2016 Restaurant Trends Imagined

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What’s trending – or likely to be this year – in the U.S. restaurant industry? Marina Mayer, Editor-in-Chief of Refrigerated & Frozen Foods magazine, has some thoughts on that. Early last month, she published them.

Her predictions include:

  • The Sriracha effect – “Chefs are scouting the world for other assertive flavorings to employ” in ways similar to the movement, over the past couple of years, of a flavorful, not-particularly-healthy sauce (too much salt; too much potassium, particularly for the 10% of U.S. adults with with Chronic Kidney Disease [CKD]) from ethnic environments onto table tops in all sorts of middling-taste restaurants;
  • Elevating peasant fare – She cites long-time-favorites meatballs and sausage as up-and-comers, along with ‘multi-ethnic dumplings, from pierogis to bao buns’;
  • Trash to treasure – Meaning that rising meat prices (even as the popularity of red meat falls off) will lead to more consumption of ‘under-utilized stewing cuts, organ meats and “trash” species of fish’. She also sees the trash to treasure movement extending to such exciting new side-of-the-plate items as “a veggie burger made with carrot pulp from the juicer”;
  • Burned – She sees ‘smoke and fire’ [are] showing up everywhere on the menu – in charred or roasted vegetable sides,  in desserts with charred fruits or burnt-sugar toppings, in cocktails featuring smoked salt, smoked ice or smoky syrups.” (Not anywhere I eat, you don’t!);
  • Negative on GMOs – She imagines some diners will seek out eateries advertising themselves as GMO-free while others demand GMO labeling on menus. Either will, if either of those trend predictions has legs, prove to be “a big issue for the supply chain,” she says, since many crops have been modified to increase productivity.” (Fortunately, there’s a growing tendency in some areas for field crop farmers to employ off-season cover crops to naturally replenish their soil and increase productivity that way, even as they reduce the use of fertilizers and soil additives.);
  • Modernizing the supply chain – This, she says, is a multi-pronged issue: On one hand, “climate destabilization, mutating pathogens and rising transport costs, among other challenges, will lead to increasingly frequent stresses on the food supply chain.” At the same time, “consumer demand for ‘fresh’ and ‘local’ fare [will] also challenge a distribution system based on consolidation, centralization, large drop sizes and long shelf life.” More than likely, she hit that one on the head – except for the ‘rising transport costs’ issue: With oil prices having dropped by 50% in the past year or so, both road and rail transport costs should have dropped, not gone the other direction. If they haven’t, some producers and recipients of long- and short-hauled food need to be applying some pressure where it’s needed – on their transporters!
  • Fast food refresh – She anticipates consumers gravitating to ‘better’ fast food – “QSR plus” concepts, as she puts it, “with fresher menus and bright units [exploiting] a price niche between fast food and fast casual.” She also sees more ‘build your own’ formats “springing up in more and more categories [and] more and more quick-service eateries adding amenities like alcohol.” There is, of course, good money to be made with alcohol sales, but there are high insurance costs associated with that business; And there’s the risk that if yours has a reputation as a ‘family friendly’ place, the mere presence of alcohol could put off some of your best customers. An interesting compromise to be attempted soon by a new restaurant in my town is to get the insurance then offer a BYO wine opportunity – but no beer or wine table service. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.
  • Year of the worker – Mayer sees mandates to boost minimum wages reverberating up and down the workforce, with experienced staffers seeking more, in proportion to less-experienced colleagues. She also anticipates already-hard-to-find skilled workers becoming more scarce, and lower-level workers being replaced by automation in the back of the house and technology in the front of the house. (So long as restaurants steer clear of the ‘Bionic Bar’ concept launched recently on Royal Caribbean’s Anthem-of-the-Sea, one of the world’s largest-ever cruise ships. The Bionic Bar features drinks mixed by a pair of robot arms. A New York Times story said many passengers were underwhelmed by their taste compared to human-prepared drinks.) She also anticipates companies will devote more resources and attention to training and retention.
  • The delivery revolution – Mayer says “proliferating order-and-pay apps and third-party online order and delivery services make ‘dining in’ easier than ever.” Not quite true: As long ago as the late 1960’s, a Greenwich Village restaurant took phone orders for and delivered, piping hot, a splendid steak dinner (with baked potato and salad) accompanied by a patented device called The Korker, a corkscrew substitute – for roughly eight 1960’s dollars per person! Nothing offered today could be easier, and it would be hard to top the quality and service of that long-ago restaurant named Dan Stampler’s Steak Joint. a NYC favorite for 25 years.

Before taking over as Editor-in-Chief of Refrigerated & Frozen Foods, Marina Mayer spend four years as managing editor and executive editor of Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery and Dairy Foods magazines. I wrote for the latter, and a predecessor of the former, in the 1980’s.

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