The business of dining out faces increasing challenges from several food-related fronts. Not only are grocery stores rising to the “clean eating” desires of potential restaurant patrons, but lower prices at the market are making eating out more of an event than a whim. Restaurants that will thrive in the current landscape will rise to challenge and be mindful of new and coming trends, and how they affect their menu.

 

At the recent National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago, Nancy Kruse (of The Kruse Company in Atlanta) outlined some of the trends restaurants should consider—and embrace—to win and retain patrons.

 

Clean, Simple Ingredients

It’s been coming for a while, but only recently have the expectations of consumers been met with viable “clean” eating options at an increasing number of restaurants. Two of the key features consumers are looking for are:

 

  • “Natural” foods with little or no processing
  • Fewer ingredients (which is thought to be “healthier”)

Chefs, manufacturers, and the FDA may not all agree on whether “natural” or few ingredients really means “healthy,” but the demand is growing and presents an opportunity that restaurants don’t want to ignore.

 

Featured Veggies

While a majority of Americans aren’t making the dietary leap to strict vegetarianism or veganism, many consumers are incorporating more vegetables into their diets and reducing meat portions. “Vegetable-forward” appetizers and even main dishes are becoming more common—and are (or should be) appealing to meat-eaters. Buffalo-style cauliflower appetizers, meat-substitute burgers, and even entire vegan restaurants with meat-eater-friendly dishes are popping up at national and local establishments. As vegetables are getting more attention—seasoned and prepared with as much creativity as meat dishes—more consumers are happy to try these “healthier” yet tasty and interesting options.

 

Broadening the Ethnic Palate

Consumers are increasingly familiar with a variety of cuisines—with 2/3 of dining patrons eating more variety than they did just 5 years ago. Indian cuisine, Asian noodles from a variety of countries (including Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese), and Japanese katsu are all styles to watch, according to Kruse. Restaurants that wouldn’t ordinarily serve some of these cuisines can try out some of the more mainstream dishes, or create fusions to introduce elements into their more usual fare.

 

The Other (Fill-in-the-Blank) Meats

The reign of steak, chicken, pork, and the usual fish types is giving way to a broader variety of meats. Not only are “cleaner” versions of these well-known meats (grass-fed, free range, etc.), but many lesser consumed specialty meats are making their way onto menus. Lamb, venison, wild boar, duck, and regional fish dishes have been spotted even on some national menus. Patrons appreciate the exotic choices and interesting spins on classic dishes, like burgers, tacos, pizza or flatbreads, and more.

 

Sides Stepping Up Their Game

It’s not just broccoli and French fries accompanying the main dish anymore. Familiar faces like these and other fresh vegetables (green beans, asparagus, carrots, and more) are getting new treatments like seasonings, parmesan cheese, and different preparations (like flash frying or grilling). And new players are joining the party: beans, lentils, ratatouille, etc. And fries are really getting kicked up, with meal-worthy toppings and treatments. Sophisticated menu names and descriptions add to the value in the customers’ eyes.

 

Rise of the Snacks

Smaller portions—snack sizes—offer reduced-guilt dining, whether in-between meals, or just a leaner portion for a lower-calorie meal. Consumers have responded positively to known food options resized for quick snacking or light dining, so offering popular items in “snack” sizes, and creating new dishes inspired by the trend is bound to bring in sales. And just like beer and wine flights offer “snackable” sampling of a variety of tastes, food flights capitalize on the dual value of small portions while trying new flavors.

 

Fun for All

Whimsy has been a great tool for restaurants to give patrons a sense of “vacation” or “getaway” when actual travel has been economically difficult, or less appealing during global uncertainties. So, fun and entertaining food choices (and even entire restaurants) are growing in popularity. Desserts are a natural choice for these silly and creative concoctions, featuring everything from cereals blended into milkshakes to cookie dough-based confections. Nostalgia gets a nod also, as everyone from Starbucks to local high-end restaurants charge premiums for gourmet “pop tarts”!

 

Local restaurants (and franchises of national chains) no longer compete against the next restaurant around the corner, but they also must put their best foot forward in a global marketplace, with customer expectations shaped by growing social trends. As restaurants embrace growing and impending customer interests and values, they position themselves for success—standing out in a crowded marketplace as relevant, attentive, and “the place to be.”

 

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