceberg Lettuce, Asian Pear, and Avocado on a Pandesal RollJulia Child couldn’t have imagined the food landscape in its current, totally obsessive and celebrity-driven incarnation. The tall, gawky, reedy-voiced author of the classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking might have had a hard time even landing her own show in the era of Giada De Laurentis, Rachael Ray and the geek chic of Alton Brown. Today, cooking is sexy and its big business. Today, millions tune into shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef and buy books, food, cookware and much more from major TV chefs-turned brands like Paula Deen and The Barefoot Contessa. 

Food is the new pornography. Americans are fascinated with its sourcing, preparation, seasoning, and in some cases its scope and grotesquerie—witness some of the gastroenterological nightmares that Adam Richman tucks into as part of the hit show Man Vs. Food. Local eating has spawned the “locavore” movement. The recession has sparked a new foraged foods craze in which scrounged dandelions, nettles and fiddleheads become haute cuisine. Slow Food has gone mainstream. All this has created a challenging, exciting and ever-changing landscape for the Fast Casual purveyor. How to remain relevant and authentic when the customer is peering right into the kitchen, pointing and shouting, “No! Cook this, not that!”

For the Love of Food

Part of the success of Fast Casual stalwarts has to go to the Food Network. The Scripps Network-Tribune Company channel is the alpha and omega of the foodie culture, seen by more than 90 million viewers in the U.S. The tremendous success of the network’s cooking shows and nighttime reality programs such as The Next Food Network Star and Man Vs. Food has helped to make celebrity mega-brands out of the likes of Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray, Giada DeLaurentis and others. 

Largely singlehandedly, the Food Network has turned Americans into a nation of food fanatics while educating us as well.  But despite its success, this Food Network is largely irrelevant now.  The real “food network” that matters is the one composed of a million restaurants with passionate operators, creative culinary minds, sommeliers, nutritionists and event coordinators. Even the Food Network and its celebrity chefs can’t keep up with such a passionate and creative group.  With content platforms like Flipboard, Hootsuite, personalized iPad magazine Zite (purchased by CNN) and many others, there are more ways for restaurateurs to speak directly to their customers than ever before. 

This feeds to the power of local contact, as I discussed earlier. Imagine a few local restaurants creating mini-food networks of their own using Twitter feeds, featuring their chefs’ inspirations and including coupons, contests and other inducements to get customers in the door to try these new creations!  Pair this with the rise of the mobile and two-way news and content aggregators available via smartphones and tablets…POW. Paradigm shift.  The future is likely to be a vast network of locally focused culinary news together with hyper-local events, culture and deals, all delivered via the new class of powerful post-PC devices. Fast Casual operators are and should be ideally positioned to leverage this incredible shift.  To move in this world you will have to think like a disrupter and still perform as a highly effective innovator.  The new skillset is a super plugged in executive the embraces change, tech, social, mobile and consumer science all in one.  It’s what I now call the Digital Eco-System Leader.

Posted on January 25, 2012 and filed under Fast Casual.