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.
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.
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.
Despite lots of talk about Asian flavors and other ethnic cuisines, they are still quite niche, only showing up on a small number of menus. It was elements of Italian food that ended up growing the most on menus in 2014. Authentic pasta varieties such as tagliatelle, orecchiette and capellini went from appearing on less than 500 menus to nearly 2,000 menus, and dishes such as gnocchi, manicotti and tortellini increased by 3 percent in both upscale and quick-service chain restaurants, especially those serving American cuisine.
There’s no obvious explanation for the surge of the Italian theme. Most industry predictions have been geared towards health, which is opposite of Italian cuisine’s core components that sway towards rich, carb-heavy dishes with fattier ingredients, such as bacon-laced carbonara. It may have been the subzero winter that lingered long into spring that had many consumers turning to warm, hearty meals. Or the Italian boom could be riding on the coattails of the authentic-ingredient trend (see Page 72), fueled by hundreds of different varieties of pasta, cheeses and proteins.
With consumers’ rising familiarity of Italian ingredients, it is likely the Italian theme will evolve and reveal itself in more ways across foodservice and across the country. And that is where operators can capitalize.
While there are more than 25 Italian-related terms that have experienced significant growth on American menus, a few stand out as leaders of the trend—namely piccata, Bolognese, manicotti.
Looking at how these terms manifest in American restaurants regionally provides cues for operators about how best to exploit the Italian trend in their own markets. Knowing where consumers are more or less likely to encounter these items when dining out can help inform an operator’s menu adds, whether he or she wants to be known as the only place in town to find Bolognese or to serve dishes with which diners are most familiar and comfortable.
Driven largely by independent restaurants, piccata (and not just veal, but also chicken, pork and seafood) is twice as common in California, Texas and Florida and least common in the Midwest.
Bolognese has four times the penetration in Massachusetts than in the country overall, but it is virtually nonexistent in the Plains and West.
While very common in the Midwest, with Illinois and Indiana leading the region, Nutella rarely appears on menus in the South Central region, comprised of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Surprisingly, manicotti has five times the penetration in Arkansas versus the country as a whole. It’s most common across the Eastern Seaboard, especially in Connecticut, with seven times the U.S. penetration.
The continued rise of spicy flavors and ingredients is hardly a surprise. It was a big trend in 2013, and with time, it’s only gotten bigger. But whereas before, spicy was growing in many niche places, the term “spicy” now appears on more than 60 percent of menus. And while there aren’t likely to be rapid changes in 2015, watch for the spicy trend to mature and evolve.
Driven by the adventurous palates of millennials and an increasingly diverse population, spicy will grow across various terms, segments and cuisines in 2015. And because demand for spicy foods has yet to waver, expect to see fiery flavors adopted by more and more restaurants.
What may be surprising is that the spicy trend isn’t all about Sriracha. Despite having experienced tremendous growth over the past year, Sriracha still appears on less than five percent of menus, compared to other spicy ingredients, such as hot sauce, chili peppers and jalapeños, which also have seen significant growth and now appear on more than 25 percent of menus. Right now, Sriracha remains a small but important component of the spicy trend— a buzzed-about term that consumers are somewhat familiar with. For operators looking to add a spicy dish to the menu, a Sriracha-flavored dish might fit, because it’s well exposed.
Spicy foods, flavors and ingredients from various ethnic cuisines also will become staples on menus of chains and independents alike. A less homogeneous, more hyperconnected world is driving increased awareness of such cuisines, nearly all of which have their own set of spicy elements. This spells widespread growth of spicy overall (think jalapeños and red pepper flakes) as well as limited growth for cuisine-specific terms such as “pickled” or “fermented.”
Some might consider jalapeños to be “spicy for the rest of us.” As such, the term is mostly concentrated in the “fly-over” states (Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa, Indiana and Kentucky), surpassing 55 percent penetration in each. It’s less prevalent on the coasts: New York (32 percent) and California (46 percent).
Sriracha is taking hold in some odd places. While Louisiana and Texas are known for spicy food, penetration there is 30 percent lower than several other states and half that of Maryland.
It’s been building for years, but the better-for-you movement finally gained enough steam last year to move past side dishes and take over the center of the plate. While kale, quinoa and chickpeas made waves in entrees, the trend has matured beyond specific ingredient mentions.
Last year, what grew most were explicit menu claims associated with health. In the past, the term “healthy” had momentum; now, more nuanced health-halo terms, such as vegan and gluten-free, are rising. For the first time, “vegan” appears on 5 percent of menus, and one in 10 chain restaurants menus a gluten-free item. These two areas—gluten-free and vegetarian—will continue their march toward widespread menu adoption in 2015, as more established quick-service and fast-casual operators wake up to a competitive landscape.
