How the build-your-own meal craze is changing the way we eat in restaurants

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Build your own food counter

The rise of health consciousness has pushed the need for fast dining and build-your-own restaurants that offer a combination of casual-dining and quick service dramatically. Trends over recent years have been influenced by fast food cuisines and the demand for high-quality food with little to no table service, leaving the sole focus on a customisable menu that can be adapted to the customer’s preferences. More customers are wanting to be served their perfect dish, as opposed to picking it from a menu of dishes they may not like. With a background and a brand in the customisable market, I want to delve into this trend a little more and uncover the driving forces behind the growing popularity and how this is affecting the novelty of traditional eating-out.

The rise of build-your-own meals

With brands like Subway at the forefront of this customisable meal movement, more restaurants are choosing to adopt similar tactics in a bid to keep up with the growing popularity of the fast-casual, ultra-customisable food trends. With the focus on healthy eating and a number of new-age customers looking for fast food that suits them perfectly, the increase in customisable preferences is in high demand. Subway has perfected their offerings, allowing their customers to choose the entirety of their meal with ingredients laid out in front of them, wrapping it up for them and sending them on their way before serving the next customer.

Much like my own brand Kolibri, many chains are now offering their customers the option of choice, something which has always been mildly present in the ‘dining-out’ industry but has since become a thriving business for those who chose to adopt its preferences. Customers crave choice – being able to choose their sandwich fillings, how much salad they have or the sauce that accompanies their meal. It is hard to pinpoint when the movement began, but as the population of restaurants catering for those with food allergies and intolerances rose, it seemed that the rest of the population wanted the same options too.

Chipotle ignited the trend by captivating their customers with assembly lines of workers picking ingredients for their customers behind a counter, something more common in Mexican cuisines – it now has 1,744 restaurants around the world and growth of nearly 11.6% in just 5 years.

The likes of Nando’s, Shake Shack and newcomers Vita Mojo have joined in on the trend by offering a menu that can be customised to its customer’s ever-changing tastes. Vita Mojo offers “Quick food, ultra-personalised”, that allows the customer to eat for their own individualised needs. Controlling macros and calories for a meal that is right for them, every time. “Premium produce cooked to maximise nutrition. Ethically sourced, seasonal produce. Fresh food cooked from scratch every day. No preservatives. No added sugar and full recipe transparency.”  

Health and wellbeing are two factors that have driven the movement as consumers become increasingly concerned about healthier ingredients and freshly prepared food, a change that has driven many of these restaurants to adapt their offerings to suit. This allows customers to make changes like loading up on healthy veggies, chose low sugar sauce options, ditch bread buns for lettuce and more.

In my opinion, I think that the rise of customisation is a trend that is going to stay, as a nation we love the option of choice and now that many restaurants are giving us this freedom, why would we want to go back?

Subway counter

What effect does this have on traditional eating-out?

I do have to ask myself; what effect are build-your-own restaurants having on eating out as we generally know it? As more and more people opt for convenience-dining and the opportunity for home delivery, eating out as we traditionally know it is taking a turn and many large restaurant chains are seeing a steady decrease in the number of people choosing them over other, more creative options.

The Caterer recently released an article showing us that many restaurants saw a year on year decrease of those choosing to dine in: “Britons are eating out less and spending has dropped when they do, according to newly published data. Foodservice consultancy Horizons’ latest Eating Out-Look report, which surveyed around 2,000 consumers, found a year-on-year decrease in the number of people eating out.”

After doing some research when writing my book, Bespoke, it became apparent that UK consumers consider themselves to be more unique now than ever before and traditional restaurants aren’t conforming to these changes. Seeking unique plates, unusual flavours and a variety of fresh ingredients – creativity really is key when you’re trying to win the custom of the public. To put it into figures, almost 30% of young consumers say that being able to customise their meal is an important factor when they consider which restaurant to visit, as I mention in the customisation section of my book.

Whilst designing the concept behind Kolibri, a totally customisable drink, it became more apparent than ever before that if a brand wishes to succeed in the industry, they need to be offering something different, something eye-catching and something that ultimately allows the customer to express their creativity and freedom

So to answer my own question, yes, I think customisation is having a huge impact on how we as a nation choose to eat. Restaurants now, more than ever before need to be offering a variety of options, leaving room for creativity and opting for the mindset that fresh and appealing really is key.