Don’t let the Instagrammers of the world fool you – predicting restaurant food trends is a fine art. It requires knowing the difference between what new dishes consumers will actually demand in the upcoming year versus what’s gaining attention because it makes for good #foodpics.
But even the latter can be worthwhile for your restaurant to explore, if you can apply the flashy food in a way that will consistently attract more customers.
Here we explore 12 of these restaurant food trends that we’re looking forward to in 2018, with practical ways you can apply them to your menu.
Sandwiches Around the World
The hottest sandwich of 2018 is poised to be the banh mi, but not because it’s not super spicy or piping hot. Sometimes called a “Vietnamese hoagie,” banh mi is typically pork, pickled carrots, cucumber, and cilantro on a baguette.
According to Datassential, banh mi appears on restaurant menus today five times more than it did four years ago, making it the fastest-growing sandwich trend. The versatility of this sandwich also makes it easier to incorporate on your restaurant’s menu. You can swap the traditional pork pate for barbecue pork, grilled chicken, meatballs, or tofu.
Vietnam isn’t the only international source of 2018 sandwich trends. Other trending ‘wiches include the Mexican torta and Middle Eastern shawarma, which are found on more menus as old staples like the club and Reuben are being pulled from the lineup.
Poke and Pacific Cuisine
While the Pokémon Go craze came and went, the poke bowl trend is here to stay for 2018.
A cousin of sushi, poke bowls are made with marinated raw seafood like tuna or salmon served over a bed of rice with toppings like sesame seeds, jalapeno, and tobiko. Like the banh mi, this trend can be adapted in both full service and limited service restaurants, though the customizability of poke has found success in fast casual concepts.
Beyond the bowl, Pacific cuisine is also trending in the upcoming year, particularly Filipino food like chicken adobo and halo halo. Google searches for “Filipino food” have doubled since 2012, so offering some of these dishes can help these lumpia lovers find your restaurant.
Middle Eastern Food
Hummus has been a chart-topping appetizer at restaurants for the past few years, but other Middle Eastern tastes are picking up the pace into 2018.
Shawarma and falafel are popular in salads and pita pockets, and shakshouka (poached eggs in a spicy tomato sauce) is becoming a brunch menu favorite. Middle Eastern spices are also trending in restaurants looking to infuse more unique flavors. Za’atar, a blend of thyme, oregano, marjoram, and sesame, makes a great seasoning for chicken and flatbread.
For a tarter taste, sumac can be added to meat and fish or used as a lemon substitute in salads. And if you think mozzarella sticks are delicious, you haven’t lived until you’ve had grilled haloumi!
Ethnic Hot Sauces
Sriracha has of course taken over the restaurant hot sauce scene, but consumers are starting to seek other spicy condiments with international origins.
Another Middle Eastern trend, harissa can spice up chicken wings, stews, or dipping sauces. Javanese sambal, is found more frequently on menus, and not only because it’s the “other rooster sauce” from Huy Fong Foods. Korean gochujang, made from chile peppers, sticky rice, and fermented soy beans, is often found as a side on bibimbap but is expanding to be used as meat marinades, on top of burgers, or in bloody Mary mixes.
As Nando’s and other South African-inspired restaurants have seen rapid U.S. expansion, piri piri sauce is becoming beloved here across the pond too.
In 2018, restaurants will learn to paint with all the colors of the plate, utilizing natural ingredients as food coloring.
While blue food was hard to come by in the past, spirulina algae is becoming more prevalent in smoothies, parfaits, and sauces. It can also be used to turn waffles, pancakes, cheesecake, and even rice into “mermaid food.” Algae also is rich in magnesium and iron, giving it a nutritious advantage over traditional food dyes.
Matcha has been a popular tea latte for the past few years, but the powder is now being used to turn food green as kale has faded from the limelight.
Filipino food trends have also made ube a more popular ingredient, adding more vibrant purple to our diets. As more consumers are aware that the mainstream red food coloring is made from crushed bugs, beet powder is becoming more popular in red velvet cakes.
