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Technomic: Labor and supply shortages will challenge menu innovation in 2022

The industry recovery will continue, but the limitations will have a big influence on the menu in the coming year.
2022 futuristic graphic
Photograph: Shutterstock

Economic recovery will continue for the restaurant industry next year, but labor and menu shortages will impact innovation across all channels, according to Technomic’s 2022 trend forecast released on Tuesday.

“Technomic’s trends for 2022 all fall under this same umbrella of doing more with less, given our industry’s current challenges and conditions,” said Lizzy Freier, director of Menu Research & Insights for Technomic, the sister company of Restaurant Business. “How do operators manage with less labor, emphasize flexibility with menus (given still-existing supply chain issues) and enact key changes to the guest experience? These strategies, in many ways, show just how nimble operators need to be right now.”

In the forecast, called “The Year of the Climb,” Technomic pinpoints seven “big picture” trends that can guide operators in navigating the challenges in the year ahead.

Industry bright spots and hurdles persist

Overall, the 2022 economic outlook for the restaurant industry is positive, but there are a couple of caveats. The good news is that, on a nominal basis, the industry will surpass its 2019 sales level, with a 10.4% increase in sales on the horizon. However, menu price inflation will drive some of that growth, as it did in 2021. With travel and convention business not yet up to speed, full-service restaurants may lag behind limited-service concepts in recovery efforts.

All-in-one prep

Streamlined menus and supply chain snags will force operators to innovate the menu with ingredients and products already on hand rather than bring in new SKUs. Nontraditional preparations of familiar foods can add menu excitement. Chefs can grill or roast items typically served raw to introduce new textures, or enhance flavor by blistering, aging, pickling or fermenting ingredients.

Protein in play

Expanding protein options can help offset supply chain challenges and higher food costs. The time is right to explore underutilized cuts of meat and “whole animal” cooking—even applying that technique to fish. While plant-based beef and chicken is mainstream now, plant-based fish and seafood, pork and milk are not as ubiquitous and offer platforms for innovation. The nuts and seeds widely used in African, Indian and other global cuisines are another way to make a protein swap, as is subbing seafood for beef in meatballs or serving waffles with fried veggies instead of chicken.

Weighing comfort vs. experience

Post-pandemic consumers are fickle and future variants of COVID-19, unpredictable. That makes it necessary for operators to provide multiple service styles. There’s an ongoing desire for both comfort and experience, so restaurants will have to figure out how to balance interactive, fun, communal experiences on-premise while continuing to emphasize delivery, takeout formats and other off-premise services that strengthen consumers’ comfort and safety levels.

The fight for labor

Restaurants are competing to fill a record number of vacant positions with inventive recruitment, hiring and retention strategies. The prediction is that the next year will bring a surge in companies hosting virtual hiring events, raising hourly pay, extending signing and referral bonuses, offering 401(k) and healthcare benefits and providing perks such as emergency childcare. With large numbers of workers leaving the industry, operators are tasked with positioning restaurants as a rewarding place to work.

Ready for robotics

Robots are one solution to staffing shortages, and they are poised to become more visible in the year ahead—especially in the back-of-house. Kitchen robots are now programmed to assist with food prep, clean floors and operate equipment. More tech companies will roll out robots for front-of-house tasks as well, bussing tables and even serving. QSRs are leading the way in automating certain human tasks, with robotic drive-thru service already in place at select McDonald’s, Domino’s and KFC units.

Take with a grain of salt

Although the FDA recently recommended that Americans reduce sodium intake, salt can play a role as an indulgent flavor enhancer in place of fat. A little can go a long way. Naturally salty ingredients are finding momentum, including purslane or seaweeds, salt-cured meats and fish and salt-forward sauces, condiments and spice blends, such as Tajin and za’atar. Chefs are increasingly turning to specialty sea salts to finish a plate of food or rim a cocktail glass—a low-labor way to add flavor and intrigue.

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