CHICAGO — Cupcake A.T.M.s, ingredient delivery businesses and other new forms of food service threaten to eat the restaurant industry’s lunch. To stay relevant in an evolving landscape, operators are embracing demand for technology, complex flavors, simple menus and customization.
“Consumer customization is not new, but it continues to be a strong driver,” said Mary Chapman, senior director of product innovation at Chicago-based Technomic, Inc., in an interview with Food Business News. “Customers want it how they want it, when they want it. Customization revolves around health, portion size, locations — whether it’s from retail or a restaurant or both — what they’re going to share and what they’re not.”
To develop its annual list of trend forecasts for the coming year, Technomic editors and analysts collect and share insights based on menu data and consumer research.
Ten trends set to revolutionize restaurants in 2015 reflect an appetite for local ingredients, exotic cuisine and craftsmanship.
Photogenic fare is in focus, as more restaurants encourage customers to snap and share images of a meal.
“There are some brands that even will have promotions around posting pictures on Instagram or Pinterest to get people taking more pictures,” Ms. Chapman said. “Shake Shack encourages customers to post on their Twitter feed and their Facebook, and their food looks delicious. It very well may be they are consciously aware that you’re not just throwing hamburgers together; you’re building something somebody’s going to look at.”
Less is more
Restaurant operators are downsizing dishes and whittling menus to appeal to consumer tastes for petite portions and quality over quantity.
“We’ve seen year-over-year that the number of menu items from the biggest chains down to independent operators, the number is down by about 3%,” Ms. Chapman said. “Which doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but in the past the number of menu items has only gone up. It’s because margins are so thin, and it’s harder to do more things well. So if you focus on what you do best and what consumers want most and what the best margins are, you have a better chance of having a successful bottom line. Also, restaurants see places like Chipotle and other menu specialists that are doing really well, so why have a 10-page menu when here’s this other chain that offers a lot of options with a really focused menu?”
Fresh-focused vending machines, doorstep ingredient delivery and other new forms of food service may snag share from the restaurant industry.
“Amazon is in the fresh food game; what is that going to look like?” Ms. Chapman said. “Over the long term, food service has been taking retail dollars, but retail has come back. We’re seeing supermarkets, especially their prepared foods growth, outpacing that of the restaurant industry. As that happens and as alternative services take little tastes here and there of the market, I think they’re going to take a little bit of share.”
While craft cocktails and flavorful spirits raise the bar on drink menus, handcrafted sodas, custom juices and premium teas also are making a splash. This year, Starbucks introduced its Fizzio craft sodas in select markets, and Jamba Juice debuted pressed-to-order juicing in its shops.
“There’s a pairing aspect, even if it’s just a soda,” Ms. Chapman noted. “Those Coke and Pepsi customizable machines are fun and add an element to the experience of a quick-service visit. And of course, anytime you add a beverage, you raise your check and improve your margin.”
The next wave of Asian cuisine brings Korean fare, mainstream Vietnamese, upscale ramen and Asian street food.
“We’ve had an Asian trend on our ‘trends to watch’ lists for years because there’s always something new or emerging or moving to the mainstream,” Ms. Chapman said. “Which is where we’re seeing Korean and Vietnamese. The Korean barbecue tacos were kind of foodie and fun, but now we’re seeing a mainstream chain like California Tortilla has a Korean barbecue burrito. Kind of lesser known Asian flavors are moving right behind Thai and Japanese and Chinese before that.”
Betting on bitter
Brace your taste buds for darker coffees and chocolates, hoppy ales and collard greens, on the heels of trendy kale and Brussels sprouts.
Delivering on demand for sharper flavors, Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons introduced dark roast coffees this year.
“We’ve learned that customers like these flavors, so what can we do next with them?” Ms. Chapman said. “Just like we saw with spice and sour last year and this year with ‘how extreme can we get,’ now do we want more hoppy beers, do we want the bittersweet chocolate to get a little more bitter? We have a recent report that looks at dessert trends in independent restaurants, and we saw that dark chocolate incidence is up 5% year-over-year in desserts. So, even in desserts, which is something you typically think of as sweet, people want those bitter flavors.”
More restaurants are offering gluten-free, vegan and paleo-friendly options as part of a meal. Noodles & Co., for example, indicates on its menu which components of a dish are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, reduced-calorie, low in sodium and low in fat so diners may customize meals based on dietary needs. To broaden its appeal to vegetarian and vegan consumers, Chipotle Mexican Grill this year expanded its availability of sofritas, a braised tofu option for burritos and bowls.
Closer to home
House-purified water, regional seafood and local brews feed into the burgeoning locavore movement. In response to an anti-chain sentiment, operators are fine-tuning restaurant concepts to feed local demand.
Even McDonald’s is endeavoring to enhance its local relevance. The chain recently revealed plans to offer regional markets the opportunity to introduce menu items and ingredients with local tastes, such as a chorizo burrito or mozzarella sticks.
“As consumers demand more and more transparency around what they’re eating and are attracted to more local products, it’s hard to be a chain in that atmosphere,” Ms. Chapman said.
Corporate social responsibility has evolved to embrace employee welfare and a fair treatment of farmers.
“Chipotle certainly is a leader in making sure their tomatoes and lettuce, for example, come from places where the employees are treated well and paid fairly,” Ms. Chapman said. “On the employee side, Starbucks is getting credit for giving scholarships to employees and has long been known for giving benefits that aren’t typical in fast-food for even their part-time workers. As corporate responsibility perceptions change, we’re seeing the people aspect only going to get more significant.”
Here comes Generation Z
The emergence of tech-savvy, overstimulated Generation Z creates a new challenge for operators. To entice the demographic, restaurants may need to deliver a speedier and more heightened experience while remaining true to the traditional needs of older consumers.“They have a lot of the same expectations millennials have around customization and social experiences and having things when and where they want it,” Ms. Chapman said. “We’re just starting to learn about them. I think the challenge is we don’t know enough.”