Americans were pretty bullish on restaurants throughout 2023, but the landscape seems to be shifting for 2024.
With prices high and consumer confidence sagging, restaurants will have to be more strategic and creative to snag dining dollars next year. Taking factors like climate change, remote work and TikTok into account can positively impact menu development and sales, according to “What’s in Store for 2024,” a new report from Restaurant Business sister company, Technomic. These seven trends are worth watching to meet the challenges ahead.
The wild ride subsides. The restaurant industry as a whole experienced significant growth following the pandemic, but that recovery will start leveling off in 2024. Technomic predicts that most segments should return to low single-digit rates of growth. An aging population and lower birth rates will make organic growth difficult. Although limited service will benefit from consumers continuing to trade down, full-service restaurants are tasked with doubling down on delivering engaging experiences.
Extreme weather takes restaurants by storm. Torrential rains, scorching temperatures and deep freezes—2023 saw them all. Operators have to increasingly factor weather into menu planning, equipment and design. Kitchen reconfigurations, upgraded HVAC systems, misters and fans can make it more comfortable for staff and more inviting for guests. Summer menus already feature lighter dishes, but these may move into spring and fall as global warming extends the season. And climate change can impact the availability, flavor and quality of certain ingredients and products, pushing restaurants to diversify sourcing.
The great consumer occasion shift. With consumers trying to stretch their dining-out dollars as far as possible, Technomic forecasts that they’ll cut back on delivery in favor of takeout and opt for breakfast over lunch and dinner. Away-from-home breakfast is already booming on weekdays, but brunch will become the new dinner on weekends. Restaurants that provide a fun and engaging experience will attract guests who wish to eat, drink and socialize without putting as big a dent in their wallets.
Menus go granular. Menu descriptors matter more than ever. Transparency and specificity are key. To attract consumers, a salad can no longer be dressed with “red wine vinegar;” it must say “Barolo wine vinegar” or “balsamic vinegar from Modena.” On the drinks side, a cocktail needs to specify “Granny Smith apple flavor”—not generic apple flavor. Global flavors will need to give more detail; an African-style chicken dish should be called out as Senegalese-style chicken. These descriptors promote provenance, quality and premiumization—all selling points for the 2024 consumer.
Pandemonium on the plate. TikTok is feeding consumers’ appetite for crazy mashups and viral recipe sensations, and restaurants have to keep up. Guests are looking for far-out but tasty food and drink experiences, such as the pickle-topped pizzas and chopped sandwiches that took off recently. Butter boards, cocktails infused with garlic or mole, tahini coffee and smash burger tacos all caught on with social fans first and have been or can be adapted to restaurant menus.
You say tomato. Will 2024 be the year of the tomato? Technomic thinks so. Nontraditional applications, such as in desserts or center-of-the plate dishes are on the rise, along with tomato jam and fermented preparations. Global tomato-based sauces and dips, like Mayan sikil pak (pumpkin seed salsa), Libyan chraimeh (a sweet and savory fish dish) and Japanese yum yum (mayo-based steak sauce) are some of the trends Technomic is tracking through its menu data. And tomatoes have the potential to blossom in cocktails beyond bloody Marys, including caprese-inspired vodka drinks and clarified tomato water as a mixer.
Tech-enabled hospitality. This will no doubt be on the radar every year going forward, but 2024 will see more attention on back-of-the-house tech. Technology can enhance the employee experience to ease execution and free up time, with kitchen equipment that automates repetitive tasks so teams can redeploy their efforts into culinary and hospitality channels. Advanced tech will enable the restaurant kitchen to realize its potential as a hub for integrating online ordering systems, facilitate drive-through service and manage the supply chain.
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