Consultants Baum+Whiteman say that a flavor a day keeps recession at bay. Restaurant chains, hotels and smart independents are ramping up their flavor profiles…chucking artificial stuff, exploring whole new worlds of real ingredients...especially at bars. Be ready for snackification in hotel lobbies and fast feeders, old fogey chains doing fast-casual disco dancing, dumbelling at fast feeders—and a bunch of buzzwords for the year ahead.
1. BARS ARE WHERE THE FLAVOR ACTION IS. Looking for future flavors? Keep keen eyes on artisan boozeries. Ambitious bartenders (whose numbers grow exponentially) are infusing vodka and gin…and especially rum…with mango, kiwi and other housemade exotica (even dried fruit) as they stretch the notion of hand-crafted cocktails. Restaurant and hotel chains, straining to step away from bottled and powdered shortcuts, are playing catch-up. To raise their competitive profiles, they’re emphasizing Latin accents.
Because hand-crafting artisan cocktails is slow and labor-intensive, you'll find pre-made barrel-aged cocktails…small batches stored for weeks or even months in old bourbon, rum or sherry barrels where they mellow and absorb butterscotch top-notes inherent in the wood. State laws prohibiting pre-mixing of different boozes are being relaxed or ignored…so this trend is spreading fast. A five- or six-liter batch of Negroni might barrel-age for a few weeks and then sell out in a day or two, taking only seconds to fill a glass. Avant garde bars are batch-carbonating pre-made cocktails…serving them in capped bottles.
All this artisan stuff is expensive, and cocktails are regularly crossing the $15 line, so there’s lots of inflation at the bar. Wines-by-the-glass, too, are galloping in price. An $8 glass once came from an $8 bottle; now we’re seeing $12 glasses from $10 bottles. What recession? And local craft beers, traditionally poured in 16-ounce pints, now come in 14- or 12-ounce glasses. All these oddments give rise to itinerant cocktail consultants working for hotels and hot restaurants around the country, staying on top of local small-batch distilleries and cranking up their inventiveness.
2. SOFT DRINKS BUBBLING. For fast feeders, beverage sales are a big bright spot with growing numbers of snack-time beverage-only sales. The three big gorillas (McD, Dunkin and Starbuck’s) slug it out with every beverage concoction they can devise to slake thirsts. Several bottlers of flavored waters are adding real juice to their products. Behind all this stirring: Consumers are abandoning colas in droves, seeking “fresh” beverages or fruit-flavored carbonates and smoothies with the illusion of health.
New York’s coming ban on monster-size sweetened drinks raises awareness, too. Pepsi sees flavored carbonated drinks outselling colas by 2015. Every fast feeder needs a blended fruit beverage, preferably with healthy herbs and berries, so hibiscus, pomegranate, lemongrass and basil will pop up in mass-market beverages while fruit-flavored iced teas rise among fast food and fast-cas chains. And the chains are learning about flavors from manic bartenders (err, mixologists) noted above. Coming: More genuine juice bars in hotel spas and in hotel breakfast rooms and popup juice bars during midday at otherwise slow drinking places.
3. EVERYONE WANTS TO BE CHIPOTLE—EVEN CHIPOTLE. Consumers are trading down like crazy, bypassing casual dinner houses, leaping from full service restaurants directly to fast-casual formats and sacrificing service but believing the food is still “fresh.” So everyone wants to be the next Chipotle. You'll see fast-cas service systems applied to pizza, fish and chicken, Greek food, noodles, Asian food, hot dogs and taquerias. Because fast-cas concepts seem fresh and new, they’re entry points to sample new ethnic cuisines, especially for millennials. Customizable sushi, Indian-inflected wraps and a banh mi version of Subway are great examples. Hotels are pondering fast-cas takeaway spaces as tablecloth restaurants slump.
But the system by itself isn’t enough. Fast-Cas needs to wear its heart on its sleeve, incorporating not just value, but values. It needs a backstory. Making personal connections with customers is key. What should they know about your food? How can you express it? What do you mean by “transparency?” Where does your bacon come from? What’s your position on sustainability, on recycling, carbon footprint, food miles, genetic modification, gay marriage? These used to be collateral issues, but they’d better be the core of these budding chains, because either they’re selling holistic experiences or they’ll disappear from social media boards.
4. FAST FOOD STRIKES BACK; MORE DUMBELLING. Watch for gilded burgers (guacamole, pineapple, mushrooms, crispy onions, but don’t look for goat cheese), pepped-up sauces, ethnic touches, lots of fancier buns (see McD black-and white buns in China) and a bit more customization. The danger: Fast feeders edging into fast-casual average checks without delivering a fast-cas experience. Too much trading up leaves a hole at the bottom of the market for someone to fill. Minis are bigger: If fits your car’s cup-holder or if you can eat it with one hand, or better yet, two fingers or you can dip it then it’s being tested in chains’ r&d kitchens.
Think: sausage and cake bites, chicken dippers, rolled sandwiches, teeny cinnamon buns, mini shakes. Dashboard dining becomes all-day snacking, a boon to fast feeders. (But wait!: Fast-cas chains will add drive-thru windows to capture some of this biz.) Image-building is critical to getting consumer acceptance for upscale items. So language is changing to “hand-battered,” “artisan” and “premium.”
