Special Report | January 2016 | By Barney Wolf

9 Fast Food Trends for 2016

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Top QSR industry customer trend makers for the year include fresh vegetables.
Vegetables are expected to grow in popularity as the stars of limited-service menus. thinkstock
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5. Vegetables as the star

Nearly every one of the 2016 forecasts mention vegetables in some form, either as part of a dish or as the logical beneficiary of the evolving move toward healthier eating and cleaner ingredients. Vegetables also help fight off the higher cost of many meats.

This is especially happening at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants across the country, where there are far more vegetable-only options and plant-based meatless proteins—as well as creative uses of potatoes, mushroom, broccoli, cabbage, kale, and other vegetables—than ever before.

Freeman calls vegetables the “hero” of ingredients this year, because they’re not only being moved to the center of the plate, but are also playing important roles in all of the dayparts and across menu segments, as well as in snacking and beverages.

Vegetables also dovetail into a wave of other trends, including local sourcing, sustainability, and natural ingredients.

“There’s the idea of getting back to basics in cooking, and letting ingredients shine,” the NRA’s Stensson says. “And there’s also the consumer interest in health and nutrition.”

6. Nontraditional destinations

The entire sense of place for quick-service restaurants is changing. Single-use stores and drive-thru lanes are still the most important, but the industry has become much more.

Food courts, for instance, have long been part of the limited-service restaurant landscape, but there’s a growing interest in creating new food halls that combine counter-service eateries along with retailers that sell fresh produce, meats, kitchen gear, and more. Some restaurants are using flexible dining concepts—quick service for lunch and full service for dinner. And dining out can now occur at your home, the office, or elsewhere due to expanded catering and delivery services.

Food halls are far from a new concept, and traditional halls, like Pike’s Place Market in Seattle and West Side Market in Cleveland, have been around for years in many cities. The modern versions, often opened by celebrity chefs and featuring a single culinary focus, began with Eataly in 2010 and now includes Latinicity in Chicago, with others on the way.

“This is kind of the next iteration,” Datassential’s Kostyo says. “Developers are partnering with great local chefs for these food-driven locations.”

7. Stronger flavor profiles

How will the industry follow the bold flavor profiles like ghost peppers, sriracha, and Louisiana Hot Sauce, which all made their mark in 2015? That will be the question operators and chefs will be seeking this year.

Another blistering chile concoction may grab the public’s fascination, or it might be something that provides not only heat but also a spicy taste, like gochujang. Either way, feeding the consumers’ need to try out exciting new tastes remains key.

“Hot, spicy sauces and strong flavor profiles can encourage customers to try new items,” says NPD’s Riggs. This, along with healthy and indulgent menu innovations, allowed the limited-service industry to be the best-performing restaurant segment last year.

“Those chains that focused on menu innovation, even with the overall industry just poking along, generally had very successful years,” she says. “I expect 2016 will bring even more menu creativity, expanding into more unique and spicy ingredients.”

8. Digital advances

The digital advances continue to arrive fast and furious, and consumers, especially the Millennials and their younger brethren, Generation Z, increasingly expect all of their contacts, including restaurants, to be more technology friendly.

Whether it’s ordering via kiosks or through proliferating order-and-pay applications on your smartphone, the idea is to provide speedy service without hassles. That extends even to the drive-thru lane.

As San Francisco fast-casual Eatsa puts it: “No lines. No cashier. No nonsense.” That concept allows customers to order via touch-screen kiosks; the orders appear in a cubbyhole on a wall with the customer’s name on it.

“A lot of this depends on what mindset you are in,” Olson Communications’ Lake says. “Would you like the order right by talking to a person, or are you comfortable with a screen? The growth of digital ordering just shows that speed is as important as it’s always been.”

And then there’s the “delivery revolution,” as Freeman calls it, which ties the same order-and-pay apps with restaurant or third-party delivery services. Not only are there services that include Postmates and Door Dash, but also “transformational companies like Uber and Amazon are muscling into the market,” he says.

9. Savory takes over

For the ongest time, sweetness was added to savory items to take them to the next level. This year, though, expect the trend to turn this idea upside down.

“Now nearly anything can be made into a savory version,” Kostyo says. That transformation is going on from the breakfast menu, where oatmeal can swap out maple syrup and brown sugar for sriracha and a poached egg, to dessert, with frozen yogurts, ice creams, and cakes replacing sweet ingredients with savory ones.

“We’re seeing some creative people taking that to the extreme by taking out all of the sweet,” he says. “So, in a savory yogurt, instead of vanilla or fruit, you’re seeing tomato or pumpkin.”

Savory yogurt is tied to the Middle Eastern culinary trend and healthy vegetable-centric dining, Sterling-Rice’s Nielsen says. “Entrepreneurs and artists are looking at new ways of presenting Greek yogurt, and it’s just not sweet. You’re seeing all kinds of savory ingredients.”

The savory additions to yogurt—and to its sibling, Labneh cheese with ingredients like beets, carrots, savory spices, and olive oil—falls in line “with our love for dipping and looking for snacks that have proteins, are customizable, and take different shapes and sizes,” she adds.

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