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What’s for dinner, Canada?

Change is growing a lot faster in our grocery stores than on our farms. So is opportunity

What’s for dinner, Canada?

The food that got put on just about any dinner plate in Canada 30 years ago was the same as got put on all the other plates. Every kitchen cooked up meat and potatoes with a side of veg. Yes, basic tomato-based pastas could sometimes be served but they were definitely “ethnic,” while “convenience” described any meal cooked in less than 30 minutes.

What’s for dinner tonight? If you’re like most Canadians, your food selection and preparation preferences have evolved dramatically, and so have your expectations. And if yours haven’t, your kids’ certainly have.

In fact, food trends are changing so quickly that you’ll probably eat something tonight that you wouldn’t have considered even five years ago.

Now, think of what you’re producing in your fields and in your barns. Is there a disconnect? And if so, is it something we should target, either as individual farmers or as an overall industry?

It’s clear that Canada’s food insiders believe we’re missing a trick.

“All businesses need to be mindful of macro trends so you can future-proof your company, even if it’s a commodity,” says Jo-Ann McArthur, president and chief strategist at Nourish Food Marketing, based in Toronto.

Only 10 per cent of Canadians have ever been on a farm,” Jo-Ann McArthur points out. “We’ve become so disconnected.” photo: Supplied

Victoria, B.C.-based food writer, bestselling author and recipe developer Eric Akis agrees, saying farmers need to put more priority on what their customers want.

In a way, Akis is sympathetic. “Canadian farmers work hard and at the end of a long day, I’m not sure how many want to sit down and start doing scads of consumer research,” he says.

But he is also adamant. “I’m sure many know they must now do that to be successful.”

Put it to the test yourself. The next time you’re in the city, Akis suggests visiting supermarkets just before suppertime when they are at their busiest. Watch what consumers buy, which areas of the stores are most congested, and which shelves need restocking.

“That gives me an instant snapshot of what Canadians are eating these days and helps explain why some farm products outshine others in sales,” Akis says.

There’s no shortage of food trends,” says food writer Eric Akis. The difference now is how many consumers are paying higher prices to get food from sources they trust. photo: Supplied

Then when you’re back home, round out your experience with a quick (but regular) Google through food trend predictions.

“There’s no shortage of food trends. When there is agreement on things, it’s a pretty safe bet that that trend will come true,” says Akis.

To start you off on the right foot in 2018, here is a summarized rundown on some of those trends and why they matter to our farm businesses in Canada.

1. Convenience

In 1930, British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted his generation’s grandchildren would work three hours a day and only by choice, thanks, of course, to technology. Almost 100 years later, people are more rushed, more scheduled, more stretched than ever. Today’s consumers are prioritizing convenience in every kind of packed, portioned, prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner possibility. The move away from daily meal preparation is extreme.

“We’re seeing a huge societal shift,” says McArthur. “Consumers are cooking as a hobby on the weekends but during the week they want something really simple. The demand used to be for meals that could be prepared in 30 minutes. Now we’re seeing that’s too much: it’s all about meals that are pre-assembled or meal kits.”

The drastic changes in consumer consumption patterns mean there is loads of room in the marketplace for innovation right now. While there will always be demand for commodities, the biggest success will come to agri-businesses that creatively meet consumers’ new needs.

Consumers are not just demanding simplicity and convenience at the preparation and consumption end. Last June, Amazon purchased Whole Foods for almost $14 billion. The acquisition signals a monumental coming change in much more than Whole Foods’ traditional organic/natural/speciality food category.

While online shopping has been ballooning in most product categories in Canada, it has lagged in groceries based on inadequate and inefficient delivery infrastructure. The Amazon-Whole Foods deal changes all that. By purchasing Whole Foods, Amazon now has a geographically distributed back end in place to service an online system.

“There’s an Ontario-based company called Grocery Gateway that pioneered home grocery delivery but they couldn’t make it work profitably,” says McArthur. “But then Longos (in the GTA) purchased Grocery Gateway. Longos had the back end. That’s what you’re seeing with the Amazon and Whole Foods deal. Whole Foods is just the first step. Amazon will be driving a lot of what will be going on in the future. Retailers should be worried.”

Consolidation is the way of the world today. As huge companies like Amazon claim bigger and bigger shares of the consumer pie, farmers must realize that commodity production and marketing will be forced to accommodate new priorities and demands.

