5 mega (and minor) menu trends for 2015

A data-derived, speculation-free guide to 2015’s big menu themes.

Every year at this time, pundits offer their best guess at what’s in store for the restaurant industry in the coming 12 months. As usual, some of the predictions put forth last year came true— gluten-free went mainstream, mash-up foods took hold in QSRs—while others failed to launch. But those reports, while coming from informed minds, still are speculative. This, though, isn’t your run-of-the-mill trend report. It dispenses with the guesswork by analyzing what actually happened in restaurants and how that will inform menus in 2015.

No disrespect to the crystal ball, but the fact is, looking at past data can often be the best indicator of future results. For this numbers-driven forecast, Restaurant Business partnered with Chicago research firm Food Genius to go beyond the buzz of kale and quinoa. The team, led by founder and CEO Justin Massa, examined more than 600,000 restaurant menus to see what terms appeared the most.

What they found were three major themes and two minor ones that are moving the needle enough to impact restaurateurs across the country, at independents and chains alike. While some of the trends, such as spicy and healthy, have been around for a stint, they’re maturing on the national level and will spend the next few years continuing to soar. The trends also evolve differently region by region; looking at their distribution helps operators best decide how to exploit the trends in their area. Here, we present the surefire trends that have the momentum and staying power to affect your business in 2015.

1. Italian

2. Spicy

3. Healthy

4. Authentic Ingredients

5. Elevated descriptions

Bonus: Justin’s ones to watch

How we picked the trends

For this report, Food Genius sorted through terms collected from its database of thousands of menus (at both independents and chains) over the past year. The data was then sliced 14 ways—by segment, price, cuisine, daypart, mealpart and more—and analyzed to pinpoint all of the terms that grew. There’s a threshold a term must cross to even be considered for analysis (see “Types of trends,” Page 81); those that make the cut are transferred to sticky notes and posted on a wall for the team to examine. Over several days, the team clusters the terms into logical groupings, revealing the top themes of the past year.

These broad, national themes are interesting, but how they play out regionally turns interesting into actionable. The metric for determining regional penetration looks slightly different than that used to spot terms growing nationally. 

For the latter, each concept with a unique menu—no matter how many units that menu is at—counts as one. For the regional snapshot, Food Genius looks at how many restaurants (including multiple locations of one concept) in a given area have that term on the menu.

Location penetration signals consumer awareness, knowledge that helps restaurateurs decide what to menu based on how a national trend is manifesting in their corner of the country.

post-it wall

Types of trends

Food Genius uses the following criteria and categories to determine which menu terms will inform the overall trends and which were  too underdeveloped to make the cut:

  • Niche trends - These are items that appear on less than 5 percent of menus, and their mentions have grown by 15 percent or more in the past year. 
  • Accepted trends - These items appear on 5 to 23 percent of menus, and their mentions have grown by at least 15 percent over the past year. 
  • Widespread trends - Includes items that appear on more than 23 percent of menus, and their mentions have grown by at least five percent over the past year. 

Out of all the menu items and terms analyzed, there were quite a few that had grown over the year, but they weren’t considered for the purposes of this list until researchers saw a discernible pattern or theme emerge. These larger groupings, all of which experienced notable annual growth, led to the list of five trends poised to grow in 2015.


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