As the restaurant industry continues to meet hurdles and headwinds in the current year, what can operators expect to encounter in the next? The editors of Restaurant Business and the foodservice pros at Technomic have identified seven business-shaping forces that will steer the industry in 2018. Read on for our predictions.
1. Asian island cuisine
The next progression of food trends coming from the Far East is Asian island fare. As momentum builds around Filipino foods, expect culinary influences from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to crop up. The sour, bitter and aromatic flavor profiles from these island nations take influence from mainland Asia and Europe, making them both familiar and exotic. Food forecasts: Ingredients such as sambal and kaffir lime will become more commonplace menu features, while Filipino adobo and bagoong will emerge. Look for street food common to Southeast Asian island hawker centers (open-air markets of food stalls), such as Hainanese chicken rice and laksa, to also make menu waves.
2. Gut check
Now that allergen-free foods are mainstream, restaurants are exploring the next health frontier: lower-intensity, gut-friendly menu items. Some concepts are responding by incorporating probiotic, prebiotic and anti-inflammatory ingredients such as turmeric, aloe, flaxseed and skyr that improve digestion. And instead of spicing dishes with a belly-burning blast of straight heat, chefs are pairing hot peppers with sweet, savory, smoky and tangy ingredients to deliver more complexity—a flavor combination that mellows the heat. These pairings are showing up in relishes such as South African chakalaka and sauces such as blueberry jerk barbecue sauce.
3. On target for off-premise
It is almost impossible to overstate the looming presence of off-premise. Expect to see growing numbers of concepts redesigning to accommodate delivery and takeout, from second makelines to revamped order pickup areas and separate drive-thrus for delivery drivers, both third-party and in-house. Technology continues to be a limiting factor in the success of delivery-only concepts. (Witness the recent flip of David Chang’s once delivery-only Ando to a traditional fast casual.) But it is predicted to catch up to meet demand, especially as more full-service chains enter the off-premise space. Growing competition from grocery stores’ grab-and-go and restaurant concepts, fueled by Amazon’s Whole Foods acquisition, will spur restaurant menu innovation, such as travel-friendly fare and more heat-and-eat meals.
4. Data drives everything
Technology is allowing operators to move beyond customization to an even more detailed level of service: personalization. Data will drive virtually every element of restaurant operations, from personalized marketing appeals to hypercustomized menu suggestions and ultra-efficient kitchen design loaded with “smart” data-gathering equipment. Mediterranean chain Cava, for example, mined customer-flow data from sensors placed along its queues and used it to reduce congestion and speed up ordering. Expect consumers to become increasingly comfortable sharing personal data, especially as they discover it leads to personalized service.
5. Baby boomers bounce back
After years of going gaga over millennials, restaurants are falling back in love with baby boomers. The customers who gave rise to fast food and casual dining may be grayer today, but they also boast more money and an affinity for those old-guard segments. Expect more restaurants, especially those that grew up with boomers, to re-engineer their menus specifically to court that population bulge again, as Chili’s and Applebee’s have. And their exit from the mainstream workforce, coupled with a traditional work ethic, has tagged them once again as plum recruits for restaurant jobs. Persons 55 and older are the fastest-growing sector of the industry’s labor force, according to the National Restaurant Association. Americans 65 and older will remain the group enlarging the workforce until 2024, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts.
6. Workforce development gets personalized
Customization doesn’t stop with restaurant customers. To attract new demographics in a historically tight labor market, operators are developing highly tailored career ladders, training programs and education opportunities as counters to the perception that restaurant jobs are a dead end. These personalized advancement programs are intended to help nontraditional restaurant workers find success outside the operation, an acknowledgement that employees may not be retainable, but at least they’re attainable with the promise of advancement. Look for restaurateurs to add more transferable skills to their training lineup, such as emotional intelligence, safe-space communication and business 101. More tools will likely be provided to help employees and employers set mutually beneficial goals and think beyond the next paycheck.
7. Federal and local governments face off over labor issues
Restaurant employers are getting tangled up in a tug of war between the federal and state governments, with local jurisdictions also setting new workplace rules and pay levels. While states and cities are already tussling over who should set minimum-wage and scheduling regulations, increased pressure on immigration policies could force pro-immigrant sanctuary cities to directly oppose national crackdowns. A Los Angeles lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice for tying federal funding to cooperation with immigration enforcement could determine just how muddled the waters get for restaurants looking to stay on the right side of the law. In early October, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned Californians to expect more immigration raids because of the state’s new sanctuary law for illegals. The only certainty: Restaurants can expect some head scratching over a patchwork of competing policies.