Donna Berry 2019CHICAGO — The Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network hosted a hands-on, interactive “taste the trends” event on April 4 at the new Chicago location of Kitchen United. The Pasadena, Calif.-based company provides restaurant brands a turnkey, capital-light way to expand their reach to the off-premise diner. Produced in partnership with Datassential and the Research Chefs Association, the event gave participants an inside look to the trends driving culinary innovation and then had the opportunity to walk the kitchens, meet the chefs and sample the ideas that may propel eating and drinking in the coming year.

Healthy functional and plant based are the two arching trends in today’s food culture, said Jennifer Aranas, chef and senior account manager at Datassential. Three-fourths of operators currently offer products characterized as superfoods or functional foods on their menu. Menu-growth leaders in the past four years include kale, turmeric and grass-fed beef. And one of the hottest menu concepts is the poke bowl, showing 167% growth on menus in the past four years.

Ms. Aranas said that even with the buzz around plant-based foods, most consumers remain unrestricted meat eaters; however, 57% of consumers say they are trying to eat more plant protein. More than half (55%) of consumers love steak. Only 6% love tofu.

“Only 2% of U.S. consumers are vegan and 5% claim to be vegetarian,” she said. “These numbers have not changed much over the years.”

Jennifer Aranas, chef and senior account manager, Datassential

And while 71% are omnivores, 22% describe themselves as flexitarian. That’s where the change has occurred in eating habits.

“Vegetarian foods aren’t just for vegetarians,” she said. “Many just want to do it every now and then.

“They want to be healthy, but they also hate sacrifice. Plant-based works only if it’s crave-worthy.”

That is what some of the chefs during the tasting session tried to create. Chef Jaime Mestan, director of bistro products, Vienna Beef, Chicago, served plant-based chili complete with all the toppings, all plant-based, of course.

Tom Leo, corporate executive chef, Grecian Delight, Elk Grove Village, Ill., created bite-size falafel fritters. Participants had their choice of topping: hummus whipped with olive oil or the company’s award-winning spicy four pepper cilantro and garlic sauce.

Part of crave-worthy is flavor adventure, Ms. Aranas said. She identified Middle Eastern flavors as the “it” tastes of the times. This includes foods such as hummus, falafel, labneh, tahini and shawarma, as well as Middle Eastern seasonings, namely sumac, Aleppo and za’atar.

Eric Clark, special events chef, U.S. Foods

Fusion cuisine has become the norm, she said.

“New American used to be ‘California,’ ‘French,’ ‘nouvelle’ and ‘farm-to-table,’” she said. “New American today is all about experiences. Ethnic is simply American.”

For meat lovers looking for flavor fusion adventure, John Draz, executive research chef, Ed Miniat L.L.C., South Holland, Ill., served lamb birria tacos.

Eric Clark, special events chef, U.S. Foods, Rosemont, Ill., served a sustainable shrimp roll made with Argentine red shrimp and harissa paste.

Each of the chefs used the Kitchen United space to create their dishes. The new facility officially opened a few days later, fully rented out to 12 restaurant partners occupying a total of 19,000 square feet.

“The Chicago restaurant scene is booming,” said Craig Cochrane, executive vice-president of marketing at Kitchen United. “We provide restaurants a way to grow their market presence with a value driven, low-risk way to expand their business through delivery, catering and takeout. Through our data-driven approach, we identify the most promising locations for our kitchen centers, and therefore our restaurant partners, aggregating insights on demographics, income levels and cuisine-specific demand, as well as drive time, traffic patterns and other data to ensure restaurant partners have the best possible opportunity for success.”

John Draz, executive research chef, Ed Miniat L.L.C.

Each restaurant gets its own dedicated four-wall space for its staff. Kitchen United team members distribute orders from its pick-up center.

“Like our other kitchen centers, the Chicago location will help restaurant operators maximize off-premise orders and alleviate some of the chaos and congestion delivery can cause in a traditional restaurant set-up,” Mr. Cochrane said.

Alan Reed, executive director of the Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network, said, “Kitchen United and other kitchen spaces deliver on the growing and changing restaurant and food service industry by providing new options for growth. For example, as restaurant delivery (through GrubHub or other methods) and meal kits/delivery trends continue to increase, restaurants — or operators that don’t even have a storefront — can efficiently scale to meet consumers’ need for convenient food.”