Navigating Transparency: What’s Best for You?

By connecting with restaurant customers on matters they care about, you can define your brand and solidify your position in the competitive landscape.
Forks with various vegetables

Restaurants are nothing like a box of chocolates. Customers always want to know what they’re going to get. But customers sometimes want to know more than the name, ingredients and cost of the food on the menu. Is it gluten-free? Non-GMO? Heart healthy? Locally sourced? Even if these particular questions aren’t relevant to your operation, the possibility that they might be asked and the idea of providing transparency—on the menu and beyond—is something you may want to consider.

Transparency is difficult to define. It means something different in each community, in each operation and to each individual who walks through the door. There is no national definition or industry standard, so recognizing how transparency might fit your business comes down to two things: Does it communicate your brand message, and does it provide consumers with the right information?

“Whether you support clean label, GMO-free or fresh ingredients, it presents the opportunity for an operator to say, ‘OK, here’s what it means to us,’ and it gives you the chance to further define what it means as it applies to customers.” says Gordon Food Service Nutrition Resource Center Manager Amy Gautraud.

Start with engagement

It’s up to each business owner to decide whether transparency applies. As you talk with customers, you’ll pick up on issues that matter most to them and align with your operational brand. Different communities have unique needs. If you’re located near a college, you might expect customers wanting to know about recycling or local foods. If you’re a seafood restaurant, customers might want to know about sustainable seafood labeling.

Promoting transparency may not even be all that important as a marketing consideration. What’s important to consider is engagement—customers expect operators to have the ability to respond to questions about transparency.

If the restaurant has a framed certificate on the wall from a local charity event, or if server mentions gluten-free offerings, or if the to-go packaging is labeled as environmentally friendly, it shows the restaurant has already worked through the message it wants to communicate to customers. 

Knowing what questions to expect goes back to knowing your environment. A server who asks, “Do you have any allergies?” while taking an order could be part of a brand action—an awareness about something important to customers. That kind of accommodation is at the heart of transparency.

Unlimited opportunities

At the core, your staff should be trained on how to answer questions and meet customers where they’re at regarding transparency. Their answers also have to be authentic and consistent with your brand. As you learn more about customer concerns, it may become more important to your brand—possibly spilling out onto your menu and becoming part of your website, social media communication or even advertising.

Because transparency has no set definition, there’s no limit to the questions customers might ask. Here are five common areas of transparency you might prepare to address:

  • Nutrition. Can you provide basic nutrition information? The new menu-labeling law, which applies to restaurants with 20 or more storefronts, requires a new level of menu nutrition transparency. Restaurants not required to comply may like the idea of keeping up with that level of transparency, or they may feel compelled to if they’re surrounded by national chains that are displaying calorie information. “There’s a lot of work that goes into menu nutrition analysis, so you need to ask whether this is important to my customers,” Gautraud reminds. “You have to evaluate your brand and your competitive environment.”
  • Food Allergies. What is your restaurant’s stance on accommodating for allergens? If you do training, you can let your customers know by saying “we feel strongly about this, so it’s something we require of our staff.”
  • Local, organic, non-GMO. Do you focus on a particular type of food or ingredient? The scale of investment is something you have to be mindful of—it has to be done in proportion to its return. “You can’t decide one day that ‘we’re going to do all organic ingredients whenever possible’ and just make that statement,” Gautraud says. “You really have to understand what goes into that statement and if you can maintain it.”
  • Food Safety. Do you communicate health inspection results? Some operators may post the most recent summary for the public to see, Gautraud suggests.   
  • Environmental and stewardship. Do you know the public’s perception and is it important to you? “You might be able feature community involvement with photos in the restaurant or by talking on your website about ways you’re being green,” Gautraud notes. “Do you participate in a recycling or composting program?” If so, let you customers know. 

A proactive approach

There’s no question transparency is becoming more important. But before you engage, it must make sense for your business.

If transparency is part of your competitive environment, it’s always better to be proactive. Just remember that any claim you make travels quickly in today’s highly connected world. So decide on the scale to which you’re going to engage, and don’t make a pledge you can’t support or maintain. Enter lightly and maintain claims that match your brand image. 


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