There’s a scene in the movie Almost Famous in which the lead guitarist of the movie’s fictional up-and-coming rock band ditches his bandmates mid-tour in search of something “real” -- real people, real experiences. (The quest leads him to crash a house party in Topeka, Kansas.) It’s not wholly unlike the phenomenon seen in foodservice today: Consumers increasingly express a desire for things they perceive to be real, authentic and stripped of artifice.
Authenticity assumes many forms, of course. Authentic ethnic cuisine (possibly positioned as “just like someone’s grandmother made”) and the use of so-called authentic ingredients (just like someone’s grandparents grew) are two particular interpretations that have piqued consumers’ interest. But, there is also the idea of an authentic brand -- a company seen as caring about more than just its bottom line. 
What these iterations of authentic have in common is a focus on quality and honesty: devoting the resources necessary to “get it right.” And, consumers do indeed connect authentic with quality. In a survey conducted for Technomic’s 2012 “Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report,” 57% of consumers said they consider foods described as authentic to be tastier. In addition, just over one fifth (21%) said they’re willing to pay more for items labeled authentic, and 24% said the same about items that use the term “real.” 
A look at several major foodservice brands shows how authenticity is being positioned as an important brand differentiator for consumers and as a central tenet of the company’s mission. 

Channeling Chipotle

If authenticity connotes a certain kind of simplicity, it may seem ironic that consumers are willing to pay more for “less” -- foods that have fewer ingredients, take longer to prepare, etc. But, operators that play off this interpretation of authenticity are smiling all the way to the bank. 
The still-surging, fast-casual sector, in particular, makes authenticity-as-quality a key part of its messaging, with many concepts suggesting their use of organic or all-natural ingredients. And, the from-scratch preparations indicate a level of quality not found in traditional fast-food fare. Despite fast-casual’s higher price-point relative to quick-serve concepts, the category’s message seems to be resonating: Sales at the top 150 U.S. fast-casual concepts were up 13.1% in 2012, according to Technomic research. In comparison, sales for all limited-service restaurants -- including both fast-casual and traditional quick-service concepts -- among the 500 U.S. chains rose 5.6%.
One of the biggest success stories in terms of sales growth last year was Chipotle; the chain’s U.S. systemwide sales rose 20.2% to $2.7 billion. Chipotle’s burritos may not reflect authentic Mexican recipes, but the chain -- which calls its responsible-sourcing program “Food With Integrity” -- conveys a commitment to honest food in other ways. 
Consider how it describes the process for preparing its carnitas: “We start with the best, naturally raised pork we can find,” the chain states on its website. “Then it’s rubbed with spices and marinated overnight. It’s braised for hours and hours (and hours,) until it’s so tender we can shred it by hand.” 
Slow-cooking, natural flavorings and in-store preparations: All serve to convey quality. They suggest foods prepared as consumers would prepare them in their home -- if they had the resources to do so. Chipotle founder and CEO Steve Ells is a 1990 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and the chain plays up its culinary credentials: “All of the food at Chipotle is prepared using classic culinary techniques,” the Chipotle website states. Chipotle’s version of authentic isn’t about recipes that were handed down through the generations; it’s about techniques that were. 
Fellow fast-casual player Dickey’s Barbecue Pit takes a similar approach to authenticity, and has been similarly successful -- the 285-unit chain’s sales soared 46.5% in 2012. Dickey’s, founded more than 70 years ago in Dallas by Travis Dickey, boasts that its barbecue stays true to its roots.
“Every location still smokes all of their meats in the restaurant, the same way it was done in 1941, without any shortcuts,” the chain proclaims. Further, the chain promises its slow-smoked, seasoned-on-site meats are tracked “from the field to the table to make sure our customers get only authentic…only-from-Dickey’s barbecue.” 
For suppliers, offering to operators this kind of product-sourcing transparency -- a window into where raw products come from -- helps them sell a message of authenticity to their guests.   

