A. Elizabeth Sloan

A downturn in the nation’s economy, the after-effects of 9/11, and an increasingly unsure political situation will likely cause Americans to live more vicariously through food than ever before. Becoming more dependent on their dining experiences for excitement, enjoyment, and entertainment, they will be relentless in their search for inspiring tastes, unique preparations, and eye-pleasing presentations. Here’s a look at some of the food trends for 2002 already underway in restaurants:

Flavor Carriers Favored. Glazes, herbs, marinades, savory sauces, and seasonings are receiving unprecedented culinary attention. According to the Chain Account Menu Survey’s menu analysis of the Top 200 restaurant chains, menu mentions of glazes are up 833% and seasonings 72%. While flavors still lean toward hot and spicy, Thai or Szechwan are the best bets with leaders Caesar, barbecue, buffalo, and cajun.

All Dressed Up. Chefs are increasingly using salad dressings as a flavor carrier for entrees, appetizers, and sandwiches. But watch for a shift in dressing preferences. CAMS Trendsetter Survey, which monitors independent restaurants and smaller chains known to originate menu trends, reports that more than half of their salad dressings are now flavored vinaigrettes (53%), followed by Caesar (18%), blue cheese (7%), and ranch (3%). In the Top 200 chains, Caesar (24%) ranks first, followed by ranch (17%), vinaigrette (13%), and blue cheese (10%).

Veggie Everything. Three types of vegetables stand out as potential growth and signature items based on the Trendspotter restaurant segment: root vegetables, especially, parsnips, leeks, turnips, and beets; Latino/Tropical veggies, such as hearts of palm, yucca, tomatillo, and jicama; and Asian vegetables, especially bokchoy and daikon. Spinach, artichokes, broccoli, eggplant, and zucchini are gaining popularity on pizzas, and house-made veggie chips from plantain to beet are soaring.

Cooking Counts. Cooking techniques as flavor descriptors will continue to score well with diners and cooks alike. CAMS reports toasted, smoked, and sautéed showed growth on menus over the previous year. Grilled remains the leader, with twice as many menu mentions as fried, in second place. Chefs’ interest in slow cooking will move the terms braised, poached, and slow roasted center stage.

Just Desserts. With renewed interest in Americana and comfort foods, it’s not surprising that cobblers and sundaes—up 47% on menus over last year, according to CAMS—have enjoyed renewed attention. Watch for international favorites such as Latin inspired flans, Italian polenta cakes and puddings, and the old French favorite, crème brulee, to make their mainstream debuts.

More Brand Names on Menus. Not including beverage brand names, brand mentions on menus are up 76% in the past two years. Leaders include place of origin, as well as manufactured processor brands.

American Bistro. Now is the time for hearty cooking, cozy surroundings, and casual comfort. Crocks of hearty soups, slow-cooked meats, and crusted breads will again be part of this down-home but sophisticated trend. Pot pies will be an integral part of this trend. Expect sausages to explode in popularity with particular emphasis on veal, lamb, turkey, game, and seafood. Andouille, chorizo, bratwurst, and kielbasa won’t be far behind, and you can expect unprecedented attention to the hot dog, too. The biggest star of all will be the return of standalone cheese courses and fondues.

A Bevy of Beverages. Drinking is in, especially wine, port, beer, and tropical cocktails, and bar menu munchies aren’t far behind. Expect old-fashioned soda-fountain drinks to come on strong.

Flavored Basics. Flavored basics like mayonnaise and oils are beginning to appear on the Top 200 chain menus. In fact, most sandwiches now feature a flavored mayonnaise dressing. Although the numbers are still small, their rate of growth is strong and they most frequently include basil, chili, cilantro, red pepper, sesame, and truffles, according to CAMS. Even cole slaw is growing in popularity with new jalapeño, jicama curry, carrot, and sesame flavors.

Fish up. With raw foods like tuna tartare, steak tartare, and ceviche, cold food is hot. Watch for tender white fishes to gain in popularity, led by skate, roasted, fried, or even tossed with pasta. Watch for creative fish sandwiches to get attention. And then there are steak dishes that are menued not just as entrees.

The greatest growth in menu items over the past two years has been smoothies/freezes (100%), pizza (57%), kids’ menus (26%), fish entrees (19%), breakfast items (16%), and pork entrees (14%). Watch as ethnic influences mingle with American fare, signaling an era of creativity, comfort, and casualness in the year ahead.

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.