As a touch point of creativity, comfort, and sustenance for millions of people every year, restaurants in particular feel the profound disruptions and uncertainties in American culture — either directly through sales, or indirectly through the arrival of new trends.
So, what’s impacting dining trends in 2015? The basis of the U.S. economy continues to shift from traditional manufacturing to both technology and service-based professions. The growth of our own industry and its needs hasn’t been a driving factor behind that change, but we aren’t immune to its effects.
And the ever-increasing number of millennials entering the workforce is producing a culture clash with the still-employed baby boomer generation. As a result of both of these tensions, the consumers overall are calling for reassurance, empathy, and integrity.
And so, a back-to-basics approach has overtaken spending choices, challenging restaurants to lean into foods and preparations that are real, clean, and authentic. While these three categories may seem somewhat interchangeable, menu analyst Nancy Kruse was on hand at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago to share her observations and break down the differences in the trends.
Kruse identified the need for today’s restaurants to emphasize small, hand-crafted, and unique qualities over a big, factory-made, and mass-produced atmosphere. But it’s not all about reclaimed wood, recycled metal, aging barrels, and Edison bulbs. The food you serve is just as important in combatting the overwhelmed sensation some consumers are experiencing — and in driving a larger stake of the market to your establishment.
Kruse defines “real” food as having no artificial sweeteners and includes those which are generally unprocessed. We’ve all heard the debate about sugar vs. high fructose corn syrup rage on the past few years, but the real food trend takes the distinction a step further. Baking and preparing foods with pure cane sugar and maple water over standard refined sugar is becoming increasingly popular. And artificial sweeteners are being rejected on a regular basis across the board, particularly ones with very chemical-sounding names. As Kruse commented, “We don’t know what those words mean, and it scares us.”
Along these lines, preparations involving butter, duck fat, beef tallow, schmaltz, and lard are becoming all the rage, and not just for their “real” factor. There’s an ethical consideration to using fat and other material from the animal that would otherwise go to waste, and that speaks directly to the prevailing millennial activism and social conscience in regard to food.
Traditional nose-to-tail foods such as bone marrow, offal, and bone broth are exceptionally popular menu items, with some restaurants building their entire menus around this phenomenon (not to mention stem-to-root cooking styles). Incorporating an in-house butcher to restaurant staff has also become de rigeur for upscale restaurants in major metropolitan areas, giving the consumer the feeling that their food is as close to the source as it possibly can be.
The joke these days is that millennials count chemicals, not calories. The expectation from consumers that their food be free from preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, and unnecessary additives is at an all-time high. This push toward organic meat and produce that doesn’t employ genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their production is encouraging several well-known brands like Chipotle and Wendy’s to make major changes in their menus and purchasing. And chains like Starbucks are not exempt from experiencing the same pressure for their beverage-heavy menu.
Will McDonald’s going GMO-free with its potatoes be the tipping point for consumer expectation? Probably. But the real concern will come when the demand for GMO-free product outstrips the supply — not unrealistic given the purchasing power of the casual dining segment of our market. Even if restaurants want to capitalize on the clean food trend, the current climate of limited distribution and access may make this transition nearly impossible for small businesses without large-scale changes to our nation’s food industry.
The good news? Eighty percent of consumers have said that they’d be willing to pay more for foods they deem healthier, including those with “non-GMO” labels or descriptions.
Authenticity in today’s menu trends goes beyond just preparing food on-site. It’s not enough that food be “fresh” — although that appellation is a given for all three of these trend categories. Consumers also want to know the story behind the food they’re eating — where it came from and the physicality behind the particular preparation methods.
Making sure your food looks hand-prepared adds to that sense of heritage and quality, but so does the language you use to describe it. Your menu will attract more interest with phrases like:
- Smokehouse, instead of smoked
- Carnitas, and other authentically non-English words
- Vine-ripened California tomatoes sourced from a single crop, or any description that narrows down an item’s provenance
But if you want to retain authenticity, it’s also critical that you don’t lose the personal touch in service either. No matter how much reclaimed copper piping stretches over their heads, your guests still expect an expeditious ordering process and seamless transaction when the meal is complete. Just don’t substitute high tech for high touch service.
On-table payment kiosks do not replace your server’s thank you and farewell at the end of a meal. This personal connection is why your customers come to you, and it’s a large part of the experience that ultimately brings them back again and again.
Want to explore even more trends in today’s restaurant operations?