5. More fruits and veggies
Quick-service restaurants have never been short on vegetable and fruit offerings—potatoes for french fries; tomatoes, lettuce, and onions on burgers; and various items in salads—but customers will expect more fruit and vegetable variety on menus, the experts say.
“We’re seeing all kind of vegetables,” Olson says. For example, lettuce will no longer be confined to iceberg; romaine, field greens, and spinach are increasingly being used. Kale, a so-called superfood, is also becoming more popular as a healthful option at some fast-casual restaurants and on college campuses.
The trend is also helping make kids’ meals healthier, Olson says. “School foodservice operators are turning vegetables into super heroes with kid-appealing names like Power Punch Broccoli and X-Ray Vision Carrots,” she says.
Further, sweet potato fries have recently been added to more menus. And veggies such as artichoke hearts, beets, broccoli, cucumbers, edamame, jicama, mushrooms, red peppers, sprouts, and zucchini are on the menu at salad chains, such as Freshii and Tossed.
Avocado, meanwhile, is solidifying its role as a sexy ingredient in restaurant sandwiches, wraps, and salads.
Using more vegetables “means not only innovative salads, but also creative presentations of roasted or steamed veggies,” Negrete writes in Technomic’s trend report. “Vegetables at the center of the plate are welcomed by diners—who continue to seek fresh, local, healthful fare—as well as operators squeezed by rising costs for proteins."
6. Gluten-free options
Whether gluten-free dining is a fad or long-lasting trend “is irrelevant,” Kincheloe says. “The demand for gluten-free food is growing.”
Gluten is found in processed wheat, rye, barley, and related grains, and causes a serious reaction, called celiac disease, in less than 1 percent of Americans. These people eschew wheat-based items like pasta, bread, cookies, cakes, sauces, and beer.
Some experts have estimated that another 10 percent have gluten sensitivity, which can result in muscle aches, serious acne, gastrointestinal woes, and other problems. Many more simply “believe there is a derived health benefit,” Kincheloe says.
“Nearly 30 percent of all adults claim they are cutting down on or avoiding gluten completely,” Riggs writes in the NPD report.
While diners with celiac disease carefully avoid restaurants where ingredient cross- contamination can take place, it may not be as big an issue for many others.
“There are a lot of people out there who are eating gluten-free,” Jankowski states. “Most of them are not looking for perfect corn tortilla or rice-based [noodles], so there is no need to reshape the entire kitchen.”
7. Trickle-up trends
At one time, food trends started at fine-dining and casual restaurants and eventually wound up at limited service.
Not so much anymore. Quick service, and particularly fast casual, is reversing the trend.
“Fast casual will be the way of the world this year,” says Andrew Freeman, founder of Andrew Freeman & Co., a San Francisco–based hospitality-consulting agency. Limited-service brands will be leaders in new menu items, as well as in service, he says.
Chefs trained in fine dining increasingly realize this fact and continue to develop fast-casual restaurants with concise menus focusing on one narrowly defined concept, such as burgers, barbecue, or roast chicken.
The fast-casual segment’s success has also created more competition.
“It is one of the few areas of growth” in the restaurant industry, Riggs says, noting that fast casual is both innovative and meets consumers’ value expectations. “This is such a me-too industry, and everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon.”
8. Ethnic foods
All kinds of ethnic foods have found their way to limited service, and that should continue to expand this year.
“Just as diners who love Asian fare have explored beyond Chinese to develop a taste for Thai and Vietnamese, those who favor Mexican are looking even further south—all the way to Brazil, Argentina, and Peru,” Technomic’s Negrete says.
There will always be a role for traditional Mexican cooking, but a growing number of restaurants will be focusing on the sophisticated, authentic side of Mexican cuisine, as well as of South American food. Freeman calls this Nex Mex.
“Finding the real thing is really important,” he says.
Several foreign quick-service chains have indicated they expect to add more units in the U.S. this year, including Giraffas (Brazil), Pollo Campero (Guatemala), and Asiana Grill Yoshinoya (from Japan’s Yoshinoya).
9. Innovative beverages
Looking for differentiation? Try new beverages. Negrete says the trend is toward fresh fruit beverages, natural energy drinks, and various local offerings, such as house-made sodas, micro-distillery liquors, and regional craft beer.
Fruit and vegetable juices are showing strength, due in part to more limited-service restaurants serving smoothies and the growing prevalence of juice bars.
“The quality is really important,” Freeman says. “We're seeing [restaurants] doing interesting things with juice, especially with the health craze. I hear people saying, ‘I love juice,’ and there are a lot of fun things to do with it, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.”
Meanwhile, Starbucks will expand its Evolution Fresh bottled juices beyond West Coast markets. The company also will ramp up additional standalone Evolution Fresh stores that offer handcrafted, made-to-order juices.
10. Evolving around health care
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will affect the restaurant industry more than almost any other industry when fully implemented in 2014.
That means operators this year “better know what’s going on and how it will impact” them, Kincheloe says. There will be additional paperwork and higher costs for everything from employee health-care coverage to menuboard upgrades. “We’ve told larger clients to make small incremental price increases to cover their costs,” Kincheloe says.
Some chains, like McDonald’s, have already put calorie counts on menuboards. Maid-Rite, a Des Moines, Iowa–based chain, is adding new menuboards from QA Graphics that allow changes to be made instantly in its 65 restaurants with no added costs.
“Traditionally, you had to get new menuboards any time you made a change,” says Bradley Burt, Maid-Rite's president and chief executive. But he, like other operators, believe multiple adjustments to the boards may be required due to the affordability act.
So far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t issued final regulations for nutrition posting and has no estimated date for it. “There will be changes made. There always are,” Burt says.
Meanwhile, the industry will likely face more consumer and legislative pressure to make further changes, like the size of certain beverages and the nutritional value of kids’ meals, Riggs says.
“It remains to be seen if these really impact [diners’] behavior,” she says. “Consumers themselves will determine their eating habits.”