After two years of pandemic-restricted service, chefs and restaurateurs were eager to ramp up menu innovation in 2022. Then the industry was hit with a triple whammy.
The supply chain was still erratic, kitchens were understaffed and inflation was starting to take a bite out of creativity.
But that didn’t stop savvy operators from finding ways to innovate with the food and drink menu. These are some of the top trends that emerged and are still going strong.
Alcohol-free cocktails are table stakes
There’s no doubt mocktails have been evolving into classy no-alcohol drinks for several years now, but 2022 saw a noticeable uptick in the scope of this trend. Restaurants and bars now have separate sections of the menu labeled “zero-proof drinks,” “spirit-free cocktails” or any number of names not associated with the word “mocktail.” These are sophisticated, well-balanced drinks expertly crafted by skilled bartenders and mixologists—not a slapdash combo of fruit juices and fizzy water.
And they’re in high demand by consumers. According to Technomic’s recent On-Premise Update, 96% of operators report that customers are looking for a wider selection of nonalcohol drinks. There’s evidence that Gen Z is leading the charge, seeking out venues for sober socialization. In response, a small number of “sober bars” have opened and hotels are setting aside spaces for gatherings that don’t include drinking. Expect more of these to open in the year ahead.
Value menus come to the high end
Value is no longer limited to McDonald’s combo meals, Chili’s two for $20 deals or any number of discounted promotions from similar chains. Black Angus Steakhouse is just one of several higher-end operators offering customers special food and drink promotions and “bundled experiences” that deliver a lot of bang for the buck. These include wine and whiskey pairing dinners, upscale surf ‘n turf plates partnering crab legs with sirloin, and steak flavor flights. All are designed to build traffic and volume, which, in turn, increase profit.
Fast-casual Everytable serves a Value Menu of Craft Favorites, many of which use pasta as a base but are scratch-made with upscale touches. An independent polished casual and fine dining restaurants are also seizing opportunities to offer value. With the supply chain still unpredictable, when a certain meat cut or seafood species is abundant, they’ll craft a “special of the day or week” around it.
Digital menus and disposable paper menus are pretty standard now and operators have more flexibility with the lineup, resulting in these very limited, limited-time offers to be on the rise.
Happy Hours change with the times
The surge in remote workers and the renewed interest in group get-togethers have spurred bars and restaurants to rethink the old Happy Hour format. Operators in residential neighborhoods are offering late afternoon-early evening food-and-drink events to attract those work-from-homers and show off their menus. Instead of cheap beer and nachos, they’re putting tapas, oysters, steak skewers, charcuterie boards and other chef-inspired fare on the happy hour menu. Creative shareables are also making a post-pandemic comeback. Another noticeable upgrade: Signature cocktails like negronis, Aperol spritzes and premiumwines by the glass are on the drinks list, not BOGO offers.
Inflationary pressures may also be encouraging customers to choose Happy Hours over dinner with friends. Although the check will be higher than it was when 2-for-1 drinks and $1 snacks were the norm, it’s still a lot lower than dinner with friends.
Happy Hours are now covering longer time slots too. Casual-dining chains including Buffalo Wild Wings, BJ’s Restaurants and TGI Fridays have extended food and drink promotions to four and five hours with some brands running them all day.
Food halls keep opening
At the height of the pandemic, naysayers were predicting the demise of the massive food hall. While many did close down longer than most other dining venues, the majority have reopened and new ones are opening at a fast clip.
Although food halls are still locating in urban centers, developers are also building them out in residential neighborhoods and tourist destinations, and choosing a good mix of local, chef-driven concepts instead of cookie-cutter chains. Williamsburg Market in Brooklyn and From Here On in Chicago are two representative models. Large bar areas and outdoor spaces are also key elements in the 2022 food hall.
And some are headed by big-name culinary pros. Jean-Georges Vongerichten curated the restaurants in the new Tin Building in New York City’s South Street Seaport and Singapore street food expert KF Seetoh created Urban Hawker, a very authentic Asian food hall in Midtown Manhattan.
Portability first…and new proteins
Developing travel-friendly food was one of the top pandemic lessons learned and it’s become a focus for R&D in every segment. Breakfast became a hotbed of innovation in this area, especially in quick-service. Wendy’s developed French Toast Sticks and Chick-fil-A Chorizo Cheddar Egg Bites to snag the grab-and-go morning customer. And Sonic expanded its line of savory snacks with Broccoli Cheddar Tots and introduced Fried Cookie Dough Bites on the sweet side.
But the emphasis on portability is not limited to breakfast and snacks. Bowls continue to be a platform for creativity, with more operators launching chef-curated versions to cut down on decision paralysis and ease digital ordering. Some of these fast-casual bowls showcase upgraded and more inventive proteins, like steak, lamb and meatballs. Chicken still rules the coop but gaps in the meat supply have pushed culinary teams to experiment—mostly with limited-time offers.
Speaking of meat, the appeal of overly processed plant-based meats seems to be waning. Sales of burger analogues from the big manufacturers are down or flat, as consumers shy away from long chemical-sounding ingredient lists and operators from high price tags.
In the last year, restaurants are turning to more natural plant proteins. At the National Restaurant Association Show in May, there were several products made from mushrooms and mycelium—the rootlike network from which mushrooms are grown. Operators are also turning to pea protein, lentils, chickpeas and oats to develop plant-based menu items. Oat milk is on the up as a dairy-free alternative in frozen yogurt, ice cream, coffee drinks and milkshakes.
And real vegetables are gaining more real estate on the plate, as chefs continue to explore the flavor and application possibilities of sweet potatoes, broccoli, squash, carrots and more unique varieties.
That’s not to say that food companies won’t continue to launch plant-based substitutes for seafood, chicken, sausage and more, but cleaner labels are on the horizon. One company even has a vegan tuna made from winter melon.
A deeper dive into the Mediterranean
It’s impossible to pinpoint the top cuisine of 2022, as restaurants continue to tap into established and emerging cuisines in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and lately, Africa.
But as chef and restaurateur Gavin Kaysen pointed out in a recent MenuFeed podcast, 22 countries touch or border the Mediterranean, and while menus tend to focus on just a few, operators are exploring and drawing more inspiration from that region.
For the most part, the fast-casual sector presents a homogenized view of Mediterranean food, offering the same gyros, pita sandwiches, bowls and salads. But more unusual and authentic ingredients and flavors are starting to trickle down from independents and chef-driven restaurants. Cava introduced a preserved lemon vinaigrette, a flavor profile taken from Morocco. And Pita Mediterranean Street Food draws from Greece, Lebanon and Israel. Lately, adaptations of less familiar regional foods from Italy, North Africa, Turkey, Spain and other countries are starting to show up.
The trendiest source of menu ideas
Chefs come up with menu ideas by traveling, eating out at all kinds of restaurants, brainstorming with their teams … and lately, scrolling through TikTok.
It’s indisputable that 2022 is the year when TikTok took over social media. And while there’s no data to support the trend, anecdotally a number of chefs have told me that watching cooking videos on TikTok—from amateurs and pros alike—has sparked a menu idea or two.
Case in point: Butter Boards were born on TikTok just this fall, going viral after a video from a crafty home cook. The chefs at several Kimpton Hotels jumped on the trend with their own takes, just in time for the holidays.
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