Every time a new year gets under way, there’s a combination of promise and anxiety, a very real hope that better days are ahead mixed with uneasiness about what issues or problems may be lying in wait.

That’s why predictions seem to be as much a part of a New Year’s celebration as champagne and the ball drop in New York’s Times Square. For the restaurant industry, getting a peek into likely trends for 2015 provides some insight into the type of menu items that could give them smash successes in the year ahead—or a glimpse of the staggering challenges they’re left to overcome.

No matter which trends actually stick, there is at least one thing operators can be optimistic about: The economy is improving. The U.S. economy surged ahead 5 percent during 2014’s third quarter, the strongest three-month period since 2003. That followed a 4.6 percent jump the previous quarter. Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) Expectations Index, which measures operators’ six-month outlook for same-store sales and other measures, stood at 102.1 in November, down only slightly from October’s 102.5, its highest level since 2007. Anything over 100 represents expansion among the RPI’s key metrics.

“We don’t expect national bakery chains to mill grain in house, but maybe there’s a specialty sandwich or specialty bread made from the products of a local grain network.”

Nonetheless, consumers remain concerned about their personal finances. An NRA survey found that nearly seven in 10 adults say they are holding back on spending, demonstrating the degree to which the Great Recession influenced their psyches.

“The impact is still very real for many consumers,” says NRA chief economist Bruce Grindy in an email. “I do think their mindset is improving, though, and this will translate into more liberal spending habits as they become more confident in their own personal financial situations.”

The NPD Group, a market research firm, projects that restaurant traffic will increase 1 percent in 2015, an improvement over a flat 2014 guest count.

“We have to recognize consumers needs are changing, and we have to stay in tune with these changes in order to drive traffic,” says Bonnie Riggs, senior restaurant analyst for NPD. “[But] as much as things change, they are going to stay the same, because the pillars of good business still apply.”

To help you stay in tune with those changes, we’ve combed through industry predictions and talked with experts to come up with the nine trends that will make the biggest mark on the quick-service industry in the year ahead.

1. Mobile technology affects everything

The technology focus for restaurants has made big strides toward mobile platforms. New developments can be seen in ordering, marketing, loyalty programs, and payment. Developers are increasingly combining these applications into a single solution, adding an additional layer of convenience that is important to limited-service restaurants.

In the U.S., mobile payments are expected to triple to nearly $9 billion in 2015, according to digital marketing firm eMarketer.

Justin Massa, founder and chief executive of Food Genius, a food industry data and insight firm, says the industry can expect to see mobile innovations of all different kinds in 2015. Some will be similar to Starbucks’ app, which integrates mobile ordering and the brand’s loyalty program; others will be like Taco Bell’s, which lets consumers customize orders, pay via mobile, and save favorite items. Many will be linked to Apple Pay. Whatever the form, “the opportunity for restaurants to capture the data of consumers is a treasure trove for them,” Massa says.

The advice for restaurant owners from most experts is to take the plunge—or else.

“Lots of operators, especially smaller ones, have no idea how rapidly the tech world has already changed,” says Michael Whiteman, president of consulting firm Baum + Whiteman, in an email. “They should start investigating now so they’re not irrevocably behind the curve.”

2. Do-it-yourself health

While fads may come and go, healthy eating—especially the do-it-yourself style—is here for the long haul. And 2015 will see customers’ expectations for DIY health climb even higher.

“There are people heavily into gluten-free, who care about [genetically modified organisms], who want low-fat or organic items, but there is no consensus about what is a healthy diet,” says Rita Negrete, senior editor at market research firm Technomic. Still, she says, “more people really are trying to eat more healthfully, and that becomes an issue for restaurants in an era of shrinking menus.”

Health-minded consumers often gravitate to places like Subway, Panera Bread, and Chipotle Mexican Grill that allow them to customize their orders, thus choosing their own healthful options. This extends to vegetarians and vegans, who are not only seeking healthier foods, but also have animal rights on their minds.

