You familiar with Panera Bread or Five Guys? Ever visit a food truck? Each kind of business represents a part of the fastest-growing segment of the dining industry, known as “fast-casual.”
The premise is simple: a step above “traditional,” expected fast-food, but not the kind of sit-down experience you receive at restaurants. No servers. Relatively little fuss. In essence, it’s a way to create a more direct connection between customer and choice, even if that literally means taking out a middleman to put you and the creator of your food face-to-face.
What’s worth noticing about the increased attention and interest of this format of consumption is how it can also be part of broader social trends. It’s an extension of what the past decade has offered entrepreneurs and consumers in the wake of the Great Recession. New ways to approach how we give and receive goods and services.
The rise of fast-casual may not be unique to the 21st century, but it’s prominence in our preferences – creating gastro-social bonds we thought lost in the gluttony of early aughts dining – showcases a new awareness of who we want to be as eaters and drinkers. In phases of our lives, we’re searching for stronger connections to what’s around us, all the while inching ourselves back to avoid the harm that comes from too much personal investment. Get what you want, feel it’s coming from a trustworthy source, and complete the transaction.
Is it a behavior influenced by our experience of financial turmoil just years ago? Is it due to our changing relationships in the real and digital world? Whatever the reason, at least the common thread weaving these and other possible answers together is that as human beings, we’re trying to find ways to make connections.
What piqued my curiosity about “fast-casual” is its presentation. An American Capitalist version may be something like Chipotle, but the example found in cities around the world is the street market. It can be loud, it can be vulgar, but above all else, it can be presented as real. The rise in popularity of these kinds of centers – and their eventual commercialization – highlights something we search for more and more through our consumption, whether food and drink or the “reality” on our TV. The theme of “fast-casual” and its fit within our daily effort of finding “real” can be seen elsewhere.
The uniqueness of our current cultural structure – made more prominent by the social, psychological and economic changes spurred by the Great Recession – is the difficulty with which we find direction in our pursuits. Rather than a lack of options, we are presented with more than we have in decades – perhaps ever. “Do what you love!” is now a rallying cry for all the ways we’re supposed to consider personal and professional growth.
The emphasis placed on lifestyle and professional possibilities has never been so varied, making it possible to do so much, sometimes out of necessity. The entrepreneurial spirit praised as an outcome of the economic anxieties from the start of this decade has made it such that with so many directions possible, it can be harder to choose which one is the right path. Or take many, weakening the directional fortitude of our self-guidance.
This creates a lack of monoculture – shared experiences that bind us together. At the same time we’re told to be individualistic and find what matters to us, the action can also cut us off. Because of this new process, it becomes easier to conform to aspects of our basic human nature. While our attention may go outward to the many potentials we see in front of us – and the difficulty of choosing one over another – our mentality has an easy path to recede inward to what we know through emotional context: greed, vanity, jealousy, and more. A decreasing number of everyday connections increases the individualized process of trying to find them again.
In an interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Chuck Klosterman examines aspects of this phenomena, pointing to the public outcry following celebrity deaths.
“…we now need these celebrity deaths to have shared experiences. That’s the only way that people can know we’re all having the same emotional exchange at the same time.”
He continued: “When Prince dies or David Bowie or Lemmy dies it just sort of gives people this ability to openly emote about it, you don’t even have to necessarily have had thought about [the deceased celebrity] for 15 years.”
As much as we’re able to grow and mature in this new, self-driven world, the societal constructs that shape our interactions with others and pop culture is forcing us to also find greater connections to qualities of independence that make us feel a need to prove our worth, whether to ourselves or others, digital and real.
It’s all compounded by our shrinking attention span, which is, depending on your willingness to accept the scientific process, at a measly eight seconds. “The true scarce commodity” of the near future, says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, is “human attention.”
Which means that increasingly, the value we place on things is through cultivating experiences, which can be good and bad, rewarding and hindering. The ticking culture we’ve created through digital platforms – social media apps, online forums, etc. – is simply another way for us to try and recapture the humanity we see as important, aided by “likes” and “favorites.” In beer, this is easily found through the proclivity of use on sites like RateBeer, Beer Advocate and Untappd, where we’re able to prove our worth first through the beers we choose to publicly display, then provide our ratings and thoughts, showing our curated collection of friends how and why our opinion matters.
Worst of all, the cyclical process only emphasizes the benefit and cost of the accumulation of data as a social tool. If we’re less able to concentrate or remember our experiences and preferences, having a log of what things were and how we felt about them is now our connection to the past. It’s an easy reference point from which we can share that long forgotten emotional response to show that it was there in the first place.
But this is not all bad. Our search for authenticity – in what we consume and do – provides us opportunities to connect with the things we love and other people who hold dear similar interests and values. This emotional effort manifests in a physical way.
In beer, as with so many other communities, there are tangible, real life outcomes that arise from an appreciation of a singular thing. At a time when other areas of our lives evolve and change, altering years of built up social and personal expectations, it’s something that can bring us back together. No matter how fleeting, that’s worth embracing.
I have no idea what just happened here. But it’s a blog, so let’s run with it.
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac
Header image via pastormattrichard.com