During my time in the gastronomy program, people would often ask a question that I’m sure is familiar to many current students – “What are you going to do with that degree?” (Or they would think I said ‘astronomy’ and look me up and down skeptically.) At the time I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I finished. After earning my undergraduate journalism degree I worked on political campaigns and I entered the gastronomy program thinking I would focus on food policy. I thought I could work for a food-related government agency or non-profit when I graduated.
Studying food can take you down a rabbit hole, however, and soon I was researching the final meal choices of death row inmates for ML 701. I took Professor Mendlinger’s course on cultural tourism asset development and followed it up with his class that ends with a trip to Tanzania, where we tried to understand if the food markets and banana plantations would draw tourists who were typically only there on safari. I took the culinary arts, baking arts, artisan cheese, and wine certificate courses and made (and ate) an insane amount of food. Studying culture through food was fun. And it was delicious.
But again, what was I going to do with the degree?
After I graduated from the program in 2012 I moved back home to Chicago, which I discovered is the country’s center of food market research. I eventually accepted a position at Datassential, a company that began with a massive menu database which allowed analysts to understand the American menu – which ingredients were growing, which trends were slowing, etc. Today the company has grown to include a wide array of food and trend-related research capabilities, from reports on sandwiches to chef surveys to consumer focus groups. As the senior publications manager at the company, I oversee our seven TrendSpotting Reports, a series of publications that combine real-world trend research with market research from consumers, chefs, and other decision-makers.
Whether it’s a gastronomy research paper or a food industry trend report, good data is the foundation. Too often food trends are “identified” without any numbers to back them up – they are mostly opinions based on anecdotal evidence. At Datassential we have a huge range of tools at our disposal to inform and back up our findings. We don’t say bacon jam is trending because we saw it at our local coffee shop last week, we say it’s trending because it grew 569% on U.S. menus over the past four years. We don’t just say that Hawaiian poke is cool right now, we dive deep into what consumers think about it – over 1/3 say they are likely to try it at a restaurant.
Working in this industry challenges a lot of assumptions we often have about the U.S. food scene. If you live in an urban area with a lot of access to unique cuisines and ingredients, or if you are a food-loving student in a food-focused graduate program, you may forget that not everyone in the country has the same access to such a wide variety of foods, or that there is a segment of the population that isn’t even interested in them. “Basic eaters,” who eat to live rather than live to eat, make up 18% of the population. Only a little over half of the U.S. population has tried a latte in their lifetime. Many of us also tend to think that trends are “over,” even as they continue to grow. Kale, for instance, is still going strong. It grew nearly 20% on menus in the last year alone and it’s on about 15% of U.S. menus overall, so there is still room to grow.
If you feel like food trends like kale are moving faster, you’re right. At Datassential we track trends on our Menu Adoption Cycle (MAC), which starts in Inception and moves through three more stages to Ubiquity. While it used to take about 12 years to move through the entire MAC (and not everything makes it all the way through), that timeline is being trimmed in half, to just 6 years, due to demographic changes, technology, urbanization, and the overall interest in food culture.
If you are interested in researching these topics after you graduate, there are a wide range of companies and organizations across the country and, increasingly, around the world that study every facet of our food culture and choices. In fact, the industry needs more gastronomy students who have that unique mix of curiosity, research and analytical experience, and passion for food. If you have any questions about the industry or opportunities, feel free to email me.
Mike Kostyo, Senior Publications Manager at Datassential