McDonald’s salads and wraps, Taco Bell’s low fat Fresco menu—when did fast food chains start caring about healthy food? The simple answer is: When we did.

These brands are adapting to survive in a consumer landscape that has pivoted away from cheap, quality-compromised meals towards food that is fresher, healthier, and responsibly sourced. This is the age of information, and customers want to know the story behind what’s on their plates: where did it come from, what’s in it, and what did it go through to arrive here?

The desire to know our food isn’t driven solely by health and weight-loss concerns; as production and processing has become more industrialized and opaque, we’re yearning for “real” food—wholesome, natural, and still recognizably the animal or plant it once was.


Mcdonald’s Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Crispy Chicken clocks in at 380 calories without salad dressing (Photo: McDonald’s)

This kind of consumer consciousness—spearheaded by, but no longer limited to, the Farm to Table movement—has changed the baseline expectations of diners at the supermarket checkout and the fast food line. Established brands that have embraced this are reaping the benefits; Chipotle’s stock is at an all time high, and the fast-casual chain anticipates adding 195 new restaurants by year’s end, reports CNN.

By contrast, Ad Age points to TGI Friday’s current $10 endless appetizer promotion as an example of a floundering company failing to understand new market demands. “Instead of pushing a better product, the brand continues to push a lower price,” a strategy that some analysts think will not only fail to increase revenue, but will irrevocably damage the brand.

Photo: Facebook/TGI Fridays

Loaded Potato Skins with cheddar and bacon are one of the bottomless $10 appetizers on offer at TGI Fridays (Photo: Facebook/TGI Fridays)

Chains like TGI Fridays are losing market share to the growing Farm to Counter sector, a breed of chain outlets that champion quality and freshness over rock-bottom prices. The New York Times cites thriving brands like Tender Greens, LYFE Kitchen, SweetGreen and Native Foods, who offer local ingredients, organic produce, sustainable meat and seafood, seasonally changing menus, vegetarian and vegan-friendly options, and better service and ambience than other chain restaurants.

Chains like TGI Fridays are losing market share to the growing Farm to Counter sector.

Even when we eat in, we’re willing to pay a premium for well-sourced produce and a shopping experience that makes us feel closer to the people who grew our food. For evidence, one need only count increasing number of dinner kits like Blue Apron and Plated, as well as grocery services like FreshDirect and Farmigo who cut out middleman supermarkets and deliver farm produce to your door.

New York’s Greenmarket organization launched its first farmers market in 1976. It now manages 52 markets across the city.

Farmers markets, however, are no longer growing at the rate they once were. Data from the USDA shows that the boom has plateaued, but Vox interprets this not as a sign that consumer demand has waned, but that the market is saturated. Basically, we have all the farmers markets we need, in areas that have the population to support it.

The appetite for fresher, healthier, better food has moved out of the realm of fad and is fast becoming a basic customer expectation. Companies need to adjust to this new reality in the same way they’ve recognized the importance of a strong digital and social presence, or they’ll have a hard time keeping up.