For those who are totally over the unicorn fad, food as dark as our punk rock souls has popped up in restaurants across the country. Touted as the “goth” food trend, activated charcoal is being used to blacken ice cream, lemonade, burger buns, and pasta.
Many consumers believe the appeal of charcoal as an ingredient extends beyond Instagram. It’s thought to have detoxifying qualities and is used as a hangover cure. Whether these claims can be substantiated is still up for debate, so if you’re looking to add activated charcoal to your dishes, focus more on the photo-worthiness of the food to attract more customers.
Asian cultures have long used turmeric for its medicinal properties, including anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. Because of this belief, restaurants focused on healthy offerings feature turmeric in Golden Lattes made with ginger, cinnamon, honey, coconut oil, and almond milk. Juice bars also offer turmeric as a health-boosting option.
However, as Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine becomes more popular with American consumers, restaurants are also adopting turmeric as a favorite spice in the kitchen. It works well in curries, of course, but turmeric also works well in soups, dressings, rice, chicken, and even mac ‘n’ cheese.
Whether it’s because they choose to avoid animal products for personal, environmental, or health reasons, more consumers are going meat free.
Plant-based sushi is creating a buzz, as even Whole Foods now offers a tuna roll alternative made from tomatoes. The trendy Impossible Burger is becoming easier to find on restaurant menus, making even meat lovers smile. These engineered, plant-based foods are also becoming easier to source, as new vegan substitutes for animal products are being developed – such as milk made from peas.
Expanding your restaurant menu to include vegan offerings in 2018 also opens your doors to more customers who may have not been able to find something for them on your menu before, helping you boost your traffic and sales.
The smoothie bowl trend of the past few years is evolving to feature one main ingredient: acai. With Brazilian roots, this fruit is frozen and mashed to form the base of the bowl. Acai is known as a “superfood,” the berry is thought to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities.
The original Brazilian variety had a savory approach with toppings like shrimp and dried fish. But as it’s eaten as a sweeter breakfast food in the US, acai bowls here are topped with granola, sliced banana, berries, and coconut flakes.
Like the poke bowl, many fast casual restaurants are seeing acai bowls as an opportunity to attract customers looking to customize their meal, by offering a wider spread of toppings to choose from like mango, chia seeds, and almond butter.
Rolled Ice Cream
Tying together global influences and indulgent desserts, rolled ice cream is rolling up the food trend charts. This trend started to take off more towards the tail end of 2017, so it’s slated to become even more popular in the upcoming year. Rolled ice cream started as a popular street food in Thailand, and has evolved into an American Instagram favorite with popular flavors like Nutella and Oreo.
Want to see how it’s made? Program restaurant Cold Rolled Ice Cream in Los Angeles gave our Account Executive Larissa Dorsey the inside scoop in this video.
Edible Cookie Dough
There are some dishes in which calories don’t seem to count, and edible cookie dough is becoming one of the most popular indulgences in the restaurant industry.
Edible cookie dough has been in the CPG world since 2011 thanks to The Cookie Dough Cafe, made famous by Shark Tank, but it wasn’t until 2017 that it first broke into the restaurant scene with the opening of Do in Manhattan. As customers waited up to two hours for scoops of cookie dough served in cups and cones like ice cream, the trend took off across the country.
If your restaurant is looking to jump on the dough train, keep food safety in mind. The easiest way is to skip the eggs and baking soda completely.
If the advertising campaign is any indication, Chipotle has invested quite a bit in its new queso. As Chipotle has discovered, though, there’s a catch 22 with queso these days.
Two of the biggest consumer demands of the past decade for restaurants is to have more authenticity and healthier dishes made from natural ingredients. However, authentic queso, which is made from Velveeta-style cheese, is anything but healthy and natural.
The challenge presented to restaurants in 2018 is to develop a queso that checks all the boxes – smooth cheesy goodness with a thick enough consistency to hold on chips, guilt-free for nutrition seekers, and made from natural ingredients. If you think your team has what it takes, we’d be happy to be your official taste testers.
Want to explore more changes in the industry (and how they will affect your business)? Download our free ebook “Restaurant Trends in 2018” today:
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