The business world doesn’t have to be a bore, especially if you’re working in the business of food. Just ask Amanda Topper, the Associate Director of Foodservice Research at Mintel. Her whole world revolves around food, from her day job to her evening hobbies. I spoke with this restaurant expert to find out how she entered the food scene, and to scope out food trends for 2017.
Spoon: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Amanda: I work full time as a restaurant industry analyst at Mintel, predicting trends in the foodservice industry and helping clients (including restaurant operators, suppliers, agencies, etc.), understand what's next. I focus on generational consumer behavior – in particular Millennials. I am also a food blogger and social media influencer, and have been writing my blog The Ghost Guest since 2010. My blog features restaurant reviews (mostly in Chicago, but also when I travel) and was originally started as an undercover dining blog.
I also work as a freelance food writer. I received my Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology, Sociology, and Business from Indiana University-Bloomington, as well as a Certificate in Principles of Marketing Research from the University of Georgia. Now, I spend my nights going to restaurant openings, trying new menus, and scouting food trends which I document on my Instagram (@amandatopper).
Spoon: How did you transition from a degree in psychology, sociology, and business to a career in market research and writing?
Amanda: I always knew I wanted to go into marketing and analyzing consumer behavior. Studying sociology and psychology helped in understanding people’s behavior, and the business major came into play with research.
Spoon: What goes into predicting consumer behavior for a group like Millennials?
Amanda: Mintel researches different categories of restaurants like fast casual, fast food, and fine dining. We see what makes Millennials choose what to order off the menu, how they decide where to eat, how often, etc. We then analyze this data to see overarching trends in Millennials’ behavior towards food.
Spoon: What first drew you to your career in the food industry?
Amanda: In my first marketing job at Edelman I fell into working with consumer packaged goods and food. I also started my food blog at this time, because I wanted to capture my dining experiences in Chicago. Having the career experience in market research and the topic experience with food and restaurants set me up for my current position at Mintel.
Spoon: Your writing is focused on the Chicago area. What is special about this city?
Amanda: I grew up in the Chicago area all of my life. My friends and family are here, and Chicago is now being recognized as a world class food scene so it's the best of both worlds. Chicago has a huge food scene, and there is always a new restaurant or dish to try. Even though I started my blog six years ago, I am not even close to running out of new places to go.
Spoon: What is your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
Amanda: Bavette’s. It is a French-influence steakhouse in the River North area. Their main specialty is steaks of course, but they also have amazing seafood, appetizers, and desserts. I go there mostly for celebratory occasions, to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries.
#SpoonTip: Bavette’s has a word-of-mouth BYOB policy. They don’t charge a corkage fee, but the catch is you have to share a glass with someone else in the restaurant.
Spoon: If you were hosting a dinner for your favorite influential women, who would you invite?
Amanda: The Barefoot Contessa (Ina Garten), Chrissy Teigen, Chicago food critic Penny Pollack, and Alice Waters, founder of the farm to table movement! Each of these women represent various aspects of the food industry and would certainly make for a dynamic dinner!
Spoon: The Sugar and Spice Summit this April is focused on bringing influential female food industry professionals to speak to undergrads at Northwestern. What is some initial advice you would give them about pursuing careers in the food industry?
Amanda: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting into the food industry. Stay mindful of the evolving scene. In the past few years there has been a huge shift away from longer form pieces and toward short form writing. I would advise to keep in mind the changing landscape of content creation – people are moving more towards video and photography. Also, don’t be afraid to dabble in different areas! Start a food Instagram or a blog, or do some side writing, just ensure what you’re doing is bringing something unique to the table.
Spoon: What food trends can you see for 2017?
Amanda: One is the increased focus on vegetables! They are no longer just a complement to a meat-heavy dish, they are becoming the main attraction. Chefs are getting really creative with how to make veggies exciting and delicious to eat. This emphasis on vegetables is related to a shift towards reducing food waste by up-cycling previously thrown out ingredients. For example, instead of throwing away the top of a carrot, it is now used as a cocktail garnish or even as an ingredient in pesto.
Spoon: What advice would you give to your college self?
Amanda: If you have an idea, go for it. You never know what is going happen, so continue to do what you are passionate about. I had no idea six years ago that food blogs would become so popular. If you find something that intrigues you, go for it.