In 2017, the big news isn’t what you eat; it’s how you eat. Of course, food is still a big deal with much written about food trends, but more importantly, beyond the food, the way we dine is changing. Here are four important trends in dining for 2017 and beyond:

  1. Dining as Entertainment: We’re not talking about your parents’ “dinner-and-a-show” or the singing waiter variety of dining. The trend of dining as entertainment goes beyond that as food preparation and service take center stage. Anything out of the ordinary could be entertainment dining, whether it’s an open kitchen with chefs making pasta, a wine debit card that allows you to sample wines from automated dispensers, or learning how to cook (and eating) your meal with the chef and other diners.
  2. A Different Fast Food: According to Forbes, “Over the last decade, fast food restaurants – or more technically, Quick Service Restaurants – have grown at a much faster pace than any other restaurant segment in the industry. Best described by concepts such as McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King, they are characterized by fast food cuisines with average quality of food, minimal to no table service, limited menus, and price of meals ranging from $3 to $6 per person.” Now, we see fast casual restaurants rapidly eating into that market dominance. Fast casual restaurants such as Chipotle, Zoe’s Kitchen, Newk’s, and El Pollo Loco are positioned as a hybrid of fast food and casual dining, providing counter service, offering more customized, freshly prepared and high-quality food, and having an upscale, inviting ambiance.
  3. Delivery (Part 1): Apparently, the hardest part of cooking at home is deciding what to make. Companies like Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Plated, and Home Chef take that burden off the consumer, delivering a recipe and all the ingredients necessary to prepare a tasty meal for your family or guests. These services guarantee meals that are fresher, healthier, and made with higher-quality ingredients than consumers would prepare on their own. Side benefits include sharpening their culinary skills and getting other family members or guests in on the “fun” of meal creation.
  4. Delivery (Part 2): Meal delivery has gone high-tech. Whether you choose UberEATS, GrubHub, PostMates, Yelp, or DoorDash, app-driven meal delivery has expanded in a big way and is expected to grow. In addition to changing the way restaurants interact with their customers, these tech companies collect fees and personal data while delivering meals. Some chain restaurants are responding by adding delivery-only locations, and even delivery vehicles of their own. Other chains, such as McDonald’s see the opportunity and are now signing up with the meal-delivery leaders.

What do all four of these trends have in common? The experience, of course!

Consumers want to have dining experiences. Not at every meal, of course. There are still times when consumers will choose quick and on-the-go eating over experiential, entertaining dining. But as the globe shrinks and consumers’ palettes expand, entertaining diners will become a requirement for many restaurants.

Here’s what restaurant marketers and consumer insights managers should be thinking about:

  • Understand the experience in your restaurant. Beyond food, you must understand – and improve – the experience factors unique to your restaurants. For branded chain restaurants, that means knowing your brand’s Point of Difference and tackling the need for consistently delivering across all locations.
  • Measure and track experience factors. Include experience factors in your customer satisfaction tracking programs. Go beyond fast service, menu variety, and clean restrooms to understand the experience you’re providing and how that measures up against your competitors.
  • Understand the relationship between menu and experience. Which is more important to your guests? Has that changed over time? Many restaurants focus on menu development without thinking about the experience of dining. Is that the best approach for you?
  • Create experiential dining brands. When you’re creating a new branded restaurant, think experience first, then menu. The menu should support and enhance the experience, not the other way around. When repositioning your restaurant brand, invest in the experience.

The dining experience is becoming much more dominant in consumer choice, whether at-home or in-restaurant. Restaurateurs and food service marketers must expand their thinking to redefine their business perspective. Are you in the food business? Are you in the dining business? Or are you in the entertainment business?