The importance of catering for the health-conscious consumer

Once upon a time, eating healthily was an afterthought. Something niche that only a small group of people were interested in, and that very few indeed would care about when dining out at a restaurant.

And most of those who did care would go to a dedicated health food spot full of greenery and raw things where diets win over deliciousness, rather than a chef-led restaurant.

But that’s not the case anymore. Over the last couple of years — and especially in the past six months — health-conscious dining has put down roots and made it into the mainstream.

Now restaurateurs are finding that offering a range of healthy dishes is important for keeping their business in good shape, as well as their customers.

There are a number of factors at play which have spurred on this turnaround. The so-called clean eating brigade, including Hemsley + Hemsley and Deliciously Ella, have done their bit to make nutrition trendy, while Jamie Oliver is just one of many high profile figures who have been extolling the virtues of eating well.

With this, people’s expectations of how good healthy food can taste has been substantially upped. These personalities and others have shown that a balanced meal doesn’t have to be a boring one, and that there’s no reason why food that does you good shouldn’t taste great.

Also, as the UK becomes increasingly food obsessed and our restaurant industry booms — especially in London — people are choosing to eat out more than ever. In fact, research shows that despite the average price of a meal going down in the last couple of years, the total amount people spend on dining has gone up and up as they do so more frequently.

It makes good sense that people who view restaurant meals as a regular part of their diet, rather than a rare treat, will want to ensure that what they’re eating is balanced as opposed to splurging on a dinner out and making up for it with miniscule meals when eating at home.

Restaurants need to make sure that their menus reflect this mind change, and that they are dishing up a decent portion of choice which allows customers to eat healthily as well as heartily — all the while making sure not to alienate those who want to leave nutrition at home for the night.

Here are five winning ways to ensure the health-conscious consumer is well catered for:

Seasonal supper-heroes

There are many reasons why eating and serving seasonal food is important, but most of all because this is when it is at its most delicious. As a result if you use top produce that is at its prime, there’s often no need to add overly rich accompaniments, making it much healthier. On the new summer menu at Swan, Shakespeare’s Globe, Allan Pickett pairs grilled asparagus with a fried duck egg and chopped hazelnuts. Because it has so much flavour of its own there’s no need to cook it in butter, and he instead opts for just a little rapeseed oil.

Veg up

With vegetarians obviously excepted, most of us eat far too much meat — it’s bad for the planet and bad for our health. More and more people are recognising this and starting to cut back. This might be through ideas such as meat-free Mondays, or simply trying to cut down portion sizes. Restaurants can do their bit by ensuring that they offer plenty of creative dishes that put veg in the limelight so there’s lots to take the fancy of diners that’s not flesh. At Swan, Shakespeare’s Globe a summer dish of steamed Somerset spelt with asparagus, Cornish Yarg and parsley purée is wholesome but also vibrantly flavoured.

Lightly does it

We all love a good gutsy meal from time-to-time, but many dishes are actually better when they’re made a little lighter. Chefs and restaurants are often keen to reach for the cream and butter to make decadent sauces, when actually the modern diner craves something altogether fresher. One of Allan Pickett’s signature dishes on Swan’s dinner menu pairs sliced scallops with Granny Smith apple and a little squid ink mayonnaise. It is vibrant, brightly flavoured and refreshingly light.

Ready for requirements

A health-conscious menu isn’t all about low fat or plenty of veg. Many customers have food allergies, intolerances and preferences. A good menu should be able to accommodate the most common of these while still leaving diners with a bit of choice. It’s worth making sure there is a good scattering of gluten-free, dairy-free and of course vegetarian and vegan options.

A fruity finish

There is excellent fruit available in this country, so use it. Of course, diners will sometimes want gooey chocolate puddings and cheese boards, but if done in the right way almost any final course is all the better for the addition of some fruit — and it means diners finish feeling like they have had a more balanced meal. On his summer menu, Allan serves a steamed chocolate pudding with a berry compote (its sharpness cuts through the rich pudding perfectly), Kentish strawberries with a set buttermilk cream, and a rhubarb crumble tart.

There’s always room for something naughty though, as they say: everything in moderation, including moderation itself!

 

Sustainability: how to ensure your restaurant has a future


Sustainability in the food and drink industry is more important than ever. The customer may have been the catalyst for the restaurant industry’s focus on sustainable, local and environmentally-friendly ingredients, but there is, of course, a bigger picture.

