Predicting Menu Trends Means Understanding Consumers’ Feelings

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Three cheerful young friends enjoying each other's company in cafe. Happy and positive emotions.

To predict what types of menu offerings customers will want in the near future, we have to start by understanding the underpinning drivers behind their desires. You have to understand the big picture in order to be a trend leader.

The USA, for example, is in an emotional stall. This is different than a recession as it is emotionally driven, not economically driven. Consumers do not feel grounded or confident right now, so they are reverting partially back toward comfort food. Forming an emotional alliance with consumers will go a long way towards gaining their trust. Remember that you are not the hero in the consumer’s story. You are their guide allowing them to be the hero in their own life.

Forward friendly formula
With unease in the air, consumers need to feel grounded, so restaurants should keep the bases of dishes approachable and familiar and then add some intrigue either with fringe add-ins, seasonings or preps.

By keeping the base of the dish approachable and familiar and adding some intrigue either by add-ins, seasonings, or preps you successfully move back toward comfort while allowing consumers to feel they are still retaining an experimental edge. And don’t forget to make it Instagram worthy. This is the Forward Friendly formula.

Adding spins to traditional dishes like grilled cheese sandwiches and mac ‘n’ cheese dishes are good examples of this. Allowing guests to customize these familiar dishes provides them comfort and intrigue. Expect to see more of these specialty restaurants, such as I ? Mac & Cheeseand Detroit’s Mac Shack emerge.

Preps are holding fast to dry cooking techniques including air and deep-frying, grilling, roasting, puffed, brick pressed, cast iron, live fire, roasted, smoked and charred. The two primary wet methods still in play are pickled and fermented due to the shock value on the palate and global influencers.

Add-ins are where you get to be even more experimental by playing with regional, global and technological inspirations. So here you find smoke, nitro, frozen elements, spice or sweet heat, vegetables, global fruits, grains, seeds, florals, and grilled items to name a few.

America’s landscape
The Southern trend is still going strong due in part to its complexity. It began with low-country, Gullah, Cajun, Creole, and Floribian (Florida / Cuba) but has spawned new cousins and is traveling up the east coast into the Ozark region, Appalachia and Pennsylvania Dutch territories.

Hot chicken and biscuits are two examples of Southern menu favorites that are making their ways across the country. Hot chicken concepts Nashville’s Hattie B’s and Cincinnati-based Hot Chicken are seeing growth, and the same is true for biscuit-centered concepts such as Durham, North Carolina’s Rise Biscuits Donuts and Biscuitville, based in Greensboro, South Carolina. All are opening outside their home regions.

To the south, it continues into island territories including Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines.

For mainland USA, don’t be surprised if the region that comes to light is the upper Midwest — Minnesota, Detroit, and Chicago — with highlights on region-specific dishes like Detroit pizza, Chicago Italian specialties or Scandinavian baked good from Minnesota.

Regional BBQ will continue its spiral upwards as more regions step forward to share their nuanced shift away from their neighbors across the country. Oren Hartman, for example, has plans to expand his Arizona-based barbecue concept, Mighty Quinn’s has started franchising its fast casual barbecue brand.

Regional and cracked peppers, alcohol infusions and add-ins help to set these regional BBQs apart and assure their distinct voices are heard.

International comfort flavors extend their visits
Due to the stall pattern, we will remain swirling around Peruvian, regional Italian and Mexican, Russian, and familiar Asian flavors, such as Indian and Japanese. Asian countries, along with Peru and Russia will not showcase regional specialties but instead focus on nationally celebrated dishes. International cuisines familiar to consumers such as Mexican and Italian will continue to boast regional specialties. As a global cuisine establishes a foothold in the U.S. and becomes familiar on a national level, it has no choice but to regionalize or risk falling out of favor.

Here are some sure bets:

  • Middle east — za’atar, zhug, tahini, baharat.
  • Africa — harissa, dukkah, berbere.
  • Easter bloc EU — sweet & sour, fermented.
  • Asian — adobo, sambal, chaat masala.
  • South America — chimichurri, chancaca.
  • Caribbean — varietal citrus, pepper sauce, jerk.

Coffee, tea, and plant waters remain rockstars
Coffee, tea, and plant waters bridge four central themes. They can cross between alcohol and non-alcohol, appear in international beverage, play in food and beverage and have ties to clinical health. The beauty lies in the fact that they can behave as either the leading lady or the best friend.

Customers, for example, often order The Protein Bar’s Avo-matcha — a drink made with Matcha green tea, avocado, organic raw honey, vanilla whey protein and almond milk, clocking in with 240 calories, 16 grams of protein and 29 grams of carbs — as a meal replacement or alongside a larger meal.

Functional beats stealth health
The functional halo gives a product an extra dimension and can extend its lifecycle so is never a bad thing to capitalize on if you have the science to back it up. Functional has many faces including a cognitive function which encompasses sleep, stress, anxiety, depression and focus. It can also apply to digestion, joint, skin, bone, and hair health. A functional label must be tied to solid science or consumers will not only abandon the product, but they can also retaliate through social media and lawsuits.

Bulletproof Coffee is one brand that has embraced functional health, creating a strong fan base for a variety of “healthful offerings,” including its butter coffee, a blend of organic coffee, grass-fed butter and MCT oil.

Stealth health, on the other hand, is based on trickery and deceit. There is typically no health advantage to stealth health because to hide an ingredient in a product means it is added at a low enough level so as not to be detected. Stealth also does nothing to encourage healthful eating because the ingredient you are adding is unrecognizable. Stick with functional – just because you can create a stealth product, doesn’t mean you should.

The “artificial exit” continues
The artificial exit trend began with “natural,” then moved to “free from,” which then moved briefly to “pure” and finally to the “artificial exit.” The problem with the terms “natural,” “free from” and is their subjectivity. It opens a trend up for attacks by adversarial groups resulting in lawsuits. What sets the “artificial exit” trend apart from its cousins is that it is better defined and directional. It allows a company to strategically enter the trend by clearly demonstrating its entrance strategy to both consumers and industry clients.

Panera, for example, led the way when it announced several years ago that it was removing artificial ingredients from its menu. Other brands, including Fazoli’s and Blaze Pizza are following suit.

2019 is shaping up to be a complex year so remember to spend more time following the trajectory of a trend than worrying about what your competitor is doing.

Source: Suzy Badaracco for Fast Casual

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