Real estate isn’t the only thing that’s local. So are restaurant trends. At least, that’s what the data shows, says Justin Massa, founder and CEO of Chicago research firm Food Genius. “I think that a lot of people look for broad industry trends when data shows there’s a relatively small number … that are minor at best.” To get a real understanding of food trends—and spot profit-making opportunities—Massa suggests paying more attention to the patterns unfolding around your operation than to national restaurant trends.
His prime example: Gluten-free foods. According to Massa, the percentage of “gluten-free” appearances on restaurant menus across the country hasn’t changed much. Digging in at the state level, however, shows a different story. While the gluten-free trend has plateaued in large markets such as New York and California, now it’s picking up in Montana and other areas where “you’d be surprised to see it going,” says Massa. “It’s filling in for the rest of the country.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t any overarching themes in the restaurant industry, though. Spicy, for example, pops out across the board. But it’s important to note that it has manifested differently in specific regions. In New Mexico, for example, “spicy” means green chiles, which have hit well over half (57 percent) of restaurant menus in the area, says Massa. Nationally, though, they’ve grown to be on just five percent of menus in the last four quarters, with other spicy ingredients and flavors proliferating in other regions.
Because these national themes are so broad, they are difficult to market, say Massa. Instead, operators need to understand what the menu trends look like on the ground in order to capitalize.