There is always excitement at the beginning of a new year, with renewed hopes of health, wealth, and happiness. It’s no different in the limited-service industry, where brands are studying up on potential trends for the next 12 months to ensure a prosperous 2014.
For now, operators are feeling cautiously optimistic about the next year. The National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) most recent Restaurant Performance Index, a measure that tracks the industry’s health and outlook, was on the upswing after a late-2013 swoon.
Potentially faster economic growth this year will be a positive for restaurants, observers say, and consumers are already growing more confident thanks to an improving jobs picture.
“Economic factors are supporting stronger consumer confidence,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst at NPD Group, a Chicago-based consulting and market research firm. “And there is a close correlation in consumer confidence and restaurant traffic.”
Dozens of forecasts have been issued over the past few months to tell the industry which consumer behaviors will stem from that newfound confidence. Most agree that these eight trends, culled from two-dozen lists created by chefs, consultants, and culinary experts, are likely to have the biggest affect on limited service this year. While some established themselves as trends years ago, the experts believe they will be even more disruptive in 2014 than ever before.
1. Ingredient transparency
People increasingly want to know about the ingredients and their origins in food. While that has been the case for a few years, 2014 should see the trend garner more mainstream attention.
“Customers are more interested in what they’re eating and where it comes from,” says Annika Stensson, the NRA’s senior manager of research communications. “They want to know it’s being grown responsibly.”
More than half of the top 10 trends in the NRA’s “What’s Hot” culinary forecast, as determined by a poll of chefs, revolve around the origins of food, including the top two: locally sourced meats and seafood and locally grown produce. Other trends in the foecast involve sustainability and farm-branded items.
“Making it real is very important,” says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation for Chicago-based market research firm Technomic Inc. “This comprises a whole lot of issues, but consumers are increasingly focusing on them.”
Chipotle may be the model for discussing the provenance of its ingredients and providing local produce when possible, but there are many others taking similar steps. The menu at Rick Bayless’s fast-casual Tortas Frontera units in Chicago lists the origins of ingredients, while many major brands are boasting about sourcing practices in limited-time offers; Wisconsin-based quick serve Culver’s, for example, boasted to customers that the pumpkin in its seasonal Pumpkin Spice Shake last fall was from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
“Customers’ definition of value is fresh ingredients, quality food, and good-tasting food at reasonable prices. But fresh ingredients is No. 1,” Riggs says. “Customers want to see that the ingredients and the food are not just holding somewhere.”
People are willing to pay a premium for better ingredients, which are increasingly available, says Andrew Freeman, who leads San Francisco hospitality-consulting firm Andrew Freeman & Co. “Farmers know they can produce more and deliver more quality items,” he says.
2. Bold flavors
Some experts say Asian flavors will be the top new taste trend this year. Others point to cuisine based on Latin and South American cooking. There are also expectations that Mediterranean or regional American fare will be trendsetters.
While there are good cases to be made for each, it seems the big trend behind all of them is Americans’ growing desire for new, exciting, and bold flavors, no matter their cultural origin.
“There has been Mexican, Chinese, and Italian in America for years, but now we see niches or regions,” Freeman says. “It’s not just Chinese food from the north or south, it’s from a specific province. There’s nuevo Mexican and regional Mexican.”
In short, he adds, “guests are willing to be more adventurous.”
“People love flavors that take them somewhere,” says Sharon Olson, executive director of the Culinary Vision Panel, a Chicago-based group that looks at culinary trends. “Young people have grown up with various ethnic styles, but everyone is looking for new things.”
3. Stabilized food costs
Climbing commodity costs shouldn’t hurt restaurants in 2014 as much as they did last year. SpenDifference, a purchasing cooperative for mid-sized chain restaurants, estimates food costs will rise 2 percent this year, a slight reduction from 2013.
David Kincheloe, president of Denver-based National Restaurant Consultants, says that while many food costs are stabilizing, it will take a while for beef prices to stop hitting record highs. Beef prices continue to increase due to drought conditions the past two years that caused higher grain prices and forced ranchers to send their herds to market early, he says. Last fall, however, corn began a steep downward trend due to a record harvest.
It will take a year to 18 months for beef prices to react to the lower grain prices, Kincheloe says.
“It takes time for farmers to adjust their herds,” he adds. “So you will see a plateau of beef prices in the first half, but as increased herds come to market, prices will drop.”
Corn prices should fall 20 percent this year, SpenDifference estimates, providing price relief for poultry and pork that require shorter growing times than beef. That should result in chefs looking for more creative uses for chicken and pork.