Special Report | January 2014 | By Barney Wolf

8 Fast-Food Trends for ’14

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New trends like tea as a beverage and ingredient will affect fast food industry.
Quick-service operators might explore more tea options in 2014, both as a beverage and as an ingredient. thinkstockphotos.com “
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4. Tea as a drink and ingredient

Tea’s time has come. With coffee firmly ensconced as America’s top hot-brewed beverage, some experts believe tea is on the cusp of being the next great drink and flavoring additive.

“Tea has been an object of fascination by devotees, but always an also-ran to coffee,” writes Michael Whiteman, president of New York food and restaurant consulting company Baum + Whiteman, in an e-mail. “Now that the mass market has some basic idea of coffee connoisseurship, curiosity is luring people into exploring the virtues of tea.”

Many people don’t like tea by itself but “are drawn to it because the industry has added such strong sweetened fruit flavors that the bitter tannins disappear,” he adds.

“It is also a naturally healthy beverage with none of the calories of fruit juices,” says Kazia Jankowski, a culinary consultant who helped create the annual trends list for Denver’s Sterling Rice Group, a brand strategy and communications firm.

Jankowski expects tea will be an ingredient in more food items through various forms of cooking, such as tea-poached salmon or tea-smoked chicken. “I can see some of the leading fast casuals taking liberties with tea to bring a depth of flavor,” she says.

But tea beverages will get most of the attention, Whiteman says, pointing to Starbucks’s acquisition of Teavana last year.

“People really don’t like coffee either, which is why Starbucks is more in the dairy business than the coffee business—all those lattes and cappuccinos require a coffee whitener,” he says, referencing coffee’s naturally bitter flavor. “I suspect that’s why Starbucks thinks it can make a go of tea.”

5. Mobile technology as the new norm

Mobile technology, both for customers and for operators, will continue to open new doors in the quick-service industry.

“Mobile is clearly at the top of our trend list and at the top of our research and development,” says Jon Lawrence, director of product marketing, hospitality, for NCR Corp., a global provider in consumer transaction technology. “We’re sort of at or approaching that line, where what was once new and exciting is now expected.”

“More traditional things people have done in the past, like coupons and mainstream advertising, are going to be in dramatic decline.”

Increasingly, restaurants are giving consumers the ability to interact with the eateries, as well as order meals and pay via their smartphones. Starbucks, a leader in using mobile technology among limited-service companies, reported last year that its American mobile payments passed 10 percent of in-store purchases. Mobile devices also allow owners and managers to perform oversight functions and connect with employees without being tied to computers at their desks.

The continuing adoption of smartphone technology could mean big changes for restaurants’ marketing and advertising, too.

“More traditional things people have done in the past, like coupons and mainstream advertising, are going to be in dramatic decline,” Kincheloe says. “All that money will be focused into social media and developing a true relationship with guests.”

6. Better-for-you foods go mainstream

Better-for-you menu options will continue to permeate the limited-service industry, and more brands will invest in health tweaks as the trend goes mainstream.

“Health is an overriding issue for many trends,” Jankowski says. “Foods that play to an audience looking for natural, healthy options are going to do well.” She adds that the better-for-you movement will grow not just through healthy meals like salads, but also through ingredient tweaks that help improve the nutrion profile of existing items. For example, ingredients such as lemons can be used to brighten dishes instead of salt, she says.

Of course, there is green to be made in serving greens, and the salad-centric niche in limited-service restaurants is growing, from sweetgreen on the East Coast to Tender Greens out west.

“As better-for-you restaurant chains gain increasing traction,” Whiteman says, “it will become clear that their food concepts are no longer confined to health nuts.”

Many quick-service restaurants already serve at least some healthy menu items and will continue adding more. They’re just not always mentioned in so many words.

“If they call it ‘healthy,’ that’s considered the kiss of death” by numerous consumers who equate healthy foods with tastelessness, Olson says. “Instead they use other terms, like fresh, which telegraphs it is desirable. We call it ‘stealthy healthy.’”

7. Flexibility in food and hours

Snacks were big last year, and that should continue in 2014. But there’s an even a bigger trend now into which snacks fit: flexibility.

Customers want breakfast, lunch, and dinner at various times in the day, experts say, and they’re also looking for smaller portions to tide them over until their larger meals.

“It’s just an evolution of customization, and consumers want what they want when they want it,” Chapman says. “People get frustrated that they go into a restaurant shortly after 10 a.m. and they can’t get an egg muffin because the menu is now lunch.”

McDonald’s is experimenting serving a few menu items from each daypart after midnight. Some restaurants are selling burgers all day. Others are offering items such as yogurt parfaits—originally meant for the morning daypart—anytime.

Flexibility gives operators an ability to offer items that appeal to a wider range of consumers, such as those seeking gluten-free options. It could also help them participate in the better-for-you trend; NPD Group found this consumer trend to lead to an improved diet.

8. Sour and tart tastes

Just as Americans’ taste for hot and spicy items continues to get hotter and spicier, their taste for sour and tart foods will continue along the same path. That means more pickled and fermented ingredients, Technomic’s Chapman says.

“Consumers’ tastes are evolving, and they want more depth of flavor, kind of adding a sour note or a pickled tang,” she says.

Fermented ingredients are not in the NRA’s “What’s Hot” survey, but “they gained the most” of any particular trend, Stensson says. “It is a bit of a dark horse. It could tie into some of the ethnic condiments that have grown in popularity, but pickling is also very versatile,” she says.

These ingredients have already found a place at prominent quick-serve brands. Panda Express uses gochujang, a fermented Korean condiment; LYFE Kitchen features a kimchi broth with its grilled barramundi; and Boloco offers pickled onions as a build-your-own burrito ingredient.

“What’s old is new again,” Freeman says. “Chefs are fermenting just about everything.

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