Technomic, a foodservice research and consulting firm, has identified trends that may significantly impact the restaurant industry in 2014. These expert insights are based on site visits evaluating the restaurant scene in cities across the country as well as interviews and surveys of operators, chefs, and consumers, backed up by qualitative data from its Digital Resource Library and quantitative data from its MenuMonitor database. Some of these developments reflect larger societal trends while others point to specific, emerging food preferences that may or may not take hold in restaurants across the U.S.
- Convince me it’s real: Consumers want assurances that what they’re eating is real—in every sense of the word. Today’s menus describe items far more thoroughly, listing not only the ingredients but also where they came from and how they were prepared.
- Pushing the parameters of proteins: Rising commodity costs for beef mean that chicken will be big again in 2014. However, the latest protein star is pork—appearing in regional barbecue items, in Hispanic and other ethnic fare, in charcuterie, and as pulled-pork sandwiches.
- Return of the carbs: Starches are staging a comeback—from ramen to buckwheat noodles to pasta made with unusual ingredients. Rice bowls (and jasmine rice, basmati rice, brown rice) will be big, in part because of continued fascination with Asian fare and in part because of an association with healthfulness.
- Creamy, cheesy, high-fat goodness: The demand for healthier eating is real, but so is the backlash. We’ll see even more cheese melts, pasta with creamy sauces, fried appetizers and sides, and oddities like doughnut-based sandwiches.
- Pucker up: Forays into less-familiar ethnic cuisines, from Korean to Scandinavian, are partly responsible for growing interest in pickled, fermented, and sour foods.
- Day for night: Consumers are less likely to eat according to a three-square-meals schedule; they nosh, skip meals, eat breakfast for dinner, and vice versa.
- Every daypart is a snack daypart: As the snacking lifestyle goes mainstream, diners are paradoxically less interested in snack menus per se. Millennials see dollar and dollar-plus menus as the snack menu. Limited-service restaurants are paying more attention to snack-size handhelds and car-friendly packaging; they’re also stepping up their game with grab-and-go or market-style offerings. As full-service restaurant customers move away from meat-and-potatoes meals, operators are catering to the snacking-and-sharing ethos with pairings, trios, and flights from all parts of the menu—from soup trios to beer samplers to retro popsicle-flight desserts.
- On tap: Tap technology is revolutionizing the beverage world: barrel-stored cold-brewed coffee that can be sent through repurposed beer taps, facilitating a new kind of coffee bar; soda-water taps that allow chefs to create their own fruity soft drinks; wine-on-tap tasting stations in high-end supermarkets; keg-wine bar concepts and retrofits; RFID-card-controlled self-serve beer-tap walls at high-tech pubs.
- For fast service, bring your own device: Operators in every segment are finding new ways to use technology for faster, more accurate ordering. iPad orders placed tableside will be a point of differentiation for a few tech leaders, but we’ll primarily see a bring-your-own-device system of advance and inside-the-restaurant ordering.
- Everything is political: Consumers are increasingly aware that the personal is political—that their choices and those of the restaurants they patronize regarding food, treatment of employees and suppliers, sustainability, and the environment have real consequences. Consciously or unconsciously, they will gravitate to concepts that share their worldview, and some restaurants will promote this cultural identification.