Technomic, the nation's leading foodservice research and consulting firm, brings together the best judgments of its consultants and editors to peer 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 its extensive Digital Resource Library and quantitative data from its 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.
1. 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 or Brussels sprouts. Vegetable 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.
2. Great grains. Recognized as nutrition powerhouses—packed with protein as well as texture and full, rich taste—grains are also playing star roles on trendy menus. Dishes like polenta, couscous or bulgur are central to some of today's hottest ethnic cuisines. And a number of grains—quinoa, amaranth, millet, wild rice, corn, oats and buckwheat—do not contain gluten, so they're being nudged to the fore as part of the movement to gluten-free eating.
3. Chicken surprise. Yes, 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.
4. 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 flavorful 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.
5. 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 multi-course feasts for two, four or more—even whole-hog pig roasts.
6. Retro rising: diner and deli fare. Concepts of many types are looking to the menus of traditional and contemporary diners and delis for inspiration. We'll see a proliferation of premium diner- and deli-inspired meaty sandwiches, full-flavored soups, even pickles—from traditional dill cukes to pickled red onion.
7. 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, not only in a burgeoning number of big-city noodle shops but in seafood and varied-menu restaurants as well.
8. 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 favor 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.
9. 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 flavors—from American barbecue to Southeast Asian soups and sandwiches to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare.
10. 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 flavored vodkas; microdistillery liquors that promote drinking locally; regional craft brews starring in beer-and-food pairings; and the rise of hard ciders.
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