Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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Guest Commentary: The Social Changes in Dining Habits

September 2nd, 2011 · No Comments

1960's dining room in Chicago - far removed from today's dining scene. /photo courtesy chuckman.com

By Michael Bennett, guest columnist

When you think about it, we will never dine again like we did a decade ago.

With the generational gap between the 70’s counter culture people  – the Boomers – that demanded uber-chic foods from their restaurants in the 1980’s – to today’s diners – the Y-generation that has lived through multiple economic down-turns and a social revolution over the past two decades; our current dining clientele have no idea what opulent dining should be.

Price point, instant service the goal

The dining populace today is looking for dwindling prices and bold flavors. They are not looking for superior products that are well thought-out in rich visual appeal; it has to be instantaneous and scrumptious without drawn-out service attributes. The dining public that insisted on a 2½ hour dining experience is long gone. Those people are now investing their disposable income on supporting their aging parents, instead of treating themselves to an evening of culinary bliss.

There is one avenue in culinary field that is growing in affluence and totality: the gourmet food market segment. Companies such as Wild Oats, Whole Foods and The Fresh Market continue to grow, and are more popular today than anyone could have imagined in the beginning of the 1990s.

It’s the result of the Boomers treating themselves to superlative foods at home, rather than going out for fine dining. Their teen-age kids are being brought up expecting that this the norm. This procurement practice learned before they leave to go to college seems like it will transverse to the next generation unlike, fine dining of the 1980’s.

Are they the future?

Gourmet markets flaunting the highest quality cheeses from Europe, olive oils from around the Mediterranean, prime-aged meats and fresh locally harvested seafood abound in and around South Florida. Home-grown gourmet markets budded from long-standing family-owned local food markets. These markets over the decades saw that as their clientele gained esteem through their occupations, so did their need to live prestigiously at home. Coupled with the lack of formal dining out of the home and the need to still treat oneself, metropolitan gourmet markets flourish.

Look across the Southern United States, where retiring Boomers are now settling for a quite retirement from the rat race and you can see there is an increasing demand for gourmet and time-saving prepared food markets. Looking across Florida, Arizona and Texas, gourmet markets like: Epicure, Norman Brother’s, Gardener’s (all in Miami), Fernanda’s and Doris markets in Fort Lauderdale and Carmine’s of Palm Beach, Rice Epicurean and Eatzies in Houston and Dallas, Central Market in San Antonio, Texas, AJ’s fine foods in Phoenix, have been blossoming in popularity and scope.

I can remember going shopping downtown to the only place in Fort Lauderdale that sells deCecco pasta, Fernanda’s, with my grandmother in the 1970s. This is the way it starts for generational cooking at home. The Boomers have already indoctrinated their college aged kids to expect these markets to fulfill their needs for their future.

Boomers retire, but their tastes don’t

It has been a long journey for the family markets but, this segment is expanding faster than most other segment of the food service spectrum.

“We have seen the growth in sales rise ever since the Boomers started to retire”, a gourmet store manager told me. In the Tampa and Sarasota area of the Florida’s West Coast, there is up and coming places like Surf and Turf Market, and Morton’s that have broken away from the mom and pop attitude to roasted-in-house gourmet coffee beans, supply in-house prepared entire Home Meal Replacements, dedicate a major part of the floor space to European cheeses and charcuteire that until recently unattainable in most of the United States.

A new social scene

A newly unexpected social scene for Boomers occur at these gourmet markets. Not only do people linger long at their favorite markets, purchasing specialty foods for dinner, shopping has become a see-and-be-seen sport. It has become universal rationale to go to your favorite gourmet market to spend the afternoon socializing with friends. Today’s Boomer social customs have changed from the “Me generation” to the “We generation”.

The Internet and these markets are now the new siscos for the We Generation. We all want to be interconnected with others, it’s a social thing. The We society as a whole went through many stages.

First it was TV, then cable and i’s broadcasting of specific aspects of the social realm. Cable news brought us together as a country. Thanks to CNN, we know as much of what is happening in California and New York as around the city in which we live. MTv quickly spread to young Americans the urban sounds that they never would have heard locally in their own rural part of the country.

The rapid spread of cable’s cooking shows have led us to become food voyeurs, watching shows and their hosts that we would have previously would only have known from reading their cookbooks. No one has to look far for lessons on any food subject.

Now, the Internet has become the No. 1 outlet for information and our new interconnect-ability.

In the digital world, everyone can be a star as long as they can reach a dedicated viewership. Our Boomer community feels this immediacy brings more interconnectivity on a personal basis while scanning their favorite sites. By opting-in to blogs and YouTube videos specific to our own wants, the social inter-connection is growing stronger. We can choose to interact with other cooks online, or watch favorites from our computers now sitting on our kitchen counters.

It’s a new age in dining – and where will the next generation get its food information? Time will tell.

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Chef Michael Bennett is chef at the Bimini Boatyard in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is the author of In the Land of Misfits, Pirates and Cooks, Underneath a Cloudless Sky and Culture of Cuisine.

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