11 Trend Predictions in 2015 That Will Shape the Restaurant Industry

By Paul Barron, CEO and Founder of DigitalCoCo, Foodable WebTV and the Restaurant Social Media Index

Last year, my predictions surrounded more digital and social media areas, but the reality for the restaurant business is that social and digital are now integrated so tightly today that its impact is all-encompassing in the overall business strategy. Thankfully, we have reached the realization that the digital and social consumer and brand is here to stay.

Accurate Predictions of 2014

My winners last year were the predictions that OpenTable would get challenged for the first time. And with launches like Resy and Reserve, along with premium services like I Know The Chef and Haute Dining, there seems to be a new landscape appearing for the reservation side of our business.

Additionally, I made the call on Apple Pay — that Apple would soon have a major role in dining out. Though my prediction that McDonald’s would surpass Starbucks in the social media reach was correct, McDonald’s seems to have squandered away the value of what this new explosion of audience can mean to their brand.

I was seven for 10 last year, my second year over 70%, so it’s clear I need to step up the challenge of going bolder and risk a bit more on my predictions. This year is a list of overall impact on the restaurant business as a whole. I focus this year not just on digital and social impact, but the impact of other key areas around upscale dining, sourcing and new age consumerism.

Here we go…

11 Predictions for 2015

1. Chef and restaurant content is the killer app of 2015: I actually had this on my 2013 predictions. And though the likes of Wendy’s, Chipotle, Eleven Madison and others are taking content to heart, I feel this is the year it will explode with new content strategies from a slew of new players in the small to mid section of the industry. Though quality production costs, research, and design are at a premium, brands can’t afford not to up the quality of their content moving forward.

There was a time when there was not enough out there and speediness was best, with quality falling into a secondary category, but with fancy campaigns setting the tone — Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow,” the Wendy’s web series, Sweetgreen’s Sweetlife, and the launch of HeroFuel by Firehouse Subs — this is no longer the case. This will be the year that the best of the best come out to play.

2. Restaurant personalization at the macro-level: Personalization has been on the menu for decades, but doing it at scale for the industry has been somewhat illusive. In fact, only a few brands truly tout customization and personalization. Chipotle, of course, is the king of this in fast casual, and players like Panera will need to learn how to adapt to a much more personal experience.

3. Restaurant social sentiment will begin to impact C-level behavior: Social and big data have been around for a few years. In fact, our own Restaurant Social Media Index is the longest running social media data set available for the restaurant industry. What we are finding are insane amounts of trends identified by social sentiment on food, service, brands and competitors. This is no longer a kid’s toy; it is a real analytic and powerful tool set that C-level execs will be pushing to the max in 2015.

Expectations are that sentiment could drive menu development, brand direction, competitive strategies and even the markets that operators will select for opening. This could change everything we have known about unstructured consumer feedback. We may look back in 10 years and realize that 2015 was the tipping point for understanding the restaurant consumer.

4. Digital will no longer be looked at as a separate part of restaurant marketing: Well, here we are in 2015 and the Digital Brand is no long separated from the word BRAND. With digital as one of the most quantifiable programs available for marketers, operators, HR and the C-level suite, it will now be key in leading all initiatives.

As predicted, social and digital would become a commodity and the revel of the social-media-only consultants era has come to an end. Brands are equally versed in social and digital now, and only companies that have deep and rich services will be in the driver’s seat in the future of the “Digital BRAND.” The next era will be the introduction of how quantifiable date can place new measurements and metrics on all digital programs.

5. Hyper-local will begin the transition to a star player in restaurant expansion: Local sourcing and local expansion have been on the road map for years, but I see this expanding into new, regionalized brands — chef startups, food artisans and a new culture of craft concepts that will emerge as hyper-local powerhouses. We are covering this very closely in our vertical, local markets via editorial, our proprietary social ranking scores by city, and localized content that is queued in on the hyper-local scene. This is the year big brands will come to the table as well, with new local connections, local content and local menus that will connect them even closer to the new age consumer.

6. “Uberization” will become a mantra of bad behavior, but restaurants will up-charge anyway: Probably the most controversial company of the Internet era we have seen, Uber is breaking every rule we thought we knew about the new age economy. The idea and model of the on-demand sharing business has morphed so much in the past 18 months, the rule book is being rewritten as I write this article. So here is the billion dollar question: Can the restaurant industry take advantage of this “Uberization” process — surge pricing based on table availability or even menu item availability? This has ripple effects that could create new connections with guests or severely deter the masses from eating out at locations who practice such things.

The question for the 2015 operator will be: to Uberize or not to Uberize? My personal opinion is wade carefully into these waters. Though they are not deep yet, there are still sharks. Uber may very well become the company that claims “We do no evil,” but that is yet to be seen.

7. Chefs break away from the Food Network: Chefs and cooking stars have flocked the Food Network for years, all based on its massive reach. But since the number of talented chefs and experts is so large, there will be a new era of content producers that will open up the gates on high-quality content for the restaurant industry. Foodable Network will be one of those that lead the way.

8. Fast casual breaks the glass ceiling of upscale: Fast casual has been on the bleeding edge of just about every food and restaurant trend in the past 10 years. I think we will see this innovative, chef-inspired, brand-driven segment break into a new section of upscale casual that will hop right over the casual dining brands. Flanked with this approach, casual dining could reach the last stronghold of existence if they do not make a massive shift in business operations and style.

9. More food explosions around sourcing: From the yoga mat debacle with Subway to Chipotle outing that they would work to reduce GMOs in their food, the race is on to conquer sourcing, and even more, to fundamentally shift the food sourcing process. This is a huge challenge that we will see transform our industry. However, there are many issues that are falling into the game here. The power of the titans is still yet to play out, and McDonald’s may redirect our fate as they control some of the largest protein supply chains in the world. Between these charged political and economical issues, married with social consumers poised to pounce on every misstep, we will see more food explosions this year, and it’s highly possible that some brands may not rebound from the impact.

10. Crickets make the menu: The alternate protein universe is forming, and insects may lead the way in an effort to keep up with expanding demand of the world’s food supply from third world and emerging countries. If India, China and South America make a shift of meat consumption in the next 10 years — and they will — the impact on the beef, pork and chicken crop could be taxed to the limit.

With all of this uncertainty and doom, the light at the end of the tunnel could be the insect or manufacture protein in the coming years. However, a few intrepid souls will take the plunge this year to expand their menus to cricket-based protein items. Rest assured, if this happens we will be the first to film it!

11. Drones will fly: 2015 will be so hot in new ideas and new elements in the restaurant industry, I could not resist adding one more prediction. Drones continue to fascinate the likes of Amazon, Subway and maybe even Chipotle. With the iPhone’s unlock and geo-tagging features for the new age carrier pigeon, the technology is here for food delivery. Sorry Jimmy John’s drivers, your days are numbered!

In all seriousness, this may actually happen. So many ideas of autonomous vehicles are emerging, and if you asked me five years ago if I would ever lust about an electric car like the Tesla, or think that I would take black cars around New York in lieu of buying a car, or order food delivery for 80% off my meals in SFO, I would have probably rolled my eyes. Well, here I am rolling my eyes on drone delivery, but the reality of this idea may not be so crazy after all. Amazon just launched a one-hour delivery service called Prime Now in Manhattan, so things are looking up for drone operators. Only time and social acceptance will reveal the possibility.