Looking Behind Restaurant Trends

Contradictions illustrate complex challenges food & beverage service marketers face

For most people, the New Year brings with it a renewed sense of resolve, aspiration and optimism. So, there’s no better time to think about the headwinds and the tailwinds emerging in 2018. That’s why I’m excited to be participating on an AMA San Diego panel on January 17th, Trends in Restaurant Marketing.

I’ve been in the food business for over 50 years, mostly as a marketer for chain restaurants. I can remember when one of the “new, new things” was a Drive-Thru window. Now, we’ve got GPS tracking the cars of our most likely customers driving anywhere near our restaurants.

Rather than amplify some of the trends in the marketplace, I want to point out some contradictions and ironies within the trends. A pundit might say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same!” Here are the four trends and their contradictions:


Audiences and homogeneous user groups keep getting smaller and smaller. And they’re not just getting smaller, they’re getting more vocal and opinionated. Polarization is the new normal…and I’m not just talking about politics. You can’t play to averages, or you risk not being engaged. I remember when red meat and coffee consumption trends predicted the demise of those categories. Ruth’s Chris and Starbucks proved otherwise.

Off-premise consumption

People want their food any place and any time, even at a substantial service premium. Third party delivery is the latest propellant, but it’s not the only one. When I was CMO at Domino’s Pizza, we had the delivery field all to ourselves. Now, everyone is in the game. The challenge for most restaurant brands is to maintain their brand personality – service and ambiance, not to mention product quality – when the food is being transported by a third-party in a paper or plastic bag. Remember Drive-Thru, and all the problems that channel faced?

Higher-quality food

Let’s call it the “Farm to Table Movement.” It’s been almost 50 years since Alice Waters started the movement in California, and people like Dan Barber have picked up the theme in recent years. What some are calling the “New American Cuisine” is gaining broader appeal on both Coasts. After all these years of being told they’re not eating right, Americans are now seeking out new fast casual brands, like Urban Plates here in San Diego, with almost a cult-like following. They have a strong interest in being informed about food, how it’s made and where it comes from. Still, there’s a contradiction. Most of these people also want the option to indulge with elegant desserts and traditional comfort foods.

Big data

Or to express it within the restaurant lexicon: How do you digest all the data coming at you from the marketplace? I think we can all agree that data is not the same thing as insights, though it’s often presented without insights. More and more, I find myself asking, “What does it mean?” There’s a premium for people who can explain what the data means and what to do about it.

So, I’ll leave you with one of my personal resolutions for 2018: Be courageous enough to adopt a new idea, but open-minded enough to listen to others who have a different point-of-view.

Tony will be one of our panelists at the Trends in Restaurant Marketing Panel event on January 17, 2018. Tony will be joined by marketing leaders from Burger Lounge, Karl Strauss and The Broken Yolk.  Please join us to hear what will surely be an enlightening discussion.

About Anthony

Anthony (Tony) Lavely is a Chief Marketing Officer- who for most of his career has worked in the chain restaurant business. He has served as CMO for Burger King, Long John Silver’s, Domino’s Pizza, Friendly’s Ice Cream, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Tony is currently Acting CMO for Urban Plates, the fast-growing fast casual concept based in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA. He also continues to be active as a Marketing Consultant to the restaurant industry and private equity firms.