2016 Annual Meat Conference
The Annual Meat Conference is being held in Nashville from Feb. 21-23.

NASHVILLE – Jack Li, managing director for Datassential, put it plain and simple – “Food trends start in food service.” Speaking at the Annual Meat Conference on Feb. 21 in a session titled, “Consumer Trends – Driving Meat Innovation,” Mr. Li explained how his company analyzes food trends and helps those in the food business identify what the next big trend might be.

Jack Li, Datassential
Jack Li, managing director for Datassential

“Even though a lot of you retailers might not want to admit this, looking at menus is a great way to see what the next big thing will be,” Mr. Li said.

Mr. Li was closing general session speaker at the Meat Conference, taking place at the Gaylord Opryland Convention Center through Feb. 23. The conference is hosted annually by the Food Marketing Institute and the North American Meat Institute.

Mr. Li’s presentation explained what he calls the menu adoption cycle (M.A.C.), a four-stage cycle that trending foods go through. Knowing what stage of the cycle the food is in can help determine whether to start offering the item or wait until its popularity increases.

The first stage is inception. These new foods are typically found at fine dining establishments and ethnic independent restaurants on the food service level and in ethnic grocers at retail. Some current examples are branzino, chicharrones and nduja sausage.

Chicharrones, fried pork belly
Chicharrones, also known as fried pork belly, is in the inception stage, according to Mr. Li.

Seventy per cent of these food trends will disappear after this stage, Mr. Li said, adding: “Sometimes it’s because it’s just too weird.”

The next stage is adoption. “If a food moves to this stage, it has some legs,” Mr. Li said. These foods may be found in food trucks, fast-casual dining and casual dining establishments. They may also find their way into specialty grocers and gourmet food retailers. Porchetta and pancetta are current examples in the adoption cycle.

Porchetta dish
Porchetta is an example of a food in the adoption cycle.

After adoption comes proliferation. “This means pretty much everyone is doing it now,” Mr. Li said. You’ll find the food item in casual dining, Q.S.R. and even lodging restaurants. At retail, traditional grocery stores, mass merchandisers and club stores may all carry the item. One current example is brisket.

Finally, the food item reaches the ubiquity cycle, “where it’s pretty much run its course,” Mr. Li explained. The food may be found everywhere, even in schools, at convenience stores, in the frozen food aisle and in drug and dollar stores.

“The inception and adoption stages are all about excitement – that’s where all the buzz is,” Mr. Li said. “But stages 3 and 4 have all the volume. You have to find a balance of both.”

Mr. Li further explained that when consumers buy meat they aren’t buying just a pork chop or a chicken breast; rather they are buying that meat because of what they can do with it. “Fifty-seven per cent of raw meat is purchased with a specific recipe or application in mind,” Mr. Li said.

To reach consumers at retail, Mr. Li suggests talking to consumers about what they’re going to do with the product they buy. Think about the application.

And when trying to mimic trends at food service, it’s important to use local flavors and foods to connect with the consumers.

“Use hyper local strategies," Mr. Li said. "Don’t just offer regional items; offer local items.”

Mr. Li said the Midwest cities (like Chicago and St. Louis) aren’t the same when it comes to the foods that make each of those cities unique.

“Retailers need to consider local tastes when marketing to their consumers,” he said.