“What’s unclear is whether certain items are really better for you. But what’s clear is we think they’re healthier,” Massa says. “We’re going to see how healthful [menu items] really are at the end of 2015, when menuboards are required to carry calorie counts.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally released its requirements for posting calories to menuboards in November, nearly five years after the requirements had been passed with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Hoyt Jones, president of Jersey Mike’s Subs, says the company’s experience posting calories to menuboards is that consumers are more conscious of the calories, but aren’t likely to make any significant changes in their habits.

“People already tended to eat a little healthier,” he says, noting that more consumers today choose chicken as a protein than ever before. The chain is also testing gluten-free bread and snacks “for people who can’t or won’t eat gluten.”

3. Looking to Gen Z

If you think Millennials are bold in their food selections, take a look at their successors, Generation Z.

“Kids today are much more adventuresome when it comes to eating, and more willing to try new things,” NPD’s Riggs says. “When they get past six years of age, they don’t want to order from a kids’ menu, but from a regular menu.”

Children’s palates are considerably more sophisticated than they were a couple decades ago, says Annika Stensson, the NRA’s senior manager of research communications. “They’ve had more exposure through their parents, who make up the first generation to dine out on a daily basis,” she says. “That has trickled down to the kids’ space.”

Gen Z members still like pizza, chicken, and pasta, but today are looking for variations on those themes, says Sharon Olson, executive director of the Culinary Vision Panel, which looks at culinary trends. For example, they might be interested in ordering chicken teriyaki or chicken parmesan. “Being able to choose different condiments and toppings make eating a safe adventure,” she says.

Younger diners also want heightened experiences, louder music, and kinetic visuals.

“This is the first true digital generation, so they are even more impatient than Millennials,” Technomic’s Negrete says. “Fast service is critical for them.”


4. Local as an expectation

Local sourcing isn’t a new trend, but it continues to expand into different menu areas while becoming a part of consumers’ eating-out presumptions.

“It’s starting to creep into expectations of dining,” Stenssen says. “It’s not just produce, but it’s now artisan products, seafood, and even alcohol.”

On the NRA’s “What’s Hot Culinary Forecast” for 2015, which surveyed 1,300 chefs around the country, three of the top 10 trends to watch for the year involved local sourcing, including the top two: locally sourced meats and seafood and locally sourced produce. The third, which ranked No. 7 overall, was hyer-local sourcing.

Diners generally are demanding to know the origins of their food, particularly produce, Jersey Mike’s Jones says. That’s also important for operators, he says, because they need to be able to trace it very quickly in case a problem occurs in the supply chain.

Some quick-service restaurant chains already have moved to local or regional sourcing of some ingredients, and more may want to consider how to fine-tune their menus to incorporate local market demands, such as beer brewed or grain milled nearby.

“We don’t expect national bakery chains to mill grain in house, but maybe there’s a specialty sandwich or specialty bread made from the products of a local grain network,” says Kara Nielsen, culinary director of Sterling Rice Group, a brand-building firm. “Here’s an opportunity to have a local option.”

5. Far East flavors dominate

Although there’s a difference of opinion among many of the trend experts about which ethnic foods will make a splash in 2015, it appears that new and different Asian items will be breaking through in quick service the most. Consumers will go beyond Chinese, Japanese, and Thai favorites to discover new regional Asian foods, such as Vietnamese, Filipino, and Korean items, experts say.

In the past, some Asian items have been dumbed down by removing chilies, fermented items, and condiments that are their signature, Nielsen says. “But Americans increasingly are looking for real flavors,” she says, meaning operators would be wise to keep the authenticity of dishes intact.

But there’s room for innovation, too. Many Asian dishes have their roots in street food, with a history and tradition that can be interpreted many ways. Adding certain herbs and spices to existing dishes could serve as a path “to take the next step deeper into these various cultures,” Nielsen adds.

Other ethnic foods likely to make waves this year include Mediterranean and Italian, the latter of which is evolving through fast-casual restaurants like Piada Italian Street Food and Venti Tre.

6. Foodservice options in every nook and cranny

If there’s an open space anywhere—in department, drug, or convenience stores, for example, or in supermarkets—look for a restaurant or other foodservice operator to fill it.

Retailers, even high-end names, are recruiting operators to increase “dwell time,” or the amount of time a shopper spends on site in a store, Whiteman says. Others are doing it to provide convenience to busy consumers.

Supermarkets have been encroaching on restaurants’ territories for years with ready-to-eat meals, and an increasing number of them have added eat-in areas. Even Walgreens has joined in with prepared food, coffees, juices, smoothies, and self-serve frozen yogurt. At the same time, pop-up culinary incubators are growing, while vending machines are getting more sophisticated and able to provide gourmet, even custom-made, items.

“Young adults are the heaviest restaurant users, and they are looking for more convenience,” Negrete says. “They want to go to a restaurant when they’re looking for an away-from-home experience.”

7. Sustainability every which way

Environmental sustainability remains among the hottest trends, with operators continuing to incorporate eco-friendly operations. But plenty of restaurants have also doubled down on food waste reduction as a way to go green and to manage rising food costs, according to the NRA.

“People are looking to find new ways to reduce food waste,” Sterling Rice’s Nielsen says, adding that doing so provides a way to both manage the food supply while also feeding the hungry.

Many food trends are tied to sustainability, Stensson adds, including the nose-to-tail movement, in which an entire animal produced for meat is used, not just the choice cuts.

A recent consumer survey by Culinary Visions found that sustainability has been growing in importance and awareness among diners. Concurrently, consumers have higher expectations for those restaurants making sustainability claims, including quick serves.

“They expected the food would be fresher, taste better, and would be worth the extra cost, so there was a definite halo of credibility around these restaurants,” Olson says, referring to participants in the survey. “This is stronger with Millennials, but it is pretty much across the board.”

8. Beverages get the spotlight

Whether it’s a handcrafted soda at Starbucks, an alcoholic frappe from
Wahlburgers, or a cherry-vanilla-lime cola mashup from a soda fountain machine, beverages are a growing differentiator for operators.

“There are so many creative beverages that are consumer choices,” Negrete says. “There are pressed juices, specialty teas and coffees, and a lot of frozen slushy beverages that have become popular.” In addition, many limited-service restaurants are serving soda from smaller, regional bottlers, she says, “and that makes the beverage more special.”

The biggest impact on the industry continues to come from the Coca-Cola Freestyle and Pepsico Spire fountain machines that give consumers hundreds of choices at the touch of a finger. “Those have been more widely introduced and they are proven traffic drivers, featuring both sodas and non-carbonated drinks,” Negrete says.

In addition, operators can create their own signature beverages using some of the technology provided by the machines.

9. Heat rises

Expect to see spicier, hotter menu items in 2015.

“We know there will be more attention given to unique menu items or a twist on existing ones, often using bolder flavors and multicultural influences,” NPD’s Riggs says.

Consumers are increasingly knowledgeable about spicy foods.

“For instance, it’s been really interesting how much they understand different levels of peppers, not just between mild and hot. You hear about hot foods, pickled food like kim chi, and restaurants can do many things to use or reference these flavors, like put a garnish on a sandwich, making it easier to have that first level of adventure.”

Whiteman calls the constant search for new flavors “restless palate syndrome,” and says that sweet and spicy is on the rise, along with sriracha and pungent, pickled ingredients.

“The American palate has been so corrupted” by salt, fat, pepper, and sugar, he says, “that restless palate syndrome is reacting by searching for even more aggressive taste thrills.”

Consumer Trends, Fast Casual, Menu Innovations, Ordering, Sandwiches, Special Reports