Authentic Gets the Health Halo 

Many consumers, too, see a link between authenticity and health. 
More than one third of consumers (37%) surveyed for the “Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report” said items described as “authentic” are at least slightly more healthful. The term “real” implied more healthful for 61%. 
Whether these items are actually more healthful is debatable: Authentic tortilla chips that don’t contain preservatives or chemical flavorings may have materially the same nutrition stats as those that do. They’re still sliced, salted and fried tortillas, after all. But, because of their minimalist production, the authentic chips may register as more healthful to consumers who closely tie authenticity with simple, all-natural ingredients.
Frito-Lay’s Tostitos Simply Natural chips, made with just corn, oil and salt, and General Mills’ introduction of the Five -- as in five ingredients -- line of Haagen-Dazs ice creams reflect this trend in retail. Operators and suppliers alike may want to consider whether and how they can use the term “authentic” to connote “better-for-you.”

Building Brand Authenticity

Beyond ingredients and preparations, what can convey authenticity for foodservice brands? A company commitment to social responsibility and transparency -- to being “real” and honest with business partners, employees and the public -- can foster the perception of a brand as “authentic.” 
Some 60% of consumers surveyed through “Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics” program said they consider whether a restaurant is “socially responsible” to be an important or very important factor in deciding where they will dine. That’s across all foodservice segments, from quick-service to casual dining -- and consumers rated social responsibility as more important than other social factors, such as whether the restaurant has a recycling program and whether it gives back to the local community. 
The interest in this socially conscious variety of authenticity extends well beyond foodservice, too. Advertising Age magazine reported that in a recent survey of 8,000 consumers -- conducted by the World Federation of Advertisers and Edelman -- 60% said they sought brands that displayed a sense of purpose.
Social responsibility has myriad dimensions for consumers and operators, of course. In the context of coffee cafés, it can mean a commitment to using Fair Trade or otherwise responsibly sourced beans. For chains large and small, it can imply partnerships with local suppliers in support of the regional economy (and in the interest of conserving resources from reduced transportation needs). 
But -- regardless of how it’s defined -- suppliers, manufacturers and distributors necessarily are partners in any operator’s effort to be a socially responsible business and convey that to the public. 
As consumers express increased interest in foods’ production and provenance, more foodservice operators seek to tell a story about the foods and ingredients they use. Look at McDonald’s: On its U.S. website, the world’s biggest restaurant chain, by sales, introduces visitors to several of the individual farmers who help supply McDonald’s with apples, beef, fish, lettuce and potatoes. McDonald’s also has a series of YouTube videos detailing, among other things, how it’s “developing a more sustainable future” for its global supply chain.
Panera Bread, too, takes this approach via its “Live Consciously, Eat Deliciously” campaign. The chain, which racked up more than $3.7 billion in U.S. systemwide sales in 2012, offers a Meet Our Tomato Farmers video on its website. And, it positions as an asset -- in the interest of food safety and product consistency -- the fact that its antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed chicken is fully prepared when it arrives in stores.
Consumers on the hunt for authenticity -- whether in the context of recipes or honest information -- are demanding greater accountability from foodservice operators, and the pressure rises upward. For suppliers, lifting the curtain on the production and procurement process can help operators better tell their own brand story -- and enhanced brand trust up and down the line can boost bottom lines. That’s a real benefit.

Taco Bell Does Authentic

Last year, Taco Bell took on Chipotle in the better-burrito market, partnering with Venezuelan-born chef and former Top Chef Masters contestant Lorena Garcia to develop and launch the Cantina Bell menu. The chain known for the chalupa and the highly successful Doritos Locos Tacos focused new attention on premium offerings, positioning the Cantina Bell menu as featuring high-quality, freshly prepared ingredients. The marinade for the braised steak in the new Cantina Bell Steak Burrito, for example, is from Garcia’s “authentic Latin recipe.” 
Interestingly, more than seven in 10 Hispanic diners (71%) say food at Mexican or other Hispanic restaurants should taste authentic or like a Latino prepared it, according to Technomic’s 2013 “Hispanic Consumer Trend Report.” (See PF’s July 2013 “On the National Menu” article for more details on this report.)  In addition, 44% -- vs. 21% of the general population -- say they would pay at least slightly more for food described as authentic.
Taco Bell’s first Cantina Bell items debuted last July, and Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum! Brands, indicated in the fall that it was pleased with the menu’s progress. In any case, 2012 wound up being a good year for the brand: Taco Bell posted sales growth of 8.3%.