And McArthur says too that they need to consider that trying to get into that circle of brands will be tougher and tougher.

2. Health

Arguably the most positive trend in food today is an increasing awareness and prioritization of health. Overall, 25 per cent of U.S. adults now seek out pre- and probiotics, while 47 per cent look to add more fibre to their diets.

Manufacturers are racing to comply: 62 per cent of all new products in 2015 and 2016 claimed fibre on their packaging. Plus, there has been a marked decrease in the use of artificial flavours and preservatives as consumers demand ingredients they understand.

“The search for digestive health is something we’re seeing not just as a result of an aging population, but it’s top of mind for Millennials as well. They’re more concerned with health than a generation ago and rightly so. We’re not getting healthier. We have an obesity epidemic. A lot of consumers are looking at conventional wisdom and reconsidering it,” says McArthur. “People are seeing food partly as a solution.”

“Low fat” options are losing market traction as consumers realize how packed in sugar and other unhealthy ingredients they often are. On the flip side, healthy fats are seeing a resurgence after being relegated for years to the “unhealthy” category. Local is beginning to shoulder out organic as consumers realize organic does not mean no pesticides. And slowly, the focus on weight is shifting instead to a focus on well-being.

“People are far more aware of how food affects them in performance, sleep, etc. People are now seeing that everything is connected. It’s about balance,” McArthur says.

The focus on health means farmers must accommodate consumers’ need for information about production practices. Currently, consumers have real and growing concern with the use of crop protection (including glyphosate), antibiotics, hormones, GMOs, and more. Whether such concerns are justified and reasonable, they are real and they are entrenched, and the old “just trust me” standards of communicating with customers simply won’t work anymore.

Given that consumers vote with their wallets, deciding that you don’t feel like answering consumers’ questions, calming their fears or responding to their needs has and will continue to have a direct bottom-line impact on farmers.

GMOs are a case in point, says McArthur.

“I think the GMO conversation has not been done well. If you talk to consumers, they don’t know what GMO stands for but they will tell you that it’s bad. Flat-out bad. And yet, would we have fed the world without GMOs? The industry, however you want to define it, needs to do a better job of educating consumers. Hopefully it’s not too late.”

3. Personalization

If you’ve hosted a dinner party of any size anytime lately, chances are you’ve had the challenge of serving food around multiple special diets dictated by dietary restrictions and self-reported food sensitivities. Gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, keto, paleo, vegan, raw: the list of limitations can stump even the most creative cook.

In all likelihood, this hyper-personalization of food will only become more extreme as technology offers new outlets for our increasing preoccupation with self.

“I think it’s coming from how we raised our Millennial children. We told them they were special. Everyone got a trophy. Everyone got to customize their order at Starbucks, their playlist. Now it’s starting to manifest into food,” says McArthur.

The newest option is DNA testing. With a simple swab of one’s cheek, a lab can now tell you all kinds of information about how your body functions. Sound too extreme to be true? Some companies are banking big dollars on the technology. Campbell’s Soup Co. recently purchased Habit, a San Francisco-based meal delivery startup that customizes food based on an individual’s biology, metabolism and personal goals.

What does hyper-personalization mean for farmers? As consumers get used to being catered to on a more and more individualized basis, opportunities for niche products will balloon. Farmers will need to be both proactive and agile to capture rapidly changing opportunities.

4. Story

Increasingly, consumers want to know who is behind their food.

“Food is a very intimate thing. We put it into bodies. We really want to be able to trust whoever is creating that food,” says McArthur.

Five years ago, Chris Van Hooydonk quit his job as executive chef at an exclusive B.C. winery restaurant. Some thought he was crazy to go out on his own, especially given his unconventional plan. He was sure his timing was exactly right, though, and that diners were hungry for a new experience.

With wife, Mikkel, Van Hooydonk built Backyard Farm: a chef’s table-style, private function only, elite dining room that caters to just 20 people at a time. Using locally sourced “real” ingredients, Van Hooydonk creates an interactive dining and food-education experience.

He’s blown even his own expectations out of the water. In every service category, would-be customers face a six-month waitlist. This, despite the fact that he’s operating in a very tiny, very sleepy town.

And it gets even more incredible: 80 to 90 per cent of his clientele are returning customers, which is an unheard of statistic in any food service business, let alone one so new. Even more impressive in this heavily tourism-dependent region, the vast majority of customers aren’t tourists at all; they’re locals.

