Special Report | January 2011 | By Jordan Melnick

The 7 Trends of 2011

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3. Transparency

The flip side to the increased consumer access the Internet and mobile technology give restaurants may be consumers’ growing expectation that restaurants be more transparent. In 2010, the passing of health care reform forced many chains to disclose calorie counts on their menus, and New York City requires restaurants to publicly display their sanitation grades. In Los Angeles—like New York, a bellwether for the industry—food trucks are also receiving sanitation grades.

Eric Giandelone, director of food research at Mintel, expects the push for more transparency to continue this year.

“Transparency is the big one,” he says. “Consumers expect more information, and they are getting more information.”

In 2011, Giandelone predicts consumers will continue to demand to know more about the ingredients restaurants are using and how they are getting them. He also expects more restaurants to follow the trend of open kitchens as a sign to customers that they have nothing to hide.

Restaurants need to proactively embrace this new era of openness, not resist it, Giandelone says.

“If you are withholding information, it looks like you’re hiding information,” he says. “If we [as consumers] are being more open, then we expect companies to be more open too.”

4. Crowdsourcing

Mike Samson, cofounder of crowdSPRING, says many restaurants already use his site to outsource menu and signage design to its community of 77,000 designers. In 2011, he says more restaurants will switch from the traditional process of retaining a single agency to the crowdsourcing model.

“Our biggest barrier to growth is lack of awareness,” Samson says. “People just don’t know that there is an alternative way to go about sourcing creative services.”

5. Nothing Too Over-the-Top

This year has seen its share of outlandish roll outs. In April, KFC came out with the Double Down, a breadless “sandwich” that features melted cheese, bacon, and sauce between two chicken filets. In June, Massachusetts-based Friendly’s introduced its Ultimate Grilled Cheese Burgermelt, a burger patty between two grilled cheese sandwiches. And in July, CKE Restaurants began testing a foot-long cheeseburger in select Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s locations.

“It is the wallet of tomorrow, the WiFi of tomorrow, the Internet of tomorrow—all contained in [one] device.”

Each of the items garnered a lot of publicity, and even though much of it was negative, the Red Light Project’s Courtney says 2011 will see a continuation of the over-the-top trend. In fact, he expects some restaurants to introduce even more outrageous items this year, even if it means subverting their own brands.

“In a pound of flesh economy where everybody needs to do whatever it takes to get a bigger piece of the pie, [restaurants] will throw the brand right under the bus if they think it will be successful,” Courtney says.

He attributes the recent spate of overindulgent products to the general increase in competition across the quick-service segment due in part to the growing popularity of fast casuals.

Did QSR’s predictions for last year’s seven hottest trends come true? Below is what we heard from experts at the beginning of 2010.

  1. Restaurants will strive to be more authentic.
  2. Consumers will put more emphasis on sustainability.
  3. Farm-to-table foods will be popular.
  4. Quick serves will position themselves as handouts.
  5. The growth in social media will continue.
  6. More brands will over meatless entrées.
  7. Casual chains will begin opening quick serve versions.

“There’s more competition than ever,” he says. “So there’s pressure to do something, and the value of these sensational, over-the-top products is obvious. Look at the PR value alone. It really gets you on the radar very quickly.”

Even as Courtney sees more Double Down–esque menu items on the horizon, he also says 2011 will see a resurgence of the signature product. It is the Whoppers and Big Macs that can buoy a restaurant in hard times and put it on the path to sustained growth over the long term, he says.

“It can become a halo for your brand,” Courtney says.

But concocting a signature product—“something embedded into the brand” —is far harder than wowing customers with an over-the-top sandwich.

“The shortcut to fame is a signature product,” Courtney says, “but there’s really no shortcut to a signature product.”

6. Nontraditional Locations

It remains exceedingly difficult for restaurants to get a loan. This is one reason Jeff Levine, CEO of Salad Creations, says he opened six “nontrad” locations in 2010, and is planning to open 15–20 more this year.

Giant companies handle foodservice at airports and universities—Salad Creations’ nontrads of choice—and they have easy access to financing, Levine says.

“So from the standpoint of growth, it is one less problem that we as the franchisor have to deal with,” he says.

This single, significant advantage may persuade more restaurants to test out the nontraditional market next year.

7. Raising Prices

However slowly, the economy is improving, and this may tempt restaurants to start raising their prices in 2011—although they shouldn’t, says Lombardi, the WD Partners executive vice president.

“I think they will stub their toes if they do it too early,” he says. “Consumers are definitely still in a recession mindset, and they are not going to go back to the old ways of spending.”

Click here to read the full article on last year’s predictions.

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