At Jack in Box more than one in six checks is over $7, while $3 or less accounts for slightly less than one in four checks, so you can see the urge to upscale while keeping bargain prices, too. It’s called “dumbelling” the menu. Also look for more impulse desserts, sweet potato fries and more Italian and Southwest and Latino flavor accents
5. SNACKIFICATION OF AMERICA. We’re eating less at every meal, but more than making up for it with endless snacking and our national waistlines prove it. Snacks account for one in five “eating occasions.” Multiple snacks now qualify as America’s “fourth meal” and even the traditional three are degenerating into nibbles and bits. Reasons vary. Life’s too hectic, you need a pleasure fix or an energy jolt, you missed lunch or you want to chew more than just fat with a co-worker. Greasy fries no longer do the trick. Snacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated—glorified mini-burgers, wraps with exotic fillings and upscale dips are building off-hours bar traffic. You'll see lots more minis showing up at fast food chains, adding impulse revenue to between-meal shoulder hours—cake bits, mini-dippers, teeny shakes (see Fast Food Strikes Back, above).
6. LAWSUITS. Natural. Organic. Artisanal. Local. Claims like these are under intense scrutiny as bloggers, journalists, nutritionists…and of course lawyers are hollering “pants on fire!” Keep your eyes on General Mills and Pepsico suits (among others) over genetically modified ingredients conflicting with “natural” claims and suits against Cabot, Yoplait and other yogurteers over whether their “Greek” yogurt is the real thing. Nutella agreed to label overhaul earlier this year. Look at the Jamba Juice suit over its ingredients and suits against Applebee’s and Brinker over calorie and fat content on their menu labels. These will be the thin end of a wedge as menu labeling laws kick in across the country.
7. BUNDLING GETS BIGGER. Fast food meal bundles are nothing new, they dominate chain menu boards. But since the recession, bundles are getting increasing play at casual dining chains (two for $20). Their objective is to fill seats at any cost and to stem to tide of people trading down. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s an opposite strategy at hot upscale independents—instead of discounting, they’re charging oodles of money. Whole animal or whole bird dinners are expanding, triggered by successful nose-to-tail dinners across the country and, in equal part, by large format meals. Although fairly timid (rarely do you get tongues, kidneys, livers and tails) “dining adventures” are immensely profitable. Chefs know exactly how much to purchase for a pre-ordered table, the kitchen cooks a banquet-style meal, tables get filled at off-hours, waiters don’t juggle complicated orders, and the festive event prompts diners to vastly over-order cocktails and wines. Diners, meanwhile, revel in theatricality and in a carnivore’s delight at digging into an animal, often getting finger-sucking greasy.
8. to 12. SHORT TAKES. Pop-up restaurants and bars with edgy designs and food will focus new attention on hotel dining, energizing formerly dead spaces. And not just on rooftops. You'll see drip-irrigated green walls, costly to maintain, decorating hotel lobbies and some restaurants, too. Next: Edible garden walls. Grilled cheese will not be the new hamburger. Pies will not be the new cupcakes. Most “Neapolitan” pizza isn’t.
13. AYE, ROBOT. It’s “the need for speed"—industry-wide moves to accelerate getting food into customers’ hands. Example: A Lay’s machine in Argentina churns out warm, salted chips from real potatoes and sells them by the bag. Seattle’s Best Coffee brands machines in grocery and convenience stores, so you’re not forced to buy anonymous swill on-the-go. A butcher in Spain has a 24-hour vending machine for prepared meals, sausages, steaks and meatballs. Jamba Juice launched JambaGO, vending its products in non-traditional locations like schools, entertainment complexes and convenience stores. In France, a 24-hour machine sells freshly baked baguettes. Coke in Korea has an interactive dance machine—you imitate dance steps shown on a large screen and the machine rewards you with bottles of soda. In Singapore, you hug a vending machine lovingly and out comes some Coke. The Japanese buy everything from underwear to lobsters from vending machines. But we’re just scratching the surface—machines at your airport now vend paperbacks, sunglasses and electronic doohickeys. Why not more food?
14. to 15. TWO BREAD TRENDS. Restaurants won’t give bread without you asking for it. And increasingly, they’re charging for a breadbaskets. Look for more elaborate breads and rolls, restaurants are baking in-house to save costs…and to ramp up distinctiveness, especially with sandwiches, emphasizing an “artisan” at work.
16. FIELDS OF GREENS. Seaweed beyond sushi—in bread, in flavored salt, in crackers, in breakfast cereals, in butter and toasted and sprinkled on fries, fish and pasta. Greens beyond seaweed—kale, beet greens, chard, turnip greens, mustard greens—rejected only five years ago are finding favor.
17. SUPPLIERS OPENING OWN-BRAND STORES. Blame it, perhaps, on the wildly successful Apple Store. Food suppliers and manufacturers are launching their own restaurant startups. Their aim: To raise their brands’ visibility and build powerful appeals to consumers. On the other hand, since we’re finding increasing numbers of chain restaurant brands in supermarkets, perhaps this is well-deserved tit for-tat.
BUZZWORDS FOR 2013
- Menu shuffling aimed at flexitarians
- Asian flavorings: togarashi, yuzukoshi, gochujang (you can look them up)
- More chicken (often upscaled), less beef.
- Fermented everything
- Donuts getting bizarre upscaling (foie gras jelly donuts, hamburgers between two griddled donuts, kimchee donuts)
- Overused kimchee gets doneskee in 2013
- Bar-made and small-batch tonics and quinine syrups
- Lillet, Dubonnet, Chartreuse, Benedictine and other golden oldies
- Craft bourbon, small-batch rye, local gins
- Zip-code honeys
- Spice trends: torridly hot, smoked, warm and aromatic, fruity
- Too much smoking going on
- Too many tasting menus
- Food halls
- Weirder and weirder desserts
- White strawberries
- Green tomatoes
- Geranium leaves
- Charred octopus tentacles.
- A good year for hard cider
- Lobster rolls (while wholesale prices are cheap)
- Charcuterie boards.
For the full trends—no this was not all of it—go here