Trendspotting Part II: What to Watch in the U.S.

January 2, 2013


Last month in this space, I discussed the key trends that will impact the U.K. foodservice industry this year. This month, a look at trends in the U.S.

Each year, Technomic brings together the best judgments of its consultants and editors to look ahead to food trends that may significantly impact the restaurant industry in 2013. These expert insights are based on site visits evaluating the restaurant scene in cities across the country as well as interviews and surveys of operators, chefs and consumers, backed up by qualitative data from our extensive Digital Resource Library and quantitative data from the vast MenuMonitor database.

Some of these developments are mainstream trends among major players, others are edgy urban movements that may or may not spread to the wider American public, and some are in the process of evolving from leading-edge to mainstream. Their impact on the U.K. market will vary from “good to know” to issues driving business in 2014 and beyond.

Vegetables take their star turn. As more diners discover the joys of occasional meatless meals, the flirtation with vegetarian fare evolves into flexitarian fascination with actual vegetables. That means not only innovative salads but also creative presentations of roasted or steamed veggies, even the assertive ones like carrots, kale and Brussels sprouts. Vegetables at the center of the plate are welcomed by diners—who continue to seek fresh, local, healthful fare—as well as operators squeezed by rising costs for proteins.

Restaurant operators who are showing that vegetables no longer need to be pushed to the side of the plate range from high-end (such as Daniel’s Brolier, Prime Steaks & Chops, a Seattle independent offering grilled herb-marinated Portobello mushrooms stuffed with Maytag blue cheese and spinach) to family-friendly (such as Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, a casual chain menuing the Grilled Veggie Bowl, filled with grilled peppers, onions, mushrooms, broccoli and tomatoes served over seasoned rice).

Great grains. As operators strive to please consumers’ increasingly sophisticated palates and demands for new, unique and ethnic foods, operators are turning to unexpected grains to provide that little something extra. Powerhouses of nutrition, flavour and texture, grains can easily (and cost‐effectively) make standard or “light” menu options more interesting.

Grain options far beyond wheat and rice are making inroads into the mainstream. Many grains—quinoa, amaranth, millet, wild rice, corn, oats and buckwheat—have gotten extra attention because they do not contain gluten, so consumers following gluten‐free diets can enjoy them. Look for these to show up on more restaurant menus, along with less‐familiar variations on wheat—farro (an ancient variety of wheat now re‐emerging), bulgur (cracked wheat) and wheat berries. Also part of the grain revival are less‐familiar forms of pasta, including grain‐like couscous and rice‐like orzo.

Grains are serving as the foundation of main dishes, as an ingredient in sides, as additions to soups and salads, and as the basis for ethnic items like cornmeal‐based polenta or rice‐based risotto.

Chicken surprise. Chicken is ubiquitous thanks to its always-reasonable price and remarkable versatility, but now it’s actually trendy as well. New quick-service and fast-casual fried-chicken concepts are popping up, offering Southern or spicy takes on a classic. And now that Latin-accented marinated chicken has established a niche, African peri-peri chicken may be next.

Some operations making news include BobChon, an import from South Korea, which has been attracting consumers seeking its authentic Korean‐style lightly battered, twice‐fried chicken, seasoned only with a thin layer of soy‐garlic sauce or hot sauce. Take Me Out, a Chinese restaurant in Chicago, offers signature “little hotties,” chicken wings reshaped to resemble lollipops and slathered in a housemade sweet‐and‐spicy sauce.

Snacking nation. Habits of around-the-clock eating, the street-food/food-truck craze, consumers’ demand for flexible portions and prices, and operators’ need to move beyond price-cutting on core menu items all combine to make snack fare a key trend. Tapas, mezze and upscale bar bites in full-service restaurants are matched by flavourful novelties in limited-service restaurants, from Spicy Chicken McBites at McDonald’s and Chicken Littles at KFC to mini corn dogs at Jack in the Box and cheesecake bites at SONIC.

More is more. On the other hand, there’s an opposite value-as-volume movement. Look for more deals like Pizza Hut’s Big Dinner Box (two pizzas with multiple sides) or Olive Garden’s Dinner Today & Dinner Tomorrow (a dine-in meal plus a to-go meal), as well as multicourse feasts for two, four or more—even whole-hog pig roasts.

