The meal deal: How consumer needs reshape b2b strategy

Foodservice and retail operators must evolve to keep pace with the consumer trends that are shaping modern food culture.

BY Marla Clark
VP, Content, Imagination

My first exposure to the “Rule of Three” happened at some point in elementary school, when I was learning to write. The idea: Your audience is more likely to remember what you write if you present your ideas in groups of three.

But the “Rule of Three” has other meanings, encompassing everything from speechwriting to math, food to survival. I find that last one especially fascinating. The general thinking is that humans can survive three minutes without oxygen, three hours without shelter, three days without water and three weeks without food. It’s hard to fathom three weeks without food, particularly in light of the “three square meals a day” ideal state that American food culture has romanticized over the past couple centuries.

But that ideal state is just that: an ideal. Socioeconomic factors, regional and cultural differences, and consumer trends all have contributed to an evolution in meal rituals—and a significant shift in how foodservice and retail operators must do business to survive and thrive.

“Meals are no longer the anchors of our day; they’re no longer sacred,” Shelley Balanko told attendees of The Hartman Group’s annual Food Culture Forecast 2018 conference in April. Balanko is senior vice president of business development for the market research firm, which focuses on demand-side trends in the food and beverage industry. When it comes to mealtime, she continued, consumers “are now getting it in wherever they can.”

“Food is our greatest cultural expression. It’s how we procure. It’s how we cook. It’s how we plate. It’s how we eat.”

Davey McHenry
VP, Consulting, The Hartman Group

What consumers want

What, when, where, why and how consumers eat have changed dramatically in recent years. According to The Hartman Group, five key trends are shaping modern food culture:

1. Shifting food values: “Food is our greatest cultural expression,” said Vice President of Consulting Davey McHenry at the aforementioned conference. “It’s how we procure. It’s how we cook. It’s how we plate. It’s how we eat.”

For those who can afford it and have the time to enjoy it, food has become more than a necessity. We don’t just eat to live; we live to eat. We care about where our food comes from and what’s in it. We make healthier choices because we want to, and not simply because our bodies and minds feel better when we do. Think fresh instead of processed, private-label and locally sourced instead of big-name brands, ingredients you can pronounce instead of artificial colors, preservatives and sweeteners.

2. The “new convenience”: Despite the cultural prominence mentioned above, we’re busier than ever and have “displaced” many of our meals through shifting, skipping, fragmentation and boundary blurring.

According to Hartman research, 22 percent of American consumers are snacking more, and 43 percent of us are replacing one or more of our traditional “three square meals” with snacks. Convenience is our No. 1 need state, with 53 percent of all eating occasions including the desire to avoid the time and energy it takes to cook. Think fast and portable, low prep or even no prep, said Hartman CEO Laurie Demeritt.

3. Personalization: As a society, our sense of self has never been higher. We’re no longer OK with having what everyone else is having. We want it customized and individualized. This tendency even extends to meal kit delivery services such as Blue Apron and HelloFresh, which allow us to select from a menu of options to create a week’s worth of meals that best suit our dietary preferences and restrictions, week in and week out.

“We communicate who we are through our food preferences,” McHenry explained. “Venti mocha frappe with whip is basically saying, ‘I want ice cream. But I can’t take it into my morning meeting.’ The point is: I’ve made it my own.”

4. Inspiration: The rise of the internet, reality TV and social media have created a culture of sharing seemingly everything. Cooking shows and classes; food and beverage samples at your neighborhood grocery store; recipe apps; and food posts on Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube in particular all feed our appetite for something different and inspire our own creativity. New ingredients, new flavor combinations, and new preparation and presentation techniques all capture our attention and encourage adoption.

“Today’s food culture is all about fun and play,” Balanko explained. “We want to be surprised and delighted.”

5. Technology: Websites and apps have made it possible for us to check seating availability and book reservations, preview menus, get directions, and read about other diners’ experiences at restaurants around the corner and around the globe. Online grocery and food delivery services let us shop from the comfort of our couches and eat out while staying in. Food tracker and fitness apps help us monitor our caloric intake, heart rate, and overall health and wellness.

All of these innovations give us unprecedented power over our food choices and how we experience them. But they also have led to consumers “becoming less and less willing to compromise,” McHenry said. “We’ll go to the brands that can deliver on our expectations,” she added.

Crucially left unsaid: We’ll abandon those who can’t.

“Today’s food culture is all about fun and play. We want to be surprised and delighted.”

Shelley Balanko
SVP, Business Development, The Hartman Group

What it means for B2B: The rule of three

Such consumer preference and behavioral insights are obviously helpful for B2C companies. But what can food and beverage businesses serving other businesses do with this information?


Your restaurant, grocery or convenience store, manufacturer, supplier and institutional customers want to offer the products and services that their customers—average consumers—hunger for. You can help your customers win over consumers by innovating your product offerings—how they’re produced, how they’re packaged, how they’re marketed—and training them to talk about these things in a compelling way.

If nothing else, when working with your business customers and partners, strive to:

Be transparent about each product’s origins: where it comes from, what’s in it, what nutritional value it offers (or doesn’t);

Be flexible in what you offer and how you distribute it: scalable sizing, online ordering, overnight delivery and other customizations will help your company rise about its competitors; and

Be memorable by defining what differentiates your company and ensuring that everyone who represents it—from sales reps to warehouse workers—knows your brand story and tells it well.

When I think about these three traits, I can’t help but think of Anthony Bourdain, a great chef gone too soon. He embodied all of these things in his cooking, in his writing and in his pursuit of new adventures. He also understood that food is about so much more than sustenance, having once written the following: “Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways. … The best meals occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”

published: July 03, 2018

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