Overall, there will be more good-for-you items on menus next year, from protein alternatives to low-fat substitutes. What likely won’t go mainstream are organic products. They simply are too expensive for most chains to adopt. Consequently, it’s highly unlikely that menu mentions of the term “organic” will ever broach 20 percent.
But for both organic and the more bankable gluten-free, a few states, namely New York and California where they’re already a hit, are driving the trend much more than others. But both terms are starting to catch on in other regions where there’s still room for growth on the menu. And while independents are driving organic, chains are, for once, ahead of a trend, leading the charge to menu gluten-free items. In fact, the vast majority of locations serving gluten-free items are QSRs.
As health remains top of mind, we’re likely to continue to see foodservice picking up on trends that already are big in the grocery aisle, as happened with gluten-free. After all, while restaurants and supermarkets split the dollars, most of consumers’ healthy meals still come from inside the store, where they have time to read labels. That said, it’s unclear what the next iteration of gluten-free will be, but transparency is one theme to watch, as it’s a proxy for consumers wanting to know what’s in their food.
In the Northwest, gluten-free has 16 percent penetration. It remains a niche item in Louisiana and Mississippi at 4 percent.
While Italian ingredients, by far, experienced the most growth, they were part of a general tilt towards restaurants of all cuisine types making more mention of the authentic ingredients they use. For instance, galangal, a gingerlike root that is a staple in many Thai dishes and Indonesian curries, now appears on more than 1,000 menus. While it was likely always part of the recipe for curry dishes, only now is it being called out in menu descriptions.
The same is happening on a larger scale with ingredients such as Oaxaca and Cotija cheeses, which have been used in Mexican restaurants forever, but now are mentioned on 4 percent of Latin American menus.
The growth in authentic ingredients is a direct result of consumer demographics. The American population is more diverse than ever, and consumers, especially millennials, crave new foods as a connection to different cultures. Menu mentions of specific ingredients serve as cues to the authenticity and heritage of a dish.
This trend will expand beyond ethnic menus as mainstream operators meet the demand for new flavors. Traditional Asian dishes, such as ramen and pho, might soon pop up at American or fast-casual spots. And as consumers become more informed and culturally aware, operators will need to pay greater attention to the details of their ethnic dishes. An American restaurant selling a Greek salad in the future, for instance, might exclude iceberg lettuce and vinegar, two ingredients not used in the traditional recipe.
Food Genius’ analysis of more than 600,000 menu items revealed a significant increase in elegant and pleasant-sounding sensory terms. Words such as “quality” enjoyed growth in almost every type of restaurant from upscale Mediterranean independents to inexpensive, all-American QSRs. Other terms, such as “artisan,” grew by large margins in chains only, begging the question: Is “artisan” fast-casual’s new “premium”?
What’s most notable is that almost all of the sensory terms that grew have broad applicability. For example, “aromatic,” which went from being a niche term to an accepted term (for more on this, see “Types of trends,” at left) over the past year, can describe almost any food that gives off a scent. The same is true for trending term “subtle,” which describes anything with even a hint of flavor.
Elevated menu descriptions are a by-product of the growing sophistication of the food industry in recent years. The convenience of easy-to-menu items has given way to conscientious preparations and higher-quality ingredients. While consumers still may crave convenience, it’s no longer at the sacrifice of good ingredients. It’s these terms that help operators create a perception of value, assuaging diners concerned with the quality of their food.
Descriptors like “subtle,” “artisanal” and “hand-cut” will continue to grow in 2015. As more operators realize the perceived value such terms instill in customers’ minds, expect more and more menus describing sandwiches as artisanal—and net an additional 20 cents in doing so.
Justin’s ones to watch
While the other trends called out in this article are based on data, a.k.a hard evidence, there are a few still in the niche phase that Food Genius CEO Justin Massa has his eye on, based on poring over the data not just in the days of analysis, but throughout the year. Here are three “trendlettes” that Massa thinks might come into play in the future:
It’s a consumer good experiencing a moment in the sun recently, thanks in part to Mario Batali’s inclusion of the single-concept Nutella bar inside his Eataly concept. Now, due to the influx of Italian cuisine on menus, Nutella will have an even brighter 2015. Expect many restaurants, chain and independents alike, to start lacing their desserts with this sweet spread.
The next possible iteration in the list of health halos. Look out for “protein” as a claim on the menu as a way to emphasize the nutritional attributes of a dish or menu item.
Salty or salted
Menu items appearing across all mealparts, proteins, cuisines, etc. are using this description, from salted caramel to salted butter and salt cod. It’s appearing in very small numbers today, simmering on the fringes, but could make a splash soon.