Immersing in local culture through food

There is a good chance that this post will either inspire you to find the best local representation of Southeast Asian food, or possibly just leave you really hungry. I recently spent time in Southeast Asia, traveling around Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. I have had the “travel bug” since college and ventured to a number of incredible places around the globe. It’s in my DNA to appreciate a region through the people, the natural setting, and the food. And wow, the food in SE Asia. Green Curry, Bun Cha, Kao Soi, Kebabs, Spring Rolls, Papaya Salads, Pho, Cocount Rice, Morning Glory. This was my first personal international trip since joining the “food world,” and I was amazed at the different lens that I viewed my experience through with having spent time in this incredible industry.

WHAT STOOD OUT

This entire blog could be dedicated to the different flavors and dishes that I experienced throughout the different regions, but more compelling are the themes that emerged through that time — and in recent weeks of post-trip reflection.

“Regional”
Perhaps this is something I should have expected going into the trip. But one of the things that surprised me right out of the gate was just how different regional food and beverage specialties were within a relatively short distance. This first dawned on me when traveling from Hanoi to Hoi An in Vietnam. A night train ride away and suddenly, Bun Cha (an incredible Hanoian lunch noodle dish) was no longer available at every corner — and not for the going rate of $1.75. I hadn’t been prepared to have experienced “my last bowl of Bun Cha” in Vietnam! While I was immediately blown away by the local Ban Xeo (a Hoi An crispy pancake), it made me realize how much I needed to savor each flavor experience, since in many cases it wouldn’t be offered even a few hours away. While there were some commonalities, it was eye-opening to see how much the dishes, eating habits and international influences varied by both regions and countries.

Bun Cha, an Hanoian lunch noodle dish as featured on "Parts Unknown"
For those of you familiar with Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”, Bun Cha was the meal he shared with Barack Obama in his Hanoi episode.

Bun Cha, an Hanoian lunch noodle dish

“Fresh”
At each new location, the food market was always a highlight. Wandering through the narrow aisles of various sections (produce, meat, seafood, spices, etc.) provided an instant glimpse of the local ingredient influences. A wonderful opportunity to connect with locals, the market was always a significant center that the city revolved around throughout the day. It truly captured the meaning of “fresh”. Each stall (mostly run by local women) was set up before dawn with new product for the day. Without refridgeration on-site and a very low “shelf life”, it made its way into the hands of restaurant owners, street food vendors and local residents throughout the day. In many cases, these markets are visited by locals not weekly or daily — but twice a day or more! Each meal prep included a stop at the market to gather ingredients and is often reliant on what is available and fresh. No matter the daypart, convenience was served up in the format of “meal kits”. A handful of vendors at each market I visited could be found bundling common ingredients in a ready-to-prepare kit that required just a step or two to make the local cuisine at home. I took advantage of this in a number of instances and loved encountering such a familiar “trend” with a different customer experience across the globe.

A noodle soup with fresh herb meal kit found in Laos.
A noodle soup with fresh herb meal kit found in Laos.
Local produce market in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Local protein market in Hoi An, Vietnam.
Local markets with produce and protein in Hoi An, Vietnam.

WHAT TO TAKE AWAY

One of the best things about traveling far away from familiar settings is a reminder of how both big and small the world is — and food is a perfect reflection of that. The diversity of customs and ingredients within a single region is mind-blowing. It’s exciting to think about how many of these global flavors are making their way to US menus, and the opportunities to expand are never-ending. Simultaneously, the familiarity of food trends halfway across the globe is a reminder that this industry is truly unique, in that it is one of shared human experience.


Complexity, Loyalty and Collaboration – all top of mind in 2019

We are entering the season of conferences and tradeshows, with a number of industry events right around the corner. Recently, we attended IFMA’s Chain Operator’s Exchange in New Orleans where we walked away with a few interesting nuggets that span beyond the content that was shared in the presentations and roundtables.

Complexity

If there were a word cloud built that captured the dialogue and content of all the events I’ve attended in the last year, “complexity” would be one of the largest. Complexity in reference to the quickly changing landscape, food safety, labor issues, the consumer journey, access challenges, supply chain transparency; the list goes on. In my opinion, the opportunity lies in the communication and a continued appetite to understand and evolve. One of the ways JT Mega is addressing the challenge is by staying — and ramping up — our involvement in the industry; but just as importantly, sharing the experiences among our own team. While it can be difficult to carve out time when schedules are only getting tighter, the post-JTM15 (our agency share-outs that last 15 minutes) conversations are a reminder of how much is happening right “within” our four walls that can support better navigating complexity. 

If you’re interested in a JTM share-out with your team, let us know! We have a number of events coming up that may be of interest.

Loyalty

In addition to a complex landscape, it’s common understanding that consumers have more options and are becoming more selective when it comes to food choices. This increases the importance of measuring, understanding, and influencing guest loyalty for the sake of repeat purchase and growth. Datassential provided insights on some recent findings around what drives loyalty with restaurants.1 Relatively few chains achieved a net promoter score (NPS) of greater than 59%, but the bigger learning was in uncovering which qualities had the greatest correlation with true loyalty. It isn’t affordability or new LTOs – rather, attributes more ingrained in the culture of a restaurant. If you really want to impact loyalty, Unique Experience, Craveable Items, and Great Staff are the drivers. 1 These aren’t quick triggers by any means, but are in line with what we are seeing in the industry as a whole — brands have to offer more than the product; embodying a culture and experience that align with consumers personally matters more.

Collaboration

Over my short 2+ years in this industry, I have been continually reminded and pleasantly surprised by the “in-it-together” mentality that is inherent in the food and beverage world. It seems that the conscious focus on collaboration — how to do things better, together — is openly a priority. Continuing to raise the bar in this industry is a collective goal and it makes it an exciting time to be part of it.

Final Note

This “season” of events is off to a solid start and it will be interesting to see what emerges in both themes and trends for 2019. We look forward to sharing what stands out to us and would love to hear what you think is a little different about this year. (Or…to hear what you’d like to hear more about…).

1 “Keys to Brand Affinity.” Datassential. IFMA COEX. February 2019.

Questions, comments or want to learn more? Let's connect! weshouldtalk@jtmega.com

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