Climate change and its impact on farming and the supply chain is everyone’s problem. The recent courgette crisis is just a taste of what could be to come, with hiked food prices and difficulties getting certain products to the table at all becoming a tangible threat to business.

At a time when world affairs are creating enough uncertainties and challenges for the industry, it is more important than ever that restaurants pull together and take responsibility for the produce they put on their menus.

Here are some other ways to gain some notches on the sustainability scale.

Buy British and local

This one might seem fairly obvious, but there are still restaurants out there, very good ones too, which import a lot of their ingredients from overseas. It is easy to think of this being an issue for the cheaper-end of the industry, but it is a challenge for some excellent high-end restaurants too. Some ingredients are very difficult to source from the UK, some Spanish cured meat, for example. Although there are British companies making real headway, some chefs are always going to prefer to import from Spain or Italy. It’s not the end of the world, and geographically not too far, but real efforts to offset these imports with a focus on locality elsewhere — vegetables and English wines, for example — is a good start. When it comes to meat, it really is very hard to beat high-quality British meat, which brings us to…

Meat

The arrival a few years ago of a trend towards USDA Prime beef is worrying. Aside from the major welfare and food safety issues that come from importing American meat, the USA is not exactly down the road. If the carbon footprint from transportation wasn’t enough, new research emerging over the past three years has suggested that the livestock industry itself is responsible for producing more greenhouse gases than cars, planes and ships combined. So what can we do? Firstly, buy British and chip off transportation emissions. Secondly, get creative with your cuts. Of course you want to continue to offer steaks and the like, but what about making the most of offal? Traditionally less-used offcuts are not just suitable for pies and other stews: kidneys, liver and even intestines are working their way onto London’s top menus. A little more thought can mean that you cut your menu’s meat-print down while also tackling another major problem…

Waste

We are all throwing too much food (and other things) away. The trend towards nose-to-tail eating is one way to tackle this, but there is still a way to go. It can be a challenge in a large commercial kitchen to keep on top of waste, especially if your menu is varied and you want to ensure that customers have as much choice as possible — there’s nothing worse than your first-choice dish having sold out. Or is there? A good restaurateur will tell you that the way to run a successful restaurant is to overcome challenges by turning them into strengths. You want to be fully-stocked on the dishes that make up the backbone of your menu, but why not plan to run out of select others? Keep things interesting and show off the quality of your ingredients and range of offering by having some dishes that when they are gone are replaced by something equally exciting. This means that the customer knows upfront that you are committed to keeping things fresh and seasonal and that when that dish goes they could be first to try the next. Variety is the spice of life — and key to managing your food waste too.

Vegetables

Speaking of seasonal, and we all should be by now, vegetables are absolutely key to keeping your menu planet and margin friendly. Veggie dishes are no longer just the stomping ground of vegetarians, many customers are turning to veggie dishes as a legitimate meat or fish alternative. Whether it is because they too are conscious of the environmental impact, looking to roots for health reasons or just enjoying how creative chefs have become with plants, nowadays people like veg. This is great news for the environment and means lower food costs for restaurants. The days of the stuffed mushroom are over: long live the veg!

Choice

As a restaurant it is difficult to commit to simply ‘being sustainable’. As important as it is, there is still a need to ensure that customers don’t feel pushed out by any price increases. After all, post-Brexit people are — for the time being, at least — feeling financially cautious. Outside of the tips listed above, none of which should increase costs, the key is choice. For most high-end restaurants, offering free-range and organic meat is standard, but for a smaller, more price conscious or newer restaurant this can be daunting. By putting free-range chicken on the menu alongside other options you are allowing the customer to choose whether they go for it or not, and also showing off the quality and sustainability of your menu. Buying organic meats and dairy — or direct from the farmers’ market — supports local farmers who are the only real antidote we have to unsustainable, mass-farming. They are also infinitely higher animal welfare, which will attract people to spend more money too. The days of ‘vegetarian’, ‘vegan’ and the likes are numbered, today people talk of being ‘ethical eaters’ or ‘flexitarians’. By shouting about your organic dairy, line-caught fish and organic, locally-sourced meat you are investing in your reputation, the planet and your business. May they both have a long and happy future.

About Diccon Wright

Christopher Diccon Wright is a restaurateur and property specialist who has established and grown successful operations in the UK and Mediterranean. He has also worked on a consultancy and advisory basis for a wide range of food and property clients.