2016 restaurant industry predictions

Visions from on high
mcdonalds pour

According to pottery shards from ancient Greece, there might have been a time when editors didn’t feel compelled to predict developments for a new year. Archaeologists suspect they were too busy covering a new technology called the wheel.

Who are we to ignore the modern tradition of using our keyboards as a crystal ball? After chanting for three days in an ashram with the holy man known as Jim Beam, we were rewarded with these visions of the restaurant industry’s near-term future.

Fast casual will replace gravity as the industry’s fundamental force

Why else would operators of other stripes be drawn to the sector the way teen boys are pulled to an unmanned Xbox controller? Rare today is the big-name chef who hasn’t dabbled in limited service. In a year, the holdouts could be counted on a fork’s tines. 

Meanwhile, quick-service restaurants are being pulled into fast casual’s quality zone as if they’d been caught in a tractor beam. The just-coined term QSR-plus is likely to become a fixture of the restaurant vernacular.
It’s the natural outcome of fast casual becoming the epicenter of the restaurant universe, to which all other brands are drawn.

Blended burgers will be the slider of 2016

If you doubt it, get to one of the many college campuses that are mixing proteins with mushrooms, grains, veggies and other highly textured components to deliver a burger that’s more moist, more flavorful, more healthful and kinder to the environment.

The Culinary Institute of America is teaching tomorrow’s chefs to eat them regularly—a blended burger is featured every day in the school’s new student-feeding operation—as well as how to form and cook them.

And the beef-plus burgers already are proving successful for chains. A beef-bacon blend is the signature of the Slater’s 50/50 casual concept. The name of Texas Roadhouse’s new growth concept, Bubba’s 33, refers to bacon accounting for 33 percent of the burger mix.

Fried chicken will rival the mixed burger

In addition to the new crop of fast casuals featuring Nashville-style hot chicken, places of all types will feature yesterday’s poster product for clogged arteries. With health concerns allayed by the realization that you don’t have to eat it every day, the staple looks, once again, like a perfect restaurant item: something with relatively low food costs and high perceived value that consumers aren’t going to make at home because of the hassle and mess.

Look for Popeyes to become the poultry version of In-N-Out for the white-collar, young professional set. 

McDonald’s will try beer and wine

It’s a logical next step in the chain’s race to catch up with the public’s tastes. If you can get a beer anywhere from a supermarket to a shooting range, why not let Mom and Dad enjoy a cold one while the kids gnaw some McNuggets? The sheer logistics of licensing even a small percentage of McDonald’s U.S. restaurants means the addition of a McCab will have to be done on a very selective basis.

McDonald’s will be the turnaround story of 2016. And its former protégé Chipotle Mexican Grill will become the ICU patient of the year.


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