Menu experts predict global menu trends — does your brand measure up?

| by Elliot Maras
Menu experts predict global menu trends —  does your brand measure up?

The Internet has shattered traditional cultural barriers, delivering a more globalized palate. And while the "global menu" has created a wealth of opportunities for foodservice, it has hastened the pace of food trends, challenging foodservice operators to stay current with new consumer tastes.

Biju Thomas notes there are many sauces waiting to be discovered. Photo by Matt Tilbury.

One session at this week'sFast Casual Executive Summit at the Nashville Omni tackled this challenge The panel — "Predicting Global Menu Trends" — included researchers, chefs, flavoring specialists, restaurateurs and marketing experts.

Panel moderator Rob Pellicano, senior director of marketing at Custom Culinary, noted at the outset that the amount of time it takes a flavor to move from inception to ubiquity has dropped in half in the last five years.

Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, a consultancy that studies and predicts food trends, got the discussion off to a scientific start, noting that many of the syndicated trend reports that food companies use are based on "linear" research, offering a static view of the market. Badaracco, who is also a chef, registered dietitian and toxicologist, said the research in these "linear" reports is usually good for one or two years since they present information on trends that have already occurred.

"The syndicated reports are tracking, not forecasting," she said.

Badaracco's firm specializes in "chaos" forecasting, which forecasts trends. She collects data from hundreds of sources a month in order to dentify factors that can affect consumer tastes.

Suzy Badaracco explains the need for research that is not merely tracking existing trends. Photo by Matt Tilbury.

"In our world, there is chaos, blips, shadows and trends," she said. A "shadow" is a "pre-trend" event that influences trends. She noted that the recent economic recovery, for example, delivered "heat" spices — also known as "ghost pepper" — which other panelists said they are using to differentiate their offerings. These spices are still prevalent as the economy is in a "stall" pattern, but a recession could bring a change in taste.

"Right now, consumers don't want extremes, they want balance," Badaracco said. She said it is important for foodservice providers to identify how trends are born.

"People are really warming up to 'heat,'" agreed Jason Dowd, director of restaurant and bar branded concepts at Intercontinental Hotels Group.

Lifestyle influencers

Much of Badaracco's research focuses on lifestyle changes.

The growth of single parents is a lifestyle trend that has affected eating habits, Badaracco said. Known as "solo diners," these millennial parents don't want to deal with kids' menus when they take their kids out to eat.

"Rethink what that kids' menu is going to look like," she said.

Convenience is also a lifestyle trend that is influencing menus, observed Aaron Noveshen, CEO and founder of The Culinary Edge. Menu items that are portable, such as tacos, fit this bill.

"The definition of convenience is really evolving," he said, noting that consumers today can get any food they want, quickly, thanks in large measure to mobile ordering and new food delivery services.

"There's tons of innovation going on in the packaging sector," Noveshen said. "That's how your guest sees your food."

"When you build a menu, think about 'arch types'," he said, referring to broad-based consumer propensities. He said data exists to indicate how prevalent different arch types are. 

When planning a menu, it is important to recognize a menu item's ability to both attract and repel different groups of people, Noveshen said. Spicy items, for instance, are very polarizing, and will not account for the majority of orders in most restaurants. 

Items that can be used across different day parts — such as tacos — also become trends, he said.

'Couriers' impact menus

Menus are also influenced by "couriers," outside industries, according to Badaracco. The travel industry, for instance, brought arctic flavors to U.S. menus.

"People travel, they experience the food, they come back here," she said.

The wine industry is another courier, she said, which is why wine will be a menu trend.

The panelists agreed visual presentation is more important in menus due to social media. 

Noveshen encouraged foodservice providers to have their staff share pictures of food they come across.

"Keeping your dialog open is really helpful to be inspired," he said.

New trends to watch

Asked what new trends are expected, Noveshen said Latin flavors will continue to grow. Mexican fare has already made alcoholic beverages more popular, he said.

Badaracco seconded this observation, noting that Mexican food has caused a rebirth of Central American cuisine in the U.S.

She also volunteered protein as an emerging trend, of which there are two types: plant based and animal based. Plant-based proteins have a health connotation where animal-based proteins, like insects, are an extremity.

Biju Thomas, owner and founder of the Indian restaurant Biju's Little Curry Shop, said sauces have already become popular, but there are many sauces waiting to be discovered.

He also predicted more vegan dishes in meat-oriented establishments

Regionality is another influencer.

Dowd cited the lobster roll (native to New England) and Nashville chicken. Badaracco added the favorites of the Southern Low Country, Ozarks, Appalachia, Cuba, India and the Middle East. 

But when the topic of "local" was raised, a different viewpoint emerged among the panelists. Some felt the term is overused, and therefore has lost its meaning.

Thomas said local is a good influence if a menu item can connect to something that is genuinely local.

He also felt the term, "organic," has lost its meaning, but "clean" has come to mean preservative free.

All the panelists agreed that menu influences are more numerous in a globalized menu marketplace. Keeping abreast of these influences challenges foodservice providers to embrace a variety of techniques for identifying change.

Registration is now open for the 2018 Fast Casual Executive Summit in Seattle.

Topics: Fast Casual Executive Summit, Trends / Statistics

Elliot Maras

Elliot Maras is the editor of and

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