6 answers to the ever-present 'what's the next...' question

Wouldn’t it be nice if, along with the walk-in and tables, restaurants came equipped with a crystal ball? It would be a cinch to predict the next superstar menu item or blockbuster cocktail.

Lots of people think I have access to that crystal ball. I’m always being asked “What’s trending now in restaurants and what will have staying power?” or “What’s the next big thing?” Sometimes it gets a bit tiresome.

But as someone who covers the industry and eats out a lot, I guess I do have some insider information. After attending the Fancy Food Show in June, I zeroed in on seven “nexts” on the specialty food side. Now I’m going to attempt to do the same on the restaurant side. Here are my best guesses.

The next burger

“Better” fried chicken sandwiches are moving in on better burgers’ territory in the fast-casual segment, some introduced by those very same burger concepts: Shake Shack’s newest menu extension is a premium chicken sandwich on a bun ($6.29). Chef-created versions are also trending. David Chang of Momofuku fame just opened Fuku in New York City, where he serves up spicy fried chicken sandwiches, and at Leghorn Chicken in Chicago, Chef Jared Van Camp has people lining up for fried chicken on biscuits; both sandwiches sell for $8.

The next bacon

Speaking of chicken, crispy strips of chicken skin are showing up as bar snacks, garnishes and ingredients in everything from omelets to risotto. A cost-effective way to cross utilize.

The next quinoa

It may not have the same gluten-free and high-protein credentials as quinoa, but farro is making inroads on menus in salads, bowls, breads and vegetarian entrees. The ancient grain adds hearty texture and nutty flavor to dishes.

The next build-your-own-pizza

Within the fast-growing fast-casual segment, build-your-own, customizable concepts are growing twice as fast as others, according to Technomic data. And custom-built pizzas led the charge in the last year. But I think these ubiquitous and very similar pizza concepts may reach a saturation point soon. I’m seeing build-your-own bowls as the next sensation. During the Chef Culinary Conference at the University of Massachusetts in June, food guru Mark Bittman lauded the versatility of bowls as a vehicle for healthy, creative and seasonal customized meals. “We see a bowl in everybody’s future,” he said.

Next on tap

Prebatched cocktails and wine on tap are trendy and labor-efficient ways to serve alcohol in restaurants and bars. Now operators are turning to taps for nonalcoholic drinks, including lemonade, iced tea, kombucha and coffee. I expect restaurants to tap into more possibilities.

The next communal table

Group dining is not going away, but it is getting more comfortable. Instead of high-tops with backless stool seating, restaurants are beginning to group customers on upholstered couches and chairs around long but lower tables. No more dangling feet. 

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