By Jason Stemm
The annual restaurant show in Chicago offers a peak into the future if you know where to look. Smoked basmati rice, zero calorie noodles and All-Natural/Gluten-Free everything align with current trends, but where are things heading? Here are 5 areas to watch out for in 2012.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: Nancy Kruse’s Menu Innovations session is not to be missed. Each year she highlights trends that are driving growth at foodservice. New menu items both limited and permanent were up significantly in 2011, and she anticipates that to continue as operators try to attract customers back from the recession dip with new and exciting offerings. Waffles, hot dogs, food trucks and authenticity were all covered with real world examples that highlight these trends in action. Even chain restaurants that can be slow to change are embracing more flexibility with menu offerings to excite customers and entice them to visit more regularly to see what is new. A look at Wendy’s Signature Sides is a prime example of this trend in action. Expect to see more as operators try to capture the increased traffic returning to restaurants.
A Dash of Health: Better-for-you items are expanding at the show. The Wendy’s example is relevant here since one of their choices is a baked sweet potato. At the show, the popularity of the Greek yogurt category was evident, with multiple players displaying the versatility of the product. The Miracle Noodle is nothing new in Asia, and with the specter of menu labeling on the horizon it provides opportunities for restaurants to save calories in a dish. Hoping to ride the wave of waffle popularity, while delivering a better-for-you product, is Protein Fiber Cakes. They boast double the nutritional benefit of traditionally made pancakes and waffles. With breakfast on the rise, they have good momentum behind them. Kids Live Well was also widely visible with some high-profile chains joining the initiative.
Food for Everyone: Gluten free items have been growing, but now we are seeing more offerings addressing the needs of vegans and people with food allergies. No matter the diet restrictions an operator may face, the options to meet these demands are greater than ever. Daiya Foods was one of my favorites. They provide cheese that is free of dairy, soy, gluten, eggs, rice and nuts so not only are they vegan, but they can be enjoyed by those with the most restrictive of food allergies. Dessert was also on the menu with HomeFree cookies that much like the cheeses from Daiya, have been developed to be enjoyed by everyone. With the growing number of people on restrictive diets, restaurants that can cater to everyone are positioned to capture a larger share of this market. Even if just one person in the family is affected, dining decisions can impact everyone.
Updates on Wine Service: New ideas on serving and preserving wine were on display. Wine taps have been around, but with the proliferation of wine bars, it provides an easy delivery system for an extensive wine list. The Corkcicle offers an innovative way to keep wine cold without an ice bucket. Its sleek modern look can help distinguish an operation in an area most people wouldn’t normally consider. Another idea for wine service came from Wine Preserva, makers of Wine Shield. Their simple invention can help restaurateurs extend their wines by the glass program and introduce new wines to diners. The profitability of beverage service will continue to drive innovation.
Food 2.0: Technology innovation is taking place in both the front and back of house. New tools for ordering within and outside an operation are expanding with iPad wine menus and easy pre-ordering to reduce wait times. The recession has driven increased efficiency throughout the industry, and likely helped to accelerate adoption of this new technology. Behind the scenes, ovens that cooked faster and products that improved sanitation are meeting the needs of today’s operator.
As a whole, the show had a lot more energy than just two years ago when the industry was reeling from the economic collapse. Today they are emerging from 2 years of belt tightening to look at quality and capabilities and not just price. As the industry reemerges from the recession, expect it to be stronger than ever and lead job growth in the coming years. It is an exciting time in the restaurant industry and there was a buzz at this year’s show with enthusiasm for what is to come.