What would the start of another year be without predictions? Whether analyzing politics, the silver screen, or stock markets, experts try to offer a peek at the trends we can expect in the coming year.

The restaurant industry is no different. Throughout 2012’s fourth quarter, various consultants, chefs, and operators gazed into their crystal balls and forecasted the hot restaurant ideas and issues of 2013.

The following 10 trends, according to those experts, seem most likely to impact quick-service and fast-casual restaurants this year.

1. Going local

Despite disagreement about what local really means, there is little doubt that consumers increasingly see it as a positive attribute. Locally grown or sourced ingredients fill three of the 10 spots in the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) annual “What’s Hot” culinary forecast, a survey of more than 1,800 professional chefs who are members of the American Culinary Federation.

Local sourcing is a “macro trend that will maintain its momentum” this year, says Joy Dubost, a registered dietician and director of nutrition and healthy living for the NRA.

Some regional and small limited-service operators, including Vancouver, Washington–based Burgerville and Los Angeles salad chain Tender Greens, are entrenched in local sourcing. But going local often means more than buying produce from farms in the area. Dubost says a national chain might consider the whole U.S. as local.

“It remains to be seen if these really impact [diners’] behavior,” she says. “Consumers themselves will determine their eating habits.”

“You can take local out and use fresh or made from scratch,” says David Kincheloe, president of National Restaurant Consultants in Golden, Colorado, which also lists local sourcing as a top trend for 2013. “People believe these items are higher quality.”

“We don’t have a formal definition [for local], so it can be open to any interpretation,” Dubost says. Consumers “equate locally sourced, organic, fresh, and natural as healthy.”

Playing with these buzzwords can help boost items like Wendy’s Berry Almond Chicken Salad, a salad only offered in the summer and a product that Wendy’s promotes heavily with the term fresh.

2. Healthy kids’ meals

Healthful and creative kids’ meals will continue to make an impression on the quick-service industry.

The industry “wrote the book” on understanding kids and kids’ meals, says Sharon Olson, executive director of the Culinary Visions panel, which surveyed 3,000 consumers and interviewed dozens of food experts to decide top trends. “They are leaders in knowing what appeals to kids and their parents.”

As such, operators are now going to great lengths to improve the nutritional profile of kids’ meals. The NRA’s Kids LiveWell initiative, which helps eateries spotlight better-for-you menu choices for children, has grown in 18 months to encompass 130 restaurant brands—from Arby’s to zpizza—representing 30,000 locations nationwide.

Dubost says restaurants can improve the health quality of kids’ meals by taking steps like grilling instead of frying, cutting calories and fat.

These efforts aren’t just satisfying parents; kids are also becoming more comfortable with healthier foods.

“There are flavors coming in kids’ menus that bridge what they are having at home or as snacks at day care,” says Kazia Jankowski, associate culinary director at Sterling-Rice Group, a Boulder, Colorado, strategic agency.

Kids’ menus are also getting more innovative, with “Asian food, like dumplings or stir fry; hummus; yogurt; sweet potato fries—things that aren’t far away from a kid’s frame of reference and won’t cause them to say ‘Ugh,’ if the food is healthier,” Jankowski says.

3. Economic struggles

Restaurants may face some tough economic headwinds this year.

“It is going to be a challenging time,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group, in her trends report “Looking Ahead to 2013 and Beyond.”

Although quick-service restaurants—particularly fast casuals—continued their slow climb out of the depths of the recession, “any growth in 2013 will come from stealing share,” Riggs says.

The NRA is more optimistic, projecting a 3.8 percent increase in restaurant sales over 2012, to $660 billion. That would be the fourth consecutive year of sales growth for the industry. The quick-service sector’s sales should jump 4.9 percent to $188.1 billion, according to the NRA.

Nonetheless, “disposable income … will be tight through the first half of the year,” Kincheloe says. “Beef prices and beef inflation are not [receding] anytime soon. It will impact rising prices, which puts more heat on disposable income.”

Operators will have to do additional menu engineering to overcome any economic barriers, Riggs says.

“Food inflation is going to hit after the first of the year, when [restaurants’ food] contracts run out, but you can’t pass along all the increases,” she says. “You have to be more selective and maybe add more things to the menu with higher profit margins.”

Chicken, for example, will likely have an increased presence on menus, the experts note, because of its projected price stability.

4. Snacks as a meal

A wide range of influences—around-the-clock eating, customer demand for flexible portions and prices, the food-truck and street-food craze, and operators’ need to move beyond price cutting on core menu items, to name a few—will keep snacking a hot trend this year.

“A lot of people are not eating their meals at traditional meal times,” says Rita Negrete, senior editor at Chicago research and consulting firm Technomic Inc. “People also want something small to eat when they sit around with their friends, and they may not have a lot of money to spend.”

While full-service restaurants are looking for more small plates to fit the bill, quick serves are developing more bite-size items, like McDonald’s Spicy Chicken McBites LTO, KFC’s Chicken Little sandwiches, and Sonic’s Cheesecake Bites.

Snacking has generally been defined as eating between meals. “But now, the way snacking is influencing the industry is with little flavors and little bites,” Jankowski says. “We expect to see menus that allow you to do more customization.”


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.

“Just as diners 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.”

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.”

Consumer Trends, Growth, Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, Special Reports, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, Sonic, Starbucks, Wendy's