Don’t Just Cook. Cook Different.

In his September 2017 Harvard Business Review article, author Eddie Yoon grabbed the food industry’s attention with the headline “The Grocery Industry Confronts a New Problem: Only 10% of Americans Love Cooking.” In the opening paragraph, he asserts:

“Although many people don’t realize it yet, grocery shopping and cooking are in a long-term decline. They are shifting from a mass category, based on a daily activity to a niche activity, that a few people do only some of the time.”

Yoon contends there are three categories of consumers when it comes to cooking based on his research:

Consumer cooking attitudes

In an already challenging environment for grocery retailers and CPG companies, this new research felt like another kick in the gut.

Good thing Yoon got it (mostly) wrong.

WHY IT’S HAPPENING

In many ways, scratch cooking has transitioned from necessity to luxury. With competing demands for time and resources, a seemingly endless host of options–takeout, delivery, meal kits and retail prepared foods–allow consumers to forgo cooking on a regular basis.

But all this evidence ignores a key consumer need: the emotional connection we have when preparing and sharing a meal with loved ones. Consumer insights firm Iconoculture asserts that cooking hits on key consumer values important to all generations–particularly millennials: creativity, sharing, discovery and tradition.

What we’re seeing is not a dramatic decline in the desire to cook; but rather, the misalignment in the value of cooking versus the act of cooking.

WHAT WE THINK

As food and beverage manufacturers, we must embrace and celebrate how modern consumers really cook.

Apple was successful in revolutionizing the mobile tech world because they focused first on the customer’s need to communicate better, not the phone itself. What Yoon’s research illuminates is a truly unique business opportunity for food manufacturers and retailers–if we’re willing to think differently.  We should focus on the basic human desire to prepare and share a meal, letting go of rigid definitions of what cooking is and isn’t. Retail products, prepared foods, meal kits and foodservice aren’t competing channels; but rather, cooking tools that can be wielded in any combination to help modern consumers put a meal on the table.

WHAT’S NEXT

Traditional cooking will never completely go away; there are celebrations and occasions where scratch-cooking is expected and sought after. But for the other 360 days of the year, we can help consumers leverage both retail and foodservice solutions to prepare an easy meal without sacrificing freshness, quality or that coveted emotional connection.

Encourage Fake-It-From-Scratch

Iconoculture’s recent consumer research shows that even the youngest consumers know cooking is an important life skill. Encourage customers with even basic kitchen abilities and limited time to be a fake-it-from-scratch cook. Demonstrate how one or two prepared items and a few simple ingredients can create a delicious weeknight meal, like this 10-Minute-Taco-Tuesday recipe:

Pork Tacos with Mango Salsa and Lime-Cilantro Crema

Promote Cooking-Less Celebrations

One of the key instances where consumers want to cook is when they’re entertaining family and friends. And sharing food with people we love is what it’s all about. But hosting a dinner party is a daunting task.  I’m a huge fan of Kitchn’s 5 Rules For Hosting a Crappy Dinner Party (And Seeing Your Friends More Often), especially Rule #2:

The 5 Rules of a Crappy Dinner Party:

Ready to plan your own? Here’s how to do it:

  • No housework is to be done prior to guest’s arrival
  • The menu must be simple and doesn’t involve a special grocery trip
  • You must wear whatever you happen to have on
  • No hostess gifts allowed
  • You must act like you’re surprised when your friends or family just happen to show up at your door (optional)

This is an ideal opportunity to demonstrate how to use foodservice–especially delivery–along with ingredients already in the kitchen to craft a crowd-pleasing menu. 

And rather than focusing on traditional gatherings like housewarming or birthday parties, brands should encourage consumers to celebrate unconventional milestones like adopting a pet, paying off student loans or seasoning a newly purchased grill.

Indigenous Cuisine: As Local As It Gets

This past month, I made my way to Southeast Minneapolis for a cookbook launch party featuring a type of cuisine few of us in the food industry have heard of: indigenous. Using ingredients that are strictly native to the United States–particularly the Midwest–guests feasted on fare featured in Chef Sean Sherman’s new cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.

Photos of dishes that use ingredients that are strictly native to the United States–particularly the Midwest–featured in Chef Sean Sherman’s new cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.

The best way to describe indigenous cuisine is deliciously unassuming and delightfully earthy. It provides a modern take on indigenous staples like cedar-braised game meat, wild greens, crushed juniper, maple vinegar and smoked whitefish.

WHY IT’S HAPPENING

Sherman (Oglala Lakota), born in Pine Ridge, SD, has been a culinary force in the Midwest for nearly thirty years. But recently, Sherman’s main focus has been revitalizing indigenous food systems in the world by showcasing Native American cuisine and, in the process, bringing attention to key social and cultural issues faced by indigenous communities.

As Sherman explains in his book, many of the ingredients we grow and harvest today didn’t originate on U.S. soil. Modern dietary staples like wheat flour, dairy products, sugar, and domestic pork and beef are all European fare brought to this country through exploration and trade between the 15th and 17th centuries. Instead of using these ingredients in his book, Sherman reconnects readers to the ingredients native communities harvested, prepared and feasted upon for centuries before European settlers arrived.

In an age where sourcing has become an important criteria for savvy food consumers, indigenous cuisine is as local as it gets.

WHAT WE THINK

The benefits of indigenous cooking make a strong case for it becoming a long-range culinary food trend.

As Sherman puts it, indigenous fare is hyper-local, seasonal and ultra-healthy: no sugar, no wheat (or gluten), no dairy, high in protein and a focus on plant-based ingredients. Sherman is right in asking why the original indigenous diet isn’t taking off in our modern food culture, knowing our collective focus on real, wholesome ingredients without preservatives and additives, and minimal processing.

WHAT’S NEXT

While indigenous cuisine has many of the attributes chefs and consumers are seeking today in their food and beverage choices, it also faces two fairly significant obstacles in the short term:

Ingredient Accessibility

Believe it or not, many of the ingredients that are native to this part of the country are not easily found within mainstream food channels, such as sunchokes, purslane, duck eggs and maple vinegar. Unless you’re willing to forage backyards and riverbeds, even Sherman acknowledges some of the key components must be sourced through specialty stores or online.

Consumer Familiarity

Many of the staples of indigenous cuisine aren’t currently foods consumers are regularly preparing and eating. For example, the three most popular types of animal protein in the U.S. today–chicken, beef and pork–are all replaced by lesser-known fare like bison, rabbit, duck and venison. To achieve mainstream adoption, indigenous cuisine will likely need to follow the path of other global food trends: marrying familiar and new ingredients to entice curious, yet hesitant, customers into trying it. 

The Opportunity

Despite its obvious challenges, indigenous cuisine also has an exciting opportunity to redefine “American” food. Different geographies could craft nuanced variations of indigenous cuisine based on regional plant and wildlife varieties. The development and promotion of this regional indigenous fare could give us a whole new category of cuisine to explore.

In the meantime, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the arrival of Sherman’s new Minneapolis restaurant, slated to open in Spring 2019.

Just some Thought for Food

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