Exactly what is authentic cuisine today?

The word ‘authentic’ comes up nearly constantly. Brands have a pressure to be presented and understood as authentic. There’s a very good chance you will be disappointed by this article if you clicked for the answer to the title question. Because defining authentic cuisine is no simple task. There is no easy way for consumers to answer the question of what they believe is authentic. In fact, it’s easier to define what isn’t right that what is.

Authentic cuisine varies by region, nationality, experience and brand. If you grew up eating cooking from your family kitchen, a meal with the same name from anywhere else will seem wrong. It’s not cooked the way you’re used to, so something is off. This is why people endure ridiculous travel conditions to get home for Thanksgiving. Any other way isn’t home cooking; it isn’t the holiday.

Megan McCardle pulls the lens much wider in her piece from Bloomberg View. Tracing the true available ingredients and cooking methods of most common cuisines redefines most food as unrecognizable from the version we accept today. Not just inauthentic but totally different food.

If a consumer only ever had White Castle hamburgers, they would certainly not feel that Backyard Burgers was an authentic hamburger. Or any other kind except Krystal which is essentially the same thing. So, every consumer has a different sense of what an authentic burger experience is. But how does a burger brand define that when they’re trying to appeal to that same consumer? Because like brands, any cuisine is defined by so many factors and memories that it’s impossible for a brand to know what is right.

Natives of, or people that have spent time in a cuisine’s country of origin for example will be looking for certain cues about authenticity of the meal. There are ways around these. Pizza has found an interesting end around in the Fast Casual space which allows it to abstract authenticity with customization and wood fired ovens. The consumer is satisfied by controlling the experience and less focused on an authentic slice of New York pizza.

Is Olive Garden authentic? To an Italian citizen who travels to America, no. It will differ dramatically in most cases. It can’t be authentic Italian cuisine. But is it authentic in what the brand offers and to its core customers? As long as it delivers on the brand experience and expectation, it is. To thine own self be true. Every brand is struggling to be authentic; and in the logic of the Olive Garden example every brand can be.

More importantly, do consumers even care? There’s probably a reason most mass brands aren’t what we think of as authentic. Most people don’t care most of the time. A lot of consultants report that Millennials crave authenticity. Actually they want the right meal for the right occasion. Consumers are selective about when they want the experience they consider authentic. Day to day, people want what they know will meet their needs. Fast. Cheap. Flavor. Nearby. All things they can nail down. But authentic, not sure they can put their finger on that one.

Is your brand experience easy to understand?

I visit a lot of restaurant concepts to find new trends and innovations. I always note is how easy it is for a new customer to understand what they are supposed to do to enjoy their visit. Especially their first visit. Blow that one, and there may not be a second. In our research into Millennial dining habits, 58% told us they base dining decisions on past experience. It is important to get it right early and often.

Menu

This is an issue on two levels. First, choosing the menu items and names that let people understand what they are choosing from and what it will taste like. Some concepts go all in on naming conventions that don’t always set expectations. Krystal calls its regular burgers Krystals. Probably fine given the presentation of the menu and focus on that primary items. But also on the menu are variations of hotdogs called Pups and Corn Pups.

Does everything on the menu make sense together? If you’re an Asian wok-based concept like Pei Wei, adding sushi is not a far leap for the customer. Less so at a southern chicken concept. That’s pretty simple. What about new items Buffalo Wild Wings has added? The brand has done great with a straightforward menu and formula of wings, sports and beer. Do burgers make sense there, or is the brand grasping for innovation. They’ve also added a pulled pork sandwich to their menu, even further afield. Raising Cane’s has been disciplined in keeping the menu extremely tight. Time will tell if they feel the need to expand the menu when location growth slows.

Don’t underestimate the importance of menu design. QSR and fast casual brands have the burden of communicating the flavor and experience at distance and often without much conversation. At Culver’s, the menu is much more expansive than a new guest might expect, making the first visit potentially overwhelming. Is the menu organized as simply as it can be? Are there flavor cues where needed? Is the menu divided intelligently, so it can be scanned.

Footprint

This is sometimes out of your control, but a restaurant layout needs to welcome people. In casual dining, it’s important to have an area near a host’s stand for guests to gather and wait. But also to hear the music and see the sights inside the restaurant. No one likes to wait, but at least give them a chance to absorb the atmosphere and get excited to get to their seats. Texas Roadhouse does a great job with this.

In fast casual and especially QSR, give them an entry that allows them to comfortably view the menu. Even if a restaurant is as simple as Five Guys or Firehouse Subs, the first visit takes some orientation. Give people space to stand back and observe; don’t force them directly into the queue. Watch people’s first visit to a Qdoba and witness the awkward pauses, the questions, the confusion. Don’t position the menu at awkward angles that make it hard for people to read. A common mistake is posting the menu boards on the wall along the queue at chest height; the spacing makes it impossible to read.

When designing a standard footprint we maximize seating, kitchen equipment, safety. Make sure customer experience is included. Especially for new guests. How much does the layout give the guest a chance to understand the brand? Guests need to look at some of the food on other guests tables, see how they’re eating it, and what they’re combining.

Training

Does your staff know their stuff? Do they help people understand? Are they trained to explain the concept and guide people towards favorite menu items? In a perfect world, the answers to all of these are yes. But reality is far from perfection. Even with the best menus and a flawless layout, some guests just won’t read or get it. Some will want to talk to staff and test them.

Find out what the most common questions are from guests. Set up training programs to give staff the help they need to perform at this level. Secret shop to ensure a high standard is being upheld. Reward staff living up to that standard with spot bonuses or other perks.

Staff trained in explaining the experience are trained in hospitality. Executing that well turns a confusing experience into a great one.