The U.S. restaurant industry is evolving in profound ways, according to Technomic. The nation's leading food research and consulting firm lays out 10 trends that may prove transformational in 2016, ranging from menu tweaks to technological and social upheavals. Technomic's consultants and experts base their annual predictions on site visits in trendsetting cities plus interviews and surveys of operators and consumers, backed up by qualitative data from Technomic's vast Digital Resource Library and quantitative menu data from its searchable MenuMonitor online database.
- The Sriracha effect. Having learned that Sriracha sauce can add instant ethnic cachet to something as straightforward as a sandwich, chefs are scouting the world for other assertive flavorings to employ in similar ways. Likely bets: ghost pepper from India; sambal from Southeast Asia; gochujang from Korea; harissa, sumac and dukka from North Africa.
- Elevating peasant fare. Meatballs and sausages are proliferating—traditional, ethnic or nouveau, shaped from many types and combinations of meats. Likewise on the rise are multi-ethnic dumplings, from pierogis to bao buns. Even the staff of life gets the royal treatment, from haute toast to signature cheesy bread.
- Trash to treasure. Rising prices for proteins raise the profiles of under-utilized stewing cuts, organ meats and "trash" species of fish—but the "use it all" mindset has also moved beyond the center of the plate. How about a veggie burger made with carrot pulp from the juicer?
- Burned. Smoke and fire are showing up everywhere on the menu: in charred or roasted vegetable sides; in desserts with charred fruits or burnt-sugar toppings; in cocktails featuring smoked salt, smoked ice or smoky syrups.
- Bubbly. Effervescence makes light work of the trendiest beverages: Champagnes and Proseccos, Campari-and-soda aperitifs, adults-only "hard" soft drinks including ginger ales and root beers, fruit-based artisanal sodas, sparkling teas.
- Negative on GMOs. Whatever the science says, many consumers have made up their minds: no genetic tinkering with their food. Some diners will gravitate to restaurants touting GMO-free fare; others will demand GMO labeling on menus. That's a big issue for the supply chain, since many crops (such as soy fed to livestock) have been modified to boost productivity.
- Modernizing the supply chain. Climate destabilization, mutating pathogens and rising transportation costs, among other challenges, will lead to increasingly frequent stresses on the food supply chain, such as 2015's Florida orange freeze or avian flu-related egg shortage. Consumer demand for "fresh" and "local" fare also challenges a distribution system based on consolidation, centralization, large drop sizes and long shelf life.
- Fast food refresh. Consumers gravitate to "better" fast food, transforming and diversifying the industry. "QSR plus" concepts with fresher menus and spanking-bright units exploit a price niche between fast food and fast casual (think Culver's or Chick-fil-A). "Build your own" formats are springing up in more menu categories. Many quick-service eateries are adding amenities like alcohol. Others are giving up on upscaling and returning to their roots, serving simple, traditional menus at low prices.
- Year of the worker. In today's tighter labor market, mandates to boost minimum wages will reverberate up and down the workforce, with experienced staffers demanding proportional raises and skilled workers (already in short supply) even harder to hire. That's tough news for operators trying to hold down menu prices. Front-of-house technology and back-of-house automation will help restaurants do more with fewer or lower-level workers, and companies will devote more resources to training and retention.
- The delivery revolution. Proliferating order-and-pay apps and third-party online ordering and delivery services make "dining in" easier than ever and, in some cases, "dining out" a thing of the past. Transformational companies like Uber and Amazon are muscling into the market. App-only services like Munchery deliver food from commissaries, bypassing the brick-and-mortar restaurant altogether.