With food trends, the why is often more important than the what
Food and beverage trends are usually based on more than just flavor profiles. What becomes popular is often based on the mood of the market. The attitude of the consumer is decided by the perceived strength of the economy, collective fears and anxiety, or other often hard to predict factors. The emergence of dozens of higher quality burger and comfort food restaurants in the early 2010s, for example, was probably a result of the market-wide desire to find some stability in familiar flavors during the aftermath of the 2008 recession.
That said, it is important to recognize that not everything that is “new” represents a trend. Food writer David Sax in a Bon Appétit article explains that trends are cemented in the food culture, unlike fads, which tend to only characterize a single season before becoming passé. What separates a trend from a fad is the fact that a trend stays around and becomes a long-term part of the market.
As trends tend to be influenced by shifting consumer attitudes, it is important to understand how the consumer is feeling. On the topic of predicting up-and-comers, top forensic trendologist, Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, explains that consumers are not feeling particularly grounded or confident.
This uncertainty can lead to a retreat to regional “classics.” However, these regional staples can be made novel by new combinations of flavors or hybrid cuisine. Innovative and high-quality takes on classics—like soft shell crabs cooked in red wine vinegar at Convivial in Washington, D.C., or lobster rolls with avocado and pear at Japanese restaurant Pagu in Boston (Boston.com)—demonstrate a desire among consumers to try new things while also sticking to what they are familiar with.
Similarly, Badaracco notes that we should expect to see some twists on classic food and beverage basics. Juices and espresso, for example, have long been staples, but are now being updated with different ingredients, resulting in kale-infused juices, lattes made with beetroot, or the now commonplace nitro cold brew coffee.
This does not mean that American consumers are not willing to try completely new cuisines, but rather that what ultimately becomes a hit will usually have element of familiarity to it. The recent expansion of Georgian food into the American market demonstrates this. Supra, an authentic Georgian restaurant in Logan Circle in D.C. offers a brunch menu with items that would not seem completely foreign to the American palette. Dishes such as khachapuri (bread with melted cheese and egg) and Georgian omelets have flavor profiles that resonate with the average consumer.
Although unfamiliar to most Americans, novel international food can offer new spins on flavors that Americans are accustomed to while also carrying some cultural cachet that can attract consumers ambitious to expand their horizons.
Badaracco also explains that “functional” foods and beverages, that is, foods and drinks that offer a purported benefit to health or cognition, will become increasingly popular. This is especially relevant as a larger portion of Gen X and Y reaches middle-age. With these products, however, it is important, she says, to “be tied to solid science” or else “consumers will not only abandon the product, (but) can retaliate through social media.” The fact that products can now be judged more easily and that every consumer has the capacity to be a critic represents another factor that will influence trends.
On the same theme, Michael Watz, food consultant at Watz Your Culinary Professor, highlights gaps in the market that an innovative restaurateur could exploit. He recognizes the potential that a modern interpretation of regional dishes represents. With recent trends in mind, he also explains that something like fast-casual Indian—a concept that Americanizes this sought-after cuisine, while maintaining integrity—would prove exceptionally successful, especially with young people and urban consumers.
In D.C., fast-casual Indian concept Rasa has entered this market by emphasizing authentic and locally-sourced food while also being casual and affordable. Similar opportunities exist with Vietnamese food and other underrepresented cuisines, according to Watz.
Finally, the addition of new flavors into the American spice rack gives us hints about where cuisine in general is heading. Za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice, and Garam Masala, an Indian spice, for example, have taken the American market by storm. Romesco, a Catalonian tomato and nut sauce, also promises to be a hit soon, says Watz. Ultimately, however, the integration of these flavors into new fusions will be the defining test of their longevity as trends.
This article was originally published in the debut issue of Restaurant C-Suite Magazine.
Author credit: Thomas Schaffner