The future of food service

by Monica Watrous
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Trends in retail are gaining traction on restaurant menus.

CHICAGO — Consumer expectations are reshaping the food service industry. Demand for convenience, healthful options and local ingredients has given rise to new cuisines and channels. Food Genius, a Chicago-based firm, compiled 10 trends emerging on menus and beyond.

“Our 10 ideas go beyond just the discussion of food to include greater industry trends across the fields of marketing, technology and the consumers’ experience,” said Eli Rosenberg, vice-president of marketing for Food Genius.

From the next big flavors to a shift in consumption habits, Food Genius forecasted what to expect in the coming year.

1. Retail paves the way

Some of the trendiest products in the grocery store, such as Greek yogurt and Nutella, are popping up on menus at mainstream chains. Taco Bell, for example, began testing Greek yogurt parfaits on the breakfast menu, and Fazoli’s offered for a limited time during the summer Nutella cheesecake, featuring the chocolate-hazelnut spread and a chocolate graham cracker crust.

"Another example is with the Doritos Locos Tacos at Taco Bell," Mr. Rosenberg said. "That was a wildly successful product, and we think other C.P.G. companies will be approaching food service operators to try to see if this can strike lighting in the same way."

More fast-food chains are adding mobile apps.

2. Fast-food going mobile

More quick-service restaurants are investing in mobile technology that allows customers to order and pay for food with their smartphones.

Not just a convenience for consumers, mobile apps also deliver loads of consumer data to operators, providing rich marketing opportunities, Food Genius noted.

"Millennials are going to expect the functionality of on-line/mobile ordering and immediate fulfillment because they are being inundated with that concept, from Uber to Instacart to Postmates, and so on," Mr. Rosenberg said.

Retail and restaurant lines are blurring.

3. Food service expanding in grocery stores

Mariano’s, Whole Foods Market and other grocery chains are offering more dine-in options.

Eataly, an Italian market with locations in New York City and Chicago, is a trendy concept that combines restaurant and retail market under one roof.

"This is a huge opportunity for revenue growth and value-add to grocery store consumers," Mr. Rosenberg said. "Grocers will continue to invest and experiment with restaurant-like options for consumers."

4. Pricing strategies refined

Restaurants may reconsider the cost-plus approach in favor of other strategies, such as surge pricing, which means a meal may cost more during peak times.

Sprig, a meal delivery startup, specializes in organic ingredients.

5. Meal delivery gaining momentum

Consumer demand for health and convenience are driving growth for meal delivery startups such as Sprig, which specializes in direct-to-doorstep dinners made with organic and locally sourced produce and free-range, antibiotic-free meat.

6. Arts and crafts

Borrowing from the beer industry’s playbook, big brands are offering items positioned as artisanal, craft and small-batch.

PepsiCo, for example, in October launched a craft bottled soft drink called Caleb’s Kola in select markets, and both Starbucks and Sonic Drive-In recently debuted handcrafted sodas.

7. That’s amore

Authentic Italian cuisine is climbing as provenance becomes a greater priority for consumers. Expect more mentions of specific Italian pastas, sauces and preparation methods on menus as well as an increase in Italian street foods at upscale fast-casual restaurants.

Protein Bar swaps better-for-you ingredients, like Greek yogurt in place of sour cream.

8. Healthful preparation

Better-for-you ingredient swaps and healthful preparation methods are catching on in kitchens.

Protein Bar, a fast-casual chain with locations in Chicago, Colorado and Washington, D.C., uses Greek yogurt instead of sour cream in burritos and chilis.

9. Lunch hour in transition

With more workers eating at their desks, the midday meal may be in transition. Meal delivery services and healthy vending machine operators may emerge to capture this shift in stomach share, Food Genius reported.

Half of customers who order Chipotle's meatless Sofritas option are vegetarians or vegans.

10. Meatless gaining ground

Customization and healthful eating are driving more diversity in eating habits that may translate to an uptick in vegetarian orders.

Executives of Chipotle Mexican Grill said about half of the customers who order the chain’s new braised tofu option identify as vegan or vegetarian.

"Healthy and part-time vegetarian are also closely related, and growth is tied to transparency and trust in the food industry," Mr. Rosenberg said. "Think pink slime, azodicarbonamide, or other stories; consumers have gotten wary, and so to combat their mistrust, they are starting to focus more on healthy options, local food, natural flavors, etc. This is going to continue to be a big focus as menu labeling rules start to get rolled out."

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