Robots, cannabis, sour, meal kits: restaurant trends of 2019

The impact of automation, entrepreneurs, convenience is pervasive

Baum + Whiteman’s 2019 trend report highlights 13 trends that promise to reshape the market of the immediate future. While some of these trends are continuations of factors that are already playing a large role in the contemporary hospitality market and others are more speculative, they each represent larger potential disruptions to the current food and beverage environment.

One such emerging trend is increased automation in restaurants and hotels that, while still highly speculative, will have a huge effect on way that food and beverages are produced, ordered, and served. Baum + Whiteman specifically name automated pizza and burger production machines, as well as a robotic barista in San Francisco, but it is important to understand, however, that these are still rather gimmicky one-offs. As of 2018, business have yet to scale up these prototypes to a level where they could be viable replacements for manual food production within large-scale restaurant operations.

Eatsa, a vegetarian restaurant that had no front-of-house staff—instead opting for an environment without any direct customer to staff interactions—closed its two Washington D.C. locations after failing to attract expected interest. This leads to an important question: What effect will a transition to more complete automation have on both the labor and consumer markets? Would consumers be willing to order on a tablet rather than talk to a waiter in an upscale eatery? Would customers long for the “old-fashioned” charm of hand-prepared burgers and pizza?

These questions will have to be answered in time. Despite some early hiccups, automated food/drink perpetration and service is not expected to decrease presence anytime soon.

While we wait for the bots, fast-casual dining has looked to other ways to stay profitable. A new niche of moderately-priced, high-quality fast-delivered food has developed over the last decade in upscale fast casual. These eateries have exchanged the tablecloths, flowers, reservations, and waiters for counter service and take-out, without deviating from the quality (or price) that you would expect at an average sit-down restaurant.


By eliminating most of the service elements, establishments like these make the dining experience entirely food-centric. And there are notable examples called out by Baum + Whiteman. In Washington, D.C., there is Chiko, the popular Chinese and Korean inspired restaurant, with tasting menu reservations that go nearly as fast as they become available, and which opened a second outpost on the West Coast in Encinitas, Calif. In Oakland, AlaMar Kitchen & Bar is serving up Cajun-style dishes, and Kish-Kash, a posh, designer-styled fast casual in New York’s West Village, offers Mediterranean-style offerings in a quick-service setting.

Photo by Chiko.

The Baum + Whiteman report does raise the prospect of an “oversaturation” of the larger fast-casual category, but it is important to consider the economic reasons that we are seeing so many eateries like this. Having a smaller dining area and less supporting service staff drastically lowers rent and labor costs, which are two of the largest expenditures that most restaurants have. With the recent real estate crunch in many cities, there is even more incentive for restaurants to cut down on floor space and ditch the hosts and bussers. And adding booze to the mix does offer another compelling reason upscale fast casual can compete against casual dining and polished casual restaurants.

The report also highlights some flavor trends in the market. Cuisine inspired by Central Asian flavors are making a dazzling debut on the American market. Rus Uz, an upscale Uzbek restaurant, has become a local favorite in Arlington, Va. Rus Uz also operates a market where customers can select and sample imported products. The menu features Russian salads and, of course, plov, a hearty rice, meat, and vegetable mix which is the national dish of Uzbekistan.


While these restaurants offer dishes unfamiliar to most Americans, we are also seeing an expansion and an upscaling of foreign cuisine that is more familiar to the American palette. American Chinese food is no longer just greasy take-out. Hot-pots, dry-pots, and even crepe-like flatbreads called bings offer a more diverse take on favorite American cuisines. With respect to specific flavors, the Baum + Whitman report argues that, if last decade was the decade of bitter flavors, then the next ten years will be defined by sour flavors. The rising popularity of Filipino, Korean, and Persian cuisine has led to an increasing abundance of vinegar-based sauces, and other strong sour flavors, like rhubarb, in American cuisine.

Another ingredient that will cement itself in the food and beverage scene is cannabis. As nationwide cannabis legalization moves forward, the active ingredient, CBD, is slated to appear in beers and baked goods. Nonetheless, much still depends on the response from the FDA.

The rising price of restaurants compared to home cooking signals a potential decline in the traffic that traditional restaurants receive. In 2018, food prices at restaurants rose by 2.6 percent, compared to only 0.5 percent at grocery stores. This economic incentive to cook at home has also led to a boom in the meal kit business, but again, here we also see an oversaturation of the market, perhaps even a bubble. There are over 150 meal kit subscriptions, each with their own style, that are vying for a market where keeping customers beyond the initial subscription period is critical and extremely difficult. 2019 promises to be a make or break period for this novel and innovative industry. If a few can emerge, in their own niche, then a stable market might be the result. Otherwise, the “giants” of the market, that is, Blue Apron and HelloFresh, might leave no room for competition.

Capital One Cafe. Photo by Capital One.

As meal kits show, the monopoly that traditional restaurants hold over the dining experience is fading fast. Increasingly, non-food businesses are creating cafes or other food and beverage services. Cafes at banks, restaurants, clothing stores like Neiman Marcus, and even barbershop bars, are some immediately apparent examples of this phenomenon. The spacious Capital One Café across from the Chinatown metro stop in downtown D.C. offers a combination that may have seemed absurd just a few years ago. The branch is a great monument of “capitalist realism” — it removes all of the illusory wall art of Starbucks and instead offers ATMs and loans alongside pain au chocolate and lattes. Capital and consumption can be tied together, and Capital One has proved that there is no reason for either to be exclusive to a singular enterprise.


Finally, on the most speculative end of the predicted trends is the promise of “synthetic” or “motherless” meat. This is meat grown from the cells of animals without slaughtering them. Although still highly experimental, if correctly operationalized, this tech promises to change the market permanently and profoundly. This technology still seems a little far off for 2019, but these trends indicate that we are experiencing a massive flux in the way we eat. Tech giants are shaping distribution, increased automation is changing the way we make food, and concerns about time, money and health are all contributing to structural changes throughout the market. It’s still not clear which restaurants and providers are equipped to adapt and survive through a truly seismic food shift.

Author credit: Thomas Schaffner

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