Michael Maxwell – Partner, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting
Everyone knew that the pandemic would change people; the way they shop, eat, and live their lives, but we didn’t know how. Finally, all the opinion surveys and all the data collection are starting to give us enough information to plot a path forward. The people have spoken and what they said is “We want it all.” Not to fear, this can easily be summed up into three different categories. Health focused is more important than ever, dining needs to be more experience driven, and underneath it all there remains a craving for nostalgia and comfort foods. We have identified some trends that give clearer direction in each of these categories.
Health Focused is not just calorie counting. It encompasses a variety of ways to produce and eat food. It also focuses on not just the health and safety of the consumer but the health of the planet as well. Sustainable farming and fishing and knowing the path of your ingredients from raw form to plate is becoming more of a factor in the where to dine decision process. Here are some trends that have evolved to meet the health forward food demand.
Flexitarian Menus Flexitarian is a term used to describe people who primarily eat a vegetarian diet while occasionally adding meat or dairy. People are turning to flexitarian diets for a number of reasons including multiple health benefits, the reduction of greenhouse gasses, and innovations in plant-based proteins that have created products with great taste and texture. Within the last year, the sales of plant-based food products have increased over 150% and flexitarian styles of eating are expected to continue to grow year after year for the next decade. Restaurateurs are responding with more vegetarian options on their menus, incorporating more plant based dairy products into ingredients, and giving great new products like Beyond chicken fingers prime position on plates.
Urban and Indoor Gardening Chefs everywhere have always been bothered by the need to purchase fresh herbs in bundles that go bad before they can use them all. The solution has become grow it yourself. Restaurants all over the US are growing rooftop gardens, lining windows with pots of fresh herbs, peppers, and tomatoes, or adding herbs and vegetables to patio planters. Restaurants like Bell, Book, and Candle in New York have even given their garden its own page on their website. The trend allows chefs to be more creative and to showcase the seasonality of fresh herbs and vegetables.
Zero Waste As product prices rise, chefs will continue to find a way to use every scrap for making stocks, sauces, or marinades and buying entire animals allocating their parts to different specials. Items that were once considered waste will continue to find themselves as flavor enhancers in new dishes and restauranteurs will lower their trash bills by creating less trash.
Outdoor Dining is Here to Stay We now all believe that outside is safer and “do you have outdoor dining” is a question answered over and over again when taking reservations. New restaurants will be built with extensive outdoor dining that can be used year-round and existing restaurants will continue to modify outdoor spaces with canopies, heaters, and fans. In most major cities those temporary outdoor dining spaces that were built in parking lots or just off the sidewalk are here to stay and more money is being invested to make them look and feel more welcoming.
Mocktails In 2020 online searches for the word mocktail were up 42% over the previous year and the search for non-alcoholic was up 81%. Consumers are continuing to ask for great drinks with no alcohol and bartenders are finally embracing the trend. Research also shows that an increase in mocktail sales has not shown a decrease in alcohol sales but has instead introduced an additional revenue stream. Great zero proof cocktails are giving guests an alternative to the dreaded “no thanks, I will just have water.”
The Demand for an Experience is a definite result of being shut in for months, removed from interactive experiences, wearing masks, and all the other restrictions put on us by pandemic life. This demand is taking us down some very interesting roads, but these trends seem definite for 2022.
French is Back But not in the traditional way. The gastronomic meal of the French has been added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. All of the elements of the classic French meal have new importance in consumer’s needs for an experience. The French meal has always been a celebration of life, of events, and of the relationship between humans and food. French food was farm to table before that term existed. Restaurateurs are tossing the heavy sauces and the reliance on diary, while embracing the French traditions of multiple small courses, local ingredients, enticing smells and innovative visuals. Expect the French “experience” to find itself at the heart of many meals in 2022 and many years forward.
Southeast Asia Offers Mystery and Adventure Asian ingredients infused into all cultures are taking center stage in restaurants. Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are being celebrated in menu items in all fifty states. Southeast Asian food can be sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitter all at the same time, providing diners unique dishes they have never experienced before.
Plates Can Be Interactive Since the beginning of time we have believed there is no better Caesar salad than one made at the table. In actuality that is more because of the show and less about the quality of the product. Our craving for new experiences is being met more and more with theatrics. 2022 will see more items finished off at the table. Expect cocktails that change colors as the last ingredient is poured, chocolate domes that melt under the weight of warm caramel sauce to expose the delicate mousse inside, and hot dishes sprinkled with bonito flakes that dance in waves across the top of the dish.
Nostalgic and comfort foods can help to restore our sense of security. Tomato soup and Mac n Cheese will never go away because they surround us with the warmth of home. In these strange times where we need both adventure and safety all at the same time, variations of your favorite comfort dishes are gaining more prominence on menus.
Breakfast is Big Time For almost two years of working from home we have been eating breakfast. We also have not had the time constraint of something fast before we hit the road. That means we have learned to make shakshuka at home and expect restaurants to do the same. Many restaurants will be opening for breakfast or brunch in the new year and incorporating breakfast style items into their lunch and dinner menus. Restaurants will also show more creativity in the restaurant dishes they present making morning as exciting and adventuresome as the rest of the day. We will enjoy the comfort of pancakes topped in the ways we never dreamed of.
Cottage Foods Return to the Table Cottage foods are foods that someone produces in their home. Local jams and jellies, vinegars, syrups, etc. are all making their way onto menus, along with cookies and crackers baked by nearby neighbors. Cottage foods add authenticity to menus and support local commerce and they bring along with them all those memories of home.
Childhood Favorites Show up on all Menus In 2022 those foods of our childhood will continue to show up on menus with new and creative twists. Panera has gotten everyone’s attention by putting mac n cheese on their grilled cheese sandwich and Full Commission in Atlanta has become known for making their own pop tarts with flavors changing daily. Expect to see these nostalgic items increasingly as “the familiar” becomes a part of successful restaurant menu engineering.
Restaurants evolve faster than any other creature on earth. The pandemic caused the process to speed up even more. 2022 is poised to be a great year for restaurant evolution as we continue to mix our own style and creativity with the demands of the populations we serve.