Prognostication: 2015 Restaurant Industry Trends

Competition in the restaurant industry has never been this intense, consumers have never been this sophisticated and technologies have never moved this fast. This confluence of trends has led to a revolutionizing foodservice industry, according to Technomic.

With these factors in mind, the market research firm has come up with its top 10 trend predictions for 2015, based on consumer and operator surveys and site visits. They include:

Crowdsourcing

Dining is no longer just a personal experience, but a staged event that imparts bragging rights. Plating and lighting are increasingly designed with phone snapshots and social-media sharing in mind. Customers collaborate to put on the show; menus, marketing, even charitable efforts are crowdsourced.

Crowdsourcing for menu and marketing efforts isn’t new, but social media channels have made it easier – and more appealing – for brands and fans alike. Arby’s has increased its crowdsourcing efforts in the past year and executives expect the trend will become “more important over time.”

Plenty of brands – such as Cousins Subs –  have turned to Instagram to solicit fan photos and use that imagery as part of their larger marketing strategy. Some brands, including Starbucks through its My Starbucks idea website, are even crowdsourcing sustainability ideas.

Downsizing

Technomic says that “small is in.” Diners are demanding petite plates and flexible portions; units are smaller with more focused menus, multiuse equipment and expanded hours to leverage fixed costs; labor pressures mean leaner staffing and more technology (though a backlash is brewing as many diners seek to unplug and be waited on).

This trend fits into a larger and sustained high demand for snacking, too. Consumers are blurring the traditional dayparts, inspiring concepts such as Sonic and Taco Bell to push their late-afternoon offerings. Suzy Badaracco, toxicologist, chef and registered dietitian, says millennials are driving this trend toward “clockless eating.”

Foodservice everywhere.

Technomic predicts even more competition over foodservice market share as retailers get savvier with their offerings, startups deliver meals directly to homes and vending machines become even more sophisticated. Don’t count out c-stores, either, which are laser focused on upping their fresh food game.

“(Convenience stores) are turning into little c-restaurants, like tiny little Whole Foods,” Badaracco said.

Technomic also boldly predict a fast casual shakeout as lines between segments continue to blur, pop-ups proliferate and tech-enabled delivery expands.

Signature beverages

Technomic prognosticates fierce competition for new wines, beers and cider cocktails, as well as flavored whiskeys, spiced rums and liquers.

Restaurant concepts are also adding non-alcoholic differentiators, such as handcrafted sodas, pressed juices and health-halo teas (See: Starbucks).

“Airport bars are huge right now. Beer and wine are moving to fat casual and cocktail and food pairings are big. It’s fun and it’s flirty. Happy hour is back,” Badaracco said. “Also, from a health perspective, cold-pressed juices and protein is very strong.”

She also expects drinkable oats to pick up, as well as smaller region wines and teas in the flavor of floral, honey, citrus, green coconut or spice. Also, look for a surge in sipping vinegar, nut and grain milks and cider, honey and sour beers.

“The kitchen is heavily moving into the bar scene, whether it’s alcoholic or non-alcoholic,” she said.

Asian

Technomic points out that Asian foods have been trending for years, but it continues to come up with something new. In 2015, expect the breakout of Korean, the mainstreaming of Vietnamese and upscaling of spicy ramen noodles.

Yum! Brands, the largest restaurant company in the world, is even experimenting with Vietnamese cuisine, with its Bahn Shop location in Dallas. Thuy Tran, who owns the b.10 Vietnamese Café in Houston, said the rise of Vietnamese cuisine comes from its healthfulness.

“People know Japanese, Chinese and Thai food, but not everybody knows Vietnamese and it’s the healthiest of the Asian cuisines. We use the same herbs, flavoring and seasoning, but we don’t use coconut milk, or only use it minimally, or the same amount of oil,” Tran said.

She said Yum’s concept has been a boon for familiarizing consumers with the fare, but added there is a lot of education that needs to be done.

“Everybody needs to know this cuisine. It’s healthy, flavorful and full of variety,” she said. Asian, she added, makes up about 6 percent of the entire fast casual segment. Of that, Vietnamese is less than 1 percent, so there is plenty of opportunity for education and growth.

Bitter is the new bold

Technomic said the 2015 pipeline includes darker coffees (Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons recently added dark roasts to their coffee rosters), deeper chocolates, next-gen cruciferous veggies like cauliflower and collard greens, hoppy beers and cocktails with the bite of bitters.

Nancy Kruse, a menu analyst and president of The Kruse Company, recently reiterated the cruciferous trends. She predicts the next trend on the horizon to be root vegetables, such as rutabagas, turnips, beets and parsnips.

“It’s a very broad category that gets little respect,” she said. “For tomorrow, the smart money is on root vegetables. Where do you really want to put your money? How about carrots? Customers know them and restaurants are using them.”

DIY health

More consumers care about healthy eating and, in response, menus are increasingly display pick-and-choose options for everyone from gluten-free eaters to vegans to paleo-diet partisans.

“We are back to indulgence, back to exotic and experimental. Customers want to customize and personalize things. Meatless and flexitarian are going more mainstream,” Badaracco said.

Micro-local

The stay-close-to-home spirit heightens interest in everything from house-purified water to regional seafood to locally manufactured products like beers and liquors, Technomic said. Even as the supply chain consolidates, specialty and citywide distributors gain share. An “anti-chain” ethos prompts chains and multiconcept operators to debut quasi-independent restaurants fine-tuned to local market demands.

Even McDonald’s plans to go more local/regional with its menu offerings.

“(Regional offerings) is a historical strength of the US business and we’re putting it back at the forefront,” CEO Don Thompson said during the company’s most recent earnings call.

Corporate responsibility

Corporate social responsibility has become more important than ever for consumers. According to Technomic, diners care that restaurant employees are treated fairly. Farm worker treatment and fair trade movements are also important, as are animal welfare, which has been mainstreamed in the past few years.

Digital natives

The challenge of appealing to all ages intensifies as younger diners step up demands for speedy high-tech service, heightened experiences, louder music and kinetic visuals. There is also a new teen cohort of digital natives begins to make its voice heard. In response, many experts expect features such as digital menu boards and one-to-one mobile marketing to be a necessity sooner than later.

Photo provided by Christmas Stock Images.


Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.

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