‘Real Food, Fake Food’ is a big hitter in foodservice transparency. In the same way that ‘Fast Food Nation’ exposed questionable practices from some of the world’s most prominent quick service giants, so too does ‘Real Food, Fake Food’ unveil some very unfortunate truths about restaurants and food suppliers that make false claims about their ingredients.
The moral of the story: Tell the truth about the ingredients that you use, and make sure that your suppliers are doing the same.
Easier said than done, of course. The real challenge comes not with telling the truth, but having your customers believe that you’re telling the truth. Here are a few tips to help garner trust among your customers:
Show whole ingredients
It’s easy to tell that a lobster is real when you see the whole thing presented to you before it’s cooked. The process becomes much harder with lobster ravioli, where lord-knows what kind of lobster-flavored combination is actually sitting between the pasta squares. Coffee beans are easy to prove as pure, but coffee grounds can have many foreign agents mixed in. If you’re in the position where you can show something whole before it’s chopped, ground, blended or battered, show it off.
Servers presenting steaks and lobsters tableside is no nuance, but is also quite cumbersome for many eateries. Display cases are also common, but mostly among fine dining establishments. The solution can be as simple as a line on your menu that states “We will happily accommodate any requests to see our ingredients tableside.” Few patrons will take you up on this offer—minimizing operational setbacks—but will take comfort in your willingness to show your hand.
Another option is to host regular kitchen tours. A weekly or monthly kitchen tour, coupled with a tasting menu or pairing event, could double as a great marketing tactic in addition to buying rapport.
Boast only what you can back up
If you charge a premium for cooking with foods of a certain label or status, be sure that clear standards exist whereby your food can truly earn that label. Just about anyone can slap the word ‘natural’ on their packaging without facing legal ramifications. It’s virtually impossible to find olive oil in the US that isn’t extra virgin, where in Italy only a small percentage of olive oil can actually tout that title. Only a handful of restaurants actually serve Kobe beef, and the term ‘American Wagyu’ is meaningless. The list goes on.
Thousands of restaurants throw out arbitrary premium terms without walking the walk. Yes, they will win over uneducated customers, but they will ultimately lose the war. All it takes is a core group to call out these shenanigans and the restaurant’s reputation—and revenue—plummets.
If your tuna is truly ‘sushi-grade,’ have some collateral around your restaurant, such as a certificate or a brief story about the tuna’s sourcing, to show for it. If you are ‘famous’ for anything, display your awards and depict the story on your menu. The proof is in the pudding, so make sure that you’ve got some killer pudding.
Align your food with your brand
Not all restaurants need to showcase premium ingredients. Sure, trendy terms deliver a good spark, but they don’t necessarily inspire guests to walk in or keep coming back. Greater forces—price point, ambiance, cuisine type, and just plain taste—may very well be the true active ingredients in a restaurant’s success.
The last thing a restaurant should do is falsely promote certain ingredients to keep up with the Joneses. If you happen to use organic, all-natural ingredients, then do toot your own horn in a way where the guest can see immediate proof behind your claims. Don’t get carried away though, as stretching the truth beyond tangible evidence could introduce a level of skepticism you may not be prepared to handle.
More and more restaurants are building their brands around ‘real food,’ and transparency is necessary for these brands to stay afloat. If you are not able or willing to provide that transparency, it doesn’t say anything negative about your restaurant, it simply means that you should think critically about the brand points that your restaurant stands on.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.