What Does “Local” Mean to Your Customers?

Over the last few years, the demand from consumers for locally sourced products and produce on restaurant menus has grown exponentially. This demand, as prevalent as it is, varies substantially from consumer to consumer depending on a host of factors, not least their location, age range, and personal values, making it hard for operators to find a “one-size-fits-all” strategy with which to answer this demand.

According to research commissioned by Charleston|Orwig in 2013, over half of consumers consider that a national brand, such as a chain restaurant, can be considered “local” if they use locally sourced ingredients in their menus, and over a quarter consider them “local” simply because their individual unit-sales contribute to the local economy. These two factors alone should denote a “win” for chain restaurants in terms of capturing their share of the locavore market (consumers who prefer/seek out local products). Unfortunately it isn’t that cut-and-dried, with millennials and younger restaurant patrons only considering “local” to mean products sourced within five to fifteen miles of the restaurant; not the easiest of propositions for national chains.

Considering that “local” means something different to every consumer therefore, smart operators have been choosing a variety of approaches to meet their customers’ demands and expectations for “local” items in their menus, and a “local” flavor in their brands. Ethnic-inspired dishes in line with the cultural make-up of specific locations are being rolled-out in some restaurants, others are focusing on the seasonal aspect of “local” to boost their sales and meet demand, while yet others have taken blended approaches which include frequent, “special” menu updates, and a highly visible level of community involvement in local environmental sustainability.

In 2014 however, operators will have an additional channel through which to appeal to the ever growing “local” demand from consumers: healthy menu items. With 60% of consumer’s stating their desire to eat more healthily in the year ahead according to the latest research by AlixPartners, and the prevalent consumer perception that “local” equates to “healthy,” operators have an opportunity to boost their “local” custom, while responding to one of the year’s most important trends.