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IS FOOD THE NEW MUSIC?

The New York Times recently referred to this phenomenon as a ‘gastronomic youthquake’.  There’s certainly something going on. Local food is everywhere, farm to fork, Chefs are the new rock stars, recipes dominate the bestsellers lists and reality cooking and baking shows litter the schedules. Perhaps food really is the new rock n roll?  Whatever you call it, there’s a generational shift in culinary awareness underway.


It was most evident at this year’s festival circuit.  Where before food was at best an after thought, recently the festival operators have responded by upgrading the food to better than high street levels and welcoming the coolest operators backstage.  Next year the chefs are ready to upstage the bands, and its started already. Events such as Grillstock in Bristol, Soho’s Ribstock , the Big Feastival which attracted over 20,000 visitors and November’s Chilli Standoff in Hackney already part of the calendar, and booking for next year.  And we’re going to see a lot more through 2015.  As well, smaller format events are sprouting, like Daniel Young’s London Burger Bash, where our brightest chef talents are challenged to go head to head against a backstory of craft beer and bands. Last month’s event sold out in two hours.


Hipsters and regular folk alike now ask: “Have you tried this new restaurant?. Chefs beam from the TV in the same way as rock stars adorn bedroom walls. People follow David Chang in NYC, the Young Turks in London, or Russell Norman, as if they were the lead singer of the band. 

BUT WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON HERE? 


The parallels between what is happening to the food scene and the music industry are stark, and it is shown by the values of both.  Indie music fans prefer small independent operators to corporates , value authenticity against manufactured acts and, to some degree, long for the past (vinyl).  Foodies want the same. How was it made, where did it come from, were traditional methods used? Large food manufacturers are treated with suspicion and scepticism surrounds modern cooking techniques such as sous vide.  Pushing back against ‘The Man’ is perhaps the key similarity.


These values may explain the rise of some of our fresher brands.  Byron’s popularity, for example, could be linked to its transparency; you can see your food being cooked, to your liking, and product sourcing is well known; the guiding principles are simplicity, flavour and quality; marketing is predominantly online and you interact with Tom Byng, founder on Twitter meaning there’s a sense of personal relationship; design is fresh and changes from site to site; and it tastes good.


“We source good beef from Scotland. We mince it fresh every day. We cook it medium so it’s pink, juicy and succulent. We place it in a soft, squishy bun with minimum fuss and fanfare. We serve it with a smile in a comfortable environment. And that’s it.” 

Byron Hamburgers.. on-message


But some differences between music and food are emerging.  Tech is making music increasingly passive thanks to the ease of access. The shift from downloading to streaming with services like Spotify gives access to millions of tracks, but the accessibility takes away the thrill of discovery.  In contrast food can feel more real, more participatory. People collect tastes (and dishes) as they once collected rare 12 inch tracks, and those food choices are chronicled immediately using phones and uploaded to social networking sites, often before a bite has been taken. 



WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR OPERATORS?


Certainly people will continue to re-connect with our rich food heritage, so you should too.  At the recent Intelligence Squared event “What on Earth are you Eating? The Secret Life of Food”. AA Gill suggested that the current re-connection could be a result of government rationing between 1917 and 1954.  He made the point that during that period food availability basically went to mince and potatoes, which was then dished up to the next generation by the parents that lived through it, and then by their children, albeit watered down each time.  The distance between that event along with product availability and modern communication and.. BOOM.


And as with music, people are increasingly affiliating themselves through their food choices.  We eat what we think defines us, which governs our supermarket visits through to restaurant choice – are you Jamies Italian or Carluccios?


So one of the first things we’re going to notice is a lot more segmentation. That means more online activity, more blogs and food sites, and we’re also seeing a new wave of food magazines being launched to cater to every niche.  Check out Lucky Peach from New York, or Swedens ‘Fool’.. no recipes, great photography, strong writing.


Therefore it stands that by profiling your guests more tightly you’ll be able to use the new media to communicate to them more directly, and they may be more resonant to your message. 


Brand preference is becoming more heavily linked to personal identity, and with internet use and social media such an important source of brand information, operators should make sure sites are monitored so they can respond to comments fast.  There’s an expectation from the guest that you’ll interact on multiple levels, online debate and commenting on posts and photo’s is an easy way in.

And with social media sharing such an important part of a restaurant visit, you can begin to build up iconic (and photogenic) dishes that will encourage your presence online.  Good examples include the soft-shell crab burger at Shrimpy’s, the UmamiBurger (Los Angeles) where they brand the brioche bun, the meat planks at Jamies Italian, prawn lollipops at Drake & Morgan, the personal cleaver at Flat Iron, the glassware at Naamyaa.  Same applies to distinct and original design elements which are either identified with, or that get shared.. Meatliquor is a great reference here.


In terms of a longing for the past, some guests, principally millenials, are developing a nostalgia for a time they never knew.  MTV Insight call it ‘faux-stalgia’ noticing that adding retro components to your offer can tap into a deep well of latent emotion.  Examples extend to the Ivorine faux-bone handled cutlery at Honest Burger, great depression styling at Spuntino, a return to ‘historic’ steak cuts like butlers cut and onglet, and vinyl record players popping up in the cooler cocktail lounges.


With the increased levels of interest and demand for transparency, we are seeing more open kitchens, but in a different format.  Rather than kitchens you can see into, chefs are moving out front with diners interacting with the chefs and  sharing the same table as the food that is being prepped. Everyone wants to hang out with the chefs.  Great examples include Revel in Seattle, Chicken Shop from Soho House in Kentish Town, Pollen Street Social in Mayfair and John Salt in Islington.


Artisan product sourcing and local food are ever more expected.  That means difficult implications for scale operators, hard luck you’ve just got get on with it.  But try not to overcook your product sourcing credentials. Think about discoverable messaging or joining affiliated schemes rather than the long clichéd menu descriptions.


Thinking about the parallels between the food and music scenes might help your brand direction. 

So if food is the new music, which band would Russell Norman be in?


a generational shift in culinary awareness

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