Retro rising: diner and deli fare. Restaurateurs are looking to the traditional menus of diners and delis as inspiration to create classic American fare with a contemporary twist. We’ll see a proliferation of premium diner‐ and deli‐inspired meaty sandwiches, full‐flavoured soups, even pickles. Sandwiches and burgers are at the forefront of the trend, fresh‐baked bread, locally sourced ingredients and adult beverages are also hallmarks.

Some recent examples of diner‐ or deli‐inspired menu items:

  • Prez Obama Burger—with applewood‐smoked bacon, onion marmalade, Roquefort cheese and horseradish mayonnaise, from Washington, DC, independent Good Stuff Eatery.
  • Steak and Cranberry Chili—made with steak, whole cranberries, tomatoes and green peppers, served at sandwich chain Così.
  • The Kokomo— griddled meatloaf with smoked mozzarella and roasted red peppers, layered on fresh Amish-style milk bread, from San Diego eatery Hash House a Go Go.

Noodle-shop noodles. Ramen done right is a long way from dorm fare; it’s nutritious, subtle, satisfying and redolent of exotic Far East street markets. Look for ramen, udon, soba, cellophane and rice noodles to show up in hearty layered bowls, fragrant soups and even mixed-texture salads.

American diners are getting a taste of authentic Asian noodle formats at places like Yoshinoya (whose menu reflects the chain’s roots in Japan), Momofuku Noodle Bar (part of the Momofuku family of Asian restaurants in New York City) and Pho Hoa (a California‐based chain specialising in Vietnam’s signature beef noodle soup). And independent noodle shops are exploding in every big city across the U.S.

South America—the next frontier. Just as diners who love Asian fare have explored beyond Chinese to develop a taste for Thai and Vietnamese, those who favour Mexican are now looking south—all the way to Brazil, Argentina and Peru. We’ll see mainstreaming of South American-style grilled meats, chimichurri sauce, ceviche, South American-Asian fusion seafood dishes and iconic drinks, from Brazil’s caipirinha to Peru’s pisco sour.

Fast casual goes globe-trotting. Success in the exploding fast-casual sector is no longer limited to bakery cafés and Mexican concepts. Build-your-own-better-burger chains and gourmet brick-oven pizza restaurants have been on the rise for some time, but now we’re also seeing more ethnic foods and flavours. Categories on the rise:

  • American barbecue—City Barbeque, an Ohio‐based chain that specialises in regional American barbecue, including pork shoulder from the Southeast, brisket and sausage from Texas, and ribs from two distinct barbecue‐focused cities: Memphis and Kansas City.
  • Southeast Asian—ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, the new sister concept to Chipotle Mexican Grill, features a menu inspired by Thailand and Singapore. Guests can create their own Asian bowls by choosing a base of rice or noodles topped with a multitude of ingredients. Asian Box is a new Asian street‐food concept in the San Francisco area specialising in Vietnamese and Thai dishes with a focus on sustainable and local ingredients, fresh and healthful preparations and eco‐friendly packaging; meals are prepared to order and served in a box.
  • Mediterranean and Middle Eastern—Colorado‐based Garbanzo Mediterranean offers pitas, laffas, and Mediterranean plates and bowls. Signature items include shawarma, falafel and hummus. Sides include hard‐boiled eggs, grilled eggplant and pita bread, and desserts include baklava.

Restaurants thirsty for differentiation turn to beverages. Trends include fresh fruit (especially tropical fruit) beverages; natural energy drinks; housemade sodas; cocktails made with candy-like flavoured vodkas; microdistillery liquors that promote drinking locally; regional craft brews starring in beer-and-food pairings; and the rise of hard ciders.

Key Takeaway

Historically, menu and operating trends that are prevalent in the U.S. market migrate to other countries. Restaurant operators and their suppliers would be wise to pay attention to the American foodservice industry for both ideas for their own business but also to watch what may be coming from U.S. chains and other competitors. It’s worth noting, however, that menu trends don’t always travel across the pond in a Westward direction. Savvy American operators are watching U.K. trends as well, such as the success of global takeaway fare.

Darren Tristano is Senior Managing Director of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information, visit