“I’ve got way more business coming my way than I can accommodate, which tells me people are eager to experience food culture,” says Van Hooydonk.

A decade ago, the concept wouldn’t have worked, he says. “The number of people consumed with the distractions of iPhones, Netflix, Twitter, etc., has spurred a New Age idealism in food culture. People are hungry to have real experiences. They are willing to invest in creating a memory.”

But, there’s more to it than novelty.

“The reason I was willing to try this was the knowledge that clients were increasingly curious about where their food was coming from. Instead of just having something to eat, they wanted to know, to experience, to dig deeper,” he says. “Some of the better restaurants in Vancouver, they were already getting back to the history of food culture, already slowing things down a little, already talking about food sourcing. What we’ve moved towards is much more about communication, and that’s a very good thing.”

Consumers aren’t just looking for a “story” via high-end, occasional dining experiences. They’re now looking to get to know their food and their food producers in all kinds of ways.

Multinationals like Campbell’s Soup, Unilever, General Mills and more are “hemorrhaging money,” says McArthur, as consumers opt for craft, niche and specialty companies that they feel are more trustworthy than megacompanies.

From tiny rural towns to Canada’s largest cities, farmers markets are booming across the country as consumers look for opportunities to “get to know” food and food production.

Vancouver Island’s dozen or so farmers markets are “busy, happy places”, reports Akis. He says interactions between customers and sellers at the markets are authentic and personal as growers and consumers seek to learn from each other.

“Sometimes it gets to feel like a bit of a love-in when consumers tell a farmer how much they enjoyed what they bought from them the week before,” Akis says. “Customer purchases let farmers quickly know what they are interested in buying, or even what they should grow if they keep asking for something they don’t have. Farmers get to tell consumers why they make the choices they do and some of the challenges they face.”

The connection between buyer and seller fosters sales and loyalty in a way a flyer or a conventional advertisement simply cannot.

If you’re not planning to start up your own Van Hooydonk-style chef’s table or open a booth at a neighbourhood farmers market, how can you translate the demand for “‘story” to success in your farm business? McArthur says it comes down to radical transparency: something all farmers need to practice.

“There is a perception that there are small hobby farms and there are big corporate mega-farms and nothing in between. People don’t understand that most farms are actually in the middle,” she says.

“Farmers need to be inviting people in. If you can invite them in and help them understand, that will go a long way. A new statistic says that only 10 per cent of Canadians have ever been on a farm. We’ve become so disconnected from how our food is produced. As new generations come up, they are getting further and further away from the farm. We need to educate.”

Consumers’ demand for story doesn’t only mean more work for producers: for innovative farmers, it may bring opportunity too. As the Little Potato Company has proven, even products typically viewed as commodities can be branded if they are attached to a message that resonates with consumers.

What’s next?

The pace of change in our world is faster than ever in every area, including food. Whereas farm success used to be based on one’s ability to produce quality product, the evidence is building that tomorrow’s success will also require enormous adaptability, innovativeness and a willingness to listen to one’s customers.

Are Canadians up to the challenge?

The big food trends of 2017, summarized from Nourish Food Marketing’s 2017 Trend Recap:

  • Increased demand for food with “functional benefits” (examples: sprouted grains, pre- and probiotics, fermented foods).
  • Increased demand for fibre to support good digestive health.
  • Focus shifting from weight to well-being.
  • Consumers pushing for “real” ingredients: out with the artificial flavours and preservatives; in with ingredients customers understand.
  • “Free from allergen” options taking off as dietary restrictions and self-reported food sensitivities continue to increase.
  • Healthy convenience: meal kits and washed/peeled/sliced options growing, especially in healthy options like veggies and veggie-based sides.
  • Traditional foods being “snackified” for eat-on-the-go convenience. New options include pre-packed hard boiled eggs, no-spoon-needed granola bites, even single-serving oka cheese.
  • Food becoming hyper-personalized: “nutrigenomics” — the precise determining of one’s unique nutrient requirements based on DNA testing — is now reality.
  • Consumers want a shorter distance from farm gate to dinner plate: origin stories (especially local) are increasingly important to consumers.
  • Mindful consumption, including decreasing food waste and increasing plant-based products, a growing priority as consumers recognize their choices matter.
  • Ethnic food is in: per capita consumption of ethnic options is increasing at three times the rate of total food.

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