Consistency is key, they say. This is a standard taught to us from childhood across a variety of subject matters that is particularly relevant when it comes to food. From restaurants to grocery provisions, the public demands a high level of similarity when it comes to what they eat and discrepancy in flavor is not well received by the hangry. Consumers have come to expect that if they order a dish or purchase a product it should be the exact same time and again regardless of other extraneous influences. However, recent changes in consumer trends demand that both the restaurant and retail experience are more of just that, an experience. People crave this artisanal, curated food experience chock-full of locally-sourced, organic, seasonal, non-gmo, and unique ingredients. So how are food providers adhering to consistency expectations and new consumer trends?
A new theory suggests they’re not. Consumers can’t have their gluten-free, vegan, all-natural, non-gmo, cake and eat it too. If curated ingredients, untouched by human modification, is what the people want then inconsistency is the new standard they should expect.
Eric J. Pierce of New Hope Media recently explained the idea of expecting inconsistency in his article, “Changing Our Expectations of Ketchup (and everything else processed)” saying, “When we buy something that is hand-crafted, we appreciate “unique,” not “ubiquity.” What he means here is that recent consumer trends are great; they divulge from processed and mass-manufactured goods that have previously dominated grocery store shelves. However, these changes in food production are based on the availability and variation naturally found in produce and meats which then bleeds into the finished-food-product. Pierce continues to illustrate this theory by saying, “We are increasingly asking for the right things from our food system. While we do this, let’s give those who produce, serve and manufacture on our behalf a little bit of breathing room to improve the system by lowering our expectations for a consistent and uniform look, feel and taste. Are you willing to allow one bottle of ketchup to taste different from the next in the name of natural variation and the evolution of our food system?”
While one aspect of consumer demand changes, another must also. Asking for sustainable food production practices comes with a natural amount of variation in food that should be celebrated rather than rejected. During a recent conversation with Mike Lee of Studio Industries and The Future Market talked about this new theory and has even gone so far to execute the idea. Hello, Crop Crips, “a crop-rotation based cracker that follows the rhythms of nature available one at a time based on the cover/grain crops that have to be planted in order to keep the soil healthy and pesticide/fertilizer free.” Made up of all-natural grains, and flavored with a dash of olive oil and rosemary. But it takes a while before these ingredients go from seed to cracker. Every ingredient in this cracker is dependent on a seed that thrives and grows during particular parts of the year but somehow consumers expect the same exact flavor, taste, and texture 365 days a year. However, if you look at the growth cycle for a year, not a single ingredient is naturally harvested all year round; no plant does this. This means that to get the same cracker, human modification comes into play but consumers don’t want this.The other option is to produce the cracker based on the organic cycle of each individual grain. In the fall, wheat crackers are made. In the spring, the base is flax seed, and so on. The caveat, of course, is variation but this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
As consumer trends shift, our expectations must also. Consistency plays a vital role in the overall quality of a dish however it should not be limited by consistent ingredients. Natural variation in food stems from the harvest rotation of individual ingredients, adapting our palettes to plants and not the other way around. Even mainstream consumers are demanding the right things from our food system, just as Pierce said, so now it’s time to appreciate that for the beautiful variation it is intended to be.