Trends & Insights

Trend Watch: Build-Your-Own Concepts

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Sally Albright was a trendsetter. When ordering in a restaurant, she knew what she wanted and how she wanted it prepared. 

The hit romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally provided moviegoers with lots of laughs, but who knew that back in 1989, Sally was imparting valuable insight to restauranteurs? Menus – no matter how extensive – don’t always satisfy consumer preferences.

Outside of self-service buffets and salad bars, substituting a side dish, holding the tomato or asking for a dish blackened characterized the level of menu customization to which consumers used to be accustomed. Today, consumers revel in their ability to build their meal from what is typically a fairly simple menu.

Sometimes referred to as the “Subway model” or the “Chipotle style” of service, sales growth of these build-your-own formats – where customers move down a line, customizing their meals at each step – has outpaced that of the entire restaurant industry nearly 6:1, a stat revealed by food industry research and consulting firm Technomic in 2015.

Subway quietly surpassed McDonald’s in 2010 to become the largest fast food chain worldwide thanks to decades of build-your-own success. While other sandwich shops caught on and have replicated Subway’s ordering format, this type of restaurant model is being applied to many types of cuisines – from pizzas to burritos, sushi rolls to salads. No matter the fare, the build-your-own approach offers customers three distinct qualities: fresh-made appeal, variety and control.

Fresh-made appeal: With selections of colorful ingredients (that imply freshness) on full display, consumers appreciate that their meals are assembled in front of their very eyes, alleviating any concern that the meal was prepared earlier in the day and growing stale under a warmer.

Variety: Even the pickiest eaters appreciate the plethora of choices for the taking at a build-your-own counter. Despite the limited core offerings for these establishments – whether subs, burritos, pizzas, rice bowls or some other base for the DIY concept – consumers’ ability to mix and match toppings makes the menu feel infinite.

Control: Building a meal – and viewing its assembly – means no surprises. It’s made to order and ingredients selection and other specifications (e.g. extra cheese and light onion) put consumers in control. And when adhering to a specific diet – whether avoiding meat, carbohydrates, gluten, etc. – this uncomplicated format caters to consumers without making them feel high-maintenance.

Bottom line, whether quick-service or fast-casual, expect continued growth of the build-your-own concept in foodservice operations in the coming years. The “my way” mentality and value placed on transparency by the millennial generation is a key driver of this trend and will continue to push the industry into exploring more customer-centric dining solutions.   

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