These are the ingredients, flavors and culinary movements that had the biggest impact this year.
1. Plant-based alternatives
Plant-based burgers exploded in growth in 2019, with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat leading the charge. The faux burgers hit menus everywhere—from QSRs such as Burger King and White Castle to Gordon Ramsay’s upscale burger concept in Las Vegas. Piggybacking on the burgers’ success, operators started crumbling the plant-based meat to use in pizzas, pasta sauces, meatballs, nacho toppings and more. Sausage patties followed, as did Just Eggs, an egg substitute made with mung beans. Both showed up on breakfast sandwiches. While are all manufactured products, operators are also creating their own plant-based alternatives in the kitchen. Crab cakes crafted from hearts of palm and noodles made with zucchini and cauliflower are two popular examples.
2. Low- and no-alcohol drinks
Neck and neck with the dominance of Impossible and Beyond products was the rise of White Claw hard seltzer. This less boozy version of a vodka soda not only crowded coolers at retail, but it also appeared in a range of flavors on bar menus, too. Joining this branded drink were scores of low-ABV cocktails created from fresh ingredients behind the bar. Spritzes made with Aperol, rose wine and shrubs, spiked lemonades and teas and cocktails with a base of sake, amaro and beer have all increased on menus.
Dry January, or “Dryuary”—a month when many consumers swear off alcohol—really took off in 2019, with many restaurants offering special drinks crafted with the same care as classic cocktails. These zero-alcohol drinks (“mocktails” is such an untrendy word) benefit from new alcohol-free spirits such as Seedlip, flavored with herbs or florals and similar in taste to gin and some flavored vodkas. Dryuary is now expanding to other months, and health-conscious consumers are more apt to take a break from drinking any time of year—a move that will power this trend into 2020 and beyond.
3. Viral LTOs
Social media fueled such demand for certain limited-time offers and new menu items that customers waited on long lines and operators sold out. The most recent example is Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen’s chicken sandwich. The brand engaged in “chicken sandwich wars” on Twitter, and enthusiastic fans multiplied the social media buzz, causing Popeyes to run out of food. Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino and KFC’s plant-based chicken generated similar results. Chains are launching LTOs at a faster and more furious rate than ever before, and the most buzzworthy go viral—a trend that should see action in 2020, too.
4. Customization backlash
The Chipotle effect seems to be losing steam, as fast-casual and college dining operators turn from a build-your-own menu to bowls and wraps that are curated in the kitchen. New and even seasoned customers can suffer from “decision paralysis” when it’s time to order, and that holds up the line during busy times. Concepts such as Sweetgreen, Roti Modern Mediterranean and Modern Market are now offering chef-created bowls with set combinations. Allergies and special diets can be accommodated, but customizing an entire meal from the bottom up may be on the wane.
5. Grain exploration
Quinoa fatigue is pushing operators to explore other grains to use as the base for bowls, stir-fries and side dishes. Like quinoa, many whole grains are gluten-free and provide protein, fiber and other nutrients. Fonio, the small millet-like grain with roots in West Africa, is gaining traction. Teff, sorghum, buckwheat, farro and freekeh are also finding their way into foodservice kitchens. And bakers are also sourcing flours milled with these grains to give baked goods more texture and nutrition. Chickpea flour and buckwheat flour both made waves in 2019.
6. Veggie-forward snacks
Snacks took up considerable real estate at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York in June. The demand for anytime, anywhere eating and portability spurred the development of a host of grab-and-go snacks. And many of these spotlighted vegetables and plant foods. Chips made from cauliflower, mushrooms, artichokes, jackfruit and lentils are in abundance. Mushrooms are also getting pounded into jerky and dried, crisped and seasoned with Sriracha and other trending flavors. Crunchy chickpeas and hemp seeds are on the upswing, many flavored with Asian and Middle Eastern spices in step with the rise of those global cuisines.