Predicting the year's coming trends in any industry is a challenge but is even more daunting when it comes to forecasting what's to come for restaurants, which make up the nation's second-largest industry.
To give you a little insight on what to expect in 2014, FastCasual.com has gathered predictions from some of the industry's market research firms, including Mintel, NPD, Food IQ and Technomic.
Julia Gallo-Torres, the company's category manager of U.S. foodservice, believes restaurants across the board will be affected by these five trends.
1. Fast casual pulling ahead: The impressive growth of the fast casual segment demonstrates consumers, who are still focused on price, are willing to pay more for foods they consider to be of better quality or healthier. To meet that demand, concepts focusing on customization, speed of service and convenience, have recently popped up, including high-quality burger chains, health-focused concepts and top-your-own pizza restaurants. Gallo-Torres expects more to emerge this year
2. Premium proves practical: Full-service concepts are mimicking fast casual restaurants and will continue to test speedier service models. This is important especially during the lunch rush, when consumers don't have the time to wait. Other tactics include launching healthier, more flavorful menu items and employing technology to speed up the dining experience, Gallo-Torres said.
3. Open-book business practices: Consumers are questioning the origin of their foods and are demanding transparency in ingredient sourcing and in general business practices, including the treatment of animals and employees, Gallo-Torres said. Consumers are interested in patronizing restaurants and buying brands that reflect their own values. Concepts that understand this and offer more information about their green practices or the causes they support stand to reap the rewards of increased loyalty.
4. Marketing to different demos: Operators have been obsessed with Millennials, but three other demographics will move into the spotlight this year: They include: Hispanics, women and baby-boomers.
- Hispanics' spending power is expected to reach nearly $1.7 trillion by 2017, meaning serving this rapidly expanding community will be key to growth.
- Women visit restaurants less than men, probably due to their being more health- and budget-conscious, Gallo-Torres said. This indicates restaurants need to do more in terms of pricing, atmosphere and menu to gain momentum with this group.
- Baby Boomers enjoy dining out and have more disposable income than other demographics, but few marketing campaigns specifically target them.
5. Technology revolution: Restaurants are increasingly using technology to cut service times and to offer loyalty programs, promotions and discounts electronically. This trend will continue, Gallo-Torres said, with things like in-store tabletop tablets and digital menu boards offering nutritional info becoming more common. Brands are also redesigning their websites and embracing mobile sites, so consumers can have access to restaurant info on their phones.
When it comes to profiling flavors, Food IQ is full of predictions. Daniel Campbell, the company's Research and Development assistant, expects restaurants to embrace sour recipes, along with locally grown produce, Heirloom beans and Brazilian and spicy Asian flavors.
Sour: Whether it's in beers or in dishes, sour is great place to be, Campbell said.
"With home-brewing catching on, more people are going to be experimenting on their own with sour beers, and looking locally for inspiration," he said.
Locally grown: From herb variations and edible plants, stemming from the locally sourced products, more restaurants are growing their own herbs, and offering variations of familiar herbs, along with edible flowers.
Heirloom beans: The diversity of the bean is going far beyond the simple white and pinto bean. Many retail and commercial outlets are looking for new forms of this pantry staple to excite their increasingly palate-savvy customers.
Brazilian flavors: With two major sporting events being held there this year, Campbell predicts all eyes to be on Brazil. Consumers will want to be able to taste and experience Brazilians flavors, smells and tastes, from Feijoada and Salgadinhos (Brazilian tapas) to Caipirinha, the national drink.
Spicy Asian: This is a condiment lover's paradise where variations of hot sauces abound, said Campbell, who pointed out that customers are going beyond this year's popular Sriracha flavor.
"Whether it's dark and smoky gojuchang from Korea, fermented and salty chile bean paste from China, Spicy Banana sauce from the Philippines or Sambal from Indonesia there are countless varieties to spice up your favorite foods," he said.
The NPD Group
Since disposable income is forecasted to grow, while inflation remains moderate, NPD is forecasting traffic and dollar growth this year for restaurants, specifically fast casuals, sub shops, fine dining establishments and gourmet coffee/donut outlets.
When it comes to food trends, NPD's Warren Solochek, VP of Client Development, expects the rise in beef costs and lower chicken prices to be reflected on the menu. New and different non-beef parings of foods, for example, will mean overall growth for chicken products and a dampening of beef orders.
Just as Mintel predicted a shift toward marketing to Hispanics, NPD found that the influence of the growing Hispanic population will show up when it comes to fruits, juice drinks and flavorful spices and seasonings. Solochek also said the growing Asian population will carry its influence on menus with noodles, rice, specialty sauces and other foods and flavors.
Also, similar to Mintel's Baby Boomer predictions, NPD believes older consumers will continue to visit restaurants at an ever-increasing rate, that many consumers will be on a mission for healthier menu choices and that mobile technology will be key to building stronger relationships with customers.
Several trends are already emerging this year, said Technomic's Laura McGuire, senior content and editorial manager, including menu labeling, local sourcing, sweet and spicy pairings and an emphasis on using authentic ingredients, such as sourcing tomatoes and mozzarella from Italy to make Neapolitan pizzas.
McGuire also expects lamb and game meats — from duck to bison — to gain share on menus, but vegetarian alternatives, including mushrooms and soy-based products, will also continue to take center stage.
While some consumers focus on healthy eating, just as many will indulge and seek out carbs, cheeses, fried appetizers and other extravagant items this year. Starches on the rise include ramen, rice bowls, flatbreads, wraps and waffles.
McGuire agreed with Mintel and NPD that technology will be a game changer for the restaurants that embrace innovative ways to reach and serve consumers. Examples include soda-water taps that allow guests to create their own fruity soft drinks and RFID-card-controlled self-serve beer-taps.
"Other technologies on the horizon, including iPads placed tableside, will make the restaurant experience faster and more accurate," she said.
Read more about trends.
Photo: Courtesy of www.last.fm.
What are your best 2014 predictions? Leave them below.
Cherryh Butler has been a reporter for nearly 10 years, writing on a variety of topics ranging from the restaurant industry to business and health and fitness news. Before joining FastCasual.com as editor, she oversaw KioskMarketplace.com and PizzaMarketplace.com and contributed to RetailCustomerExperience.com. She's also written for several daily newspapers, magazines and websites, including The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine.