We’ve gazed into our crystal ball, read the stars, and turned over our Magic 8 Ball a few times, all in an attempt to divine what trends will affect the limited-service restaurant industry in the coming year.
OK, that’s not what happened. We just poured over 2016 forecasts from more than a dozen restaurant experts and research firms and concluded which of the upcoming trends will have the greatest impact on our side of the industry.
In some cases, these trends simply indicate a tipping point for matters that have been percolating for several years. Other trends are new, the result of an industry that is adapting quickly to its constantly changing customer base.
All of them, though, are sure to leave their mark on quick-service and fast-casual restaurants in 2016.
1. Real food
One trend made its way onto more forecasts than any other: clean eating, or food made with ingredients that are free of additives, antibiotics, and other artificial components.
“It’s been evolving, and the more we’ve talked about it, it’s just increased awareness,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst for market research firm The NPD Group. “The trend is toward food and beverages that are considered wholesome and real.”
This links directly with food that is “fresh,” which Riggs says is becoming “the mantra” for healthier food choices that will grow in popularity in 2016.
“Just this past fall, a few large chains made announcements about their ingredients,” says Annika Stensson, director of research communications at the National Restaurant Association (NRA), referencing the move from many companies—including Taco Bell, Papa John’s, and Panera Bread—to take out certain additives. “And we expect to see more.”
But the “real food” concept goes beyond removing certain ingredients; it also includes adding authentic foods, such as ethnic, regional, and local ingredients. Chefs and operators are also making more foods in-house to improve transparency and bring more control over flavor.
Quick serves and fast casuals have been among those adding their own products made in-house, from fresh guacamole at many Mexican-style restaurants to Good Times Burgers and Frozen Custard’s pickles prepared in each restaurant, and from the apricot chutney at Fresh To Order to Wow Bao’s ginger ale.
2. Chef-driven fast casuals
The inspiration of talented, well-trained, and often fine-dining chefs has always been part of the fast-causal restaurant movement. After all, Chipotle founder Steve Ells is a Culinary Institute of America grad and one-time fine-dining sous chef.
Many have followed Ells into fast casual. There’s Rick Bayless with Xoco, Tortas Frontera, and Frontera Fresco, and Danny Meyer with Shake Shack. Add in Richard Blais, Spike Mendelsohn, Bobby Flay, Bradley Ogden, and dozens of other high-profile chefs, and you get the picture of how attractive fast casual and Fast Casual 2.0 have become.
Among the chefs affiliated with fast-casual operations that opened in 2015 were José Andrés and Joshua Skenes. And those are just the well-known names; dozens of other chefs across the country opened fast casuals or announced their intentions to do so in the coming years.
The chef-driven fast-casual movement has grown so strong that it came in at No. 2 on the NRA”s “What’s Hot” culinary forecast for the coming year, a report done in conjunction with the American Culinary Federation.
“These restaurants are looking at the menu and ingredients as a chef would, rather than a research and development [professional],” Stensson says. “It’s a slightly different way of looking at the menu and the ingredients that go into it.”
Although the multi-concept world has plenty of big quick-service restaurant operators, fast casual is one way for creative chefs to “move beyond one or two great restaurants to expand” their empires, says Andrew Freeman, president of San Francisco restaurant consulting firm Andrew Freeman & Co. “They can find a whole new customer base.”
3. Micro cuisines
For a long time, quick service focused on national trends like burgers and chicken. Then there was the focus on regional flavors and even some ethnic foods, including Mexican and Chinese. But in 2016, expect to see more hyper regional items on the menu.
Part of that is driven by food ingredients that come from particular local areas—an offshoot of the locovore movement that has been trending in recent years—as well as popular local menu items, like green chile in New Mexico or giardiniera in Chicago.
“Local flavors can really tell a story for consumers,” says Mike Kostyo, publications manager at Chicago market research firm Datassential. “Ingredients can be very different, even in a small geographic area, and that can make a difference in what diners want.”
Even big operators can take advantage of this. “If you’re a large brand, you can look take local cuisines and flavors as a way to look small to consumers,” Kostyo says. Some companies, like Shake Shack and Smashburger, are already doing that to a degree.
At the same time, operators can try these regional items at their units elsewhere in the country as a way to extend their menus, either for a full or limited time.
Several forecasters project Hawaiian food as a trend. “A number of fine-dining chefs have given us their versions of spruced up Hawaiian fare, and we’re starting to see it in quick service,” says Kara Nielsen, culinary director of Denver branding firm Sterling-Rice Group.
This is especially the case with poke, a raw fish salad that often is served in a bowl. “The poke bowl is a kind of deconstructed sushi, with fresh seafood and a really healthy halo,” she says. Quick-service poke is big in California and has started to move east.
4. Mindful dining
There are a wide range of trends—sustainability, reducing food waste, and humane treatment of animals, among them—that all can be summed up by a macro trend sweeping through the limited-service restaurant space: mindful dining.
“All these things we see are not just a trend, they’re a way of life,” says Rachel Lake, managing director of Chicago-based Olson Communications, which operates the Culinary Visions Panel, a food-focused and trend-forecasting practice.
Taste and price, along with quality, are still the most important matters when consumers dine out, Lake says, but mindful dining makes up the “second level of characteristics that allow consumers to feel good about themselves” while eating out.
The Millennial generation is far more apt to gravitate to these attributes than their elders, Culinary Visions reports, and a number of operators have taken notice. For instance, even big chains are moving to source eggs from chickens that are not kept in restrictive cages.
Giving back—to charity and communities—is also considered important to that generation, Freeman says. “It’s not just about showing that you care; it’s about tapping into guests’ passions and being a part of the story,” he says.