2016 James Beard Foundation Food Conference Takeaways



By Brian Murphy, Foodable Industry Expert

Each year, great minds gather to examine the food system in the United States and beyond. This year at the 2016 James Beard Foundation Food Conference, the lens used in that examination was “Now Trending: The Making of a Food Movement.”

People from a variety of food backgrounds took a few days to pause and understand what food trends exist, what movements are taking place, and considered what the next steps should be.  Speakers and attendees left with pages of notes and a deeper understanding of where we are with our food system. The James Beard Foundation took an inspired approach to the analysis at the 2016 JBF Food Conference, including speakers who ranged from fashion experts and trendologists to business strategists and leaders of movements in order to break down everything from consumer behavior to the issues that drive the food system.

Missed out on the conference? Have no fear — jot these takeaways down for some food for thought.

Don’t Succumb to Short-Lived Trends

Social media has changed the game for restaurants in numerous ways, and while some platforms allow operators to succeed more than before, others who don’t know how to wield its power get caught in the click-bait-like trap of trying to appease guests interested in short-lived trends.

Responding to popularity-driven trends forces operators to react instead of proactively introducing new menu items or service styles. The latter is often fueled by positive business practices, like seasonal availability or the chef’s passion. These are good for business and guests will feel it. Offering kale in a dish because “everyone is talking about it” runs a significant risk of feeling like an afterthought to guests, and presents a variety of issues that won’t benefit the business.

Chefs in attendance at the 2016 JBF Food Conference left with new inspiration, and a list of real issues that cast a shadow over the industry. Food waste, obesity, overall nutrition, and sustainability are real issues that savvy guests are increasingly aware of, and it is time for restaurateurs to proactively incorporate these issues into decision making. These are the new trends, and the leading brands and establishments are helping to set the table, rather than catching up after these household conversations.

Ever-Shifting Standards

Social media and the rapid changes associated with food are changing the mindset of customers. Paco Underhill, author and CEO/Founder of Envirosell, explained that 80 percent of consumer purchases are routine — the remainder can be influenced by many factors.

This is where you come in, as this presents an opportunity to be a leader in the movement and set the business up for long-term success. Is a hyper-local menu one that seems doable and marketable? Then begin forming relationships and implementation soon, even at a small scale. Something everyone needs to be more aware of is food waste, and while much of this happens at home, running a tighter kitchen and operating with a well-planned menu is extremely important. Be especially aware of cross-utilization of ingredients and eliminating menu items that require ingredients that don’t last or don’t move.

Use the Ugly Produce

Ugly produce is a hot item right now, but still in the beginning stages of becoming norm. Using ugly produce in dishes is a noble concept, and one that can begin and continue many conversations. Produce coming in with deliveries that are not as “pretty” as what people are used to seeing offers the opportunity for chefs to feature the “ugly ducklings” in special menu items. Marketing and social media feeds have a lot to gain from images of produce that looks extraordinary, while educating guests on the use of ugly produce in the process.


Millennials and a growing demographic are demanding “authentic” cuisine. What that means is up for interpretation, largely by region. Chefs need to consider their location and type of cuisine, and then calibrate, offering guests an experience that makes sense for all parties involved.

When a chef makes slow food an important factor in their menu design, it is important to see how deep the notion of “slow food” is taken. Is a heritage breed used for one of the menu items, or are many menu items sourced from small farms and ranches doing things differently than conventional industry? Are those hot chiles and exotic ingredients truly “authentic” when they are harvested in other countries, and then ripened on their journey to the United States? It is time for chefs to redefine what is truly authentic.

Introducing guests to how they were raised, favorite flavors, defining cooking methods, places visited — these things are authentic. These are things that can tell a story and help define cuisine for a restaurant.

Ashindi Maxton, a philanthropic strategist, stated that, “Trends give us energy for movements.” It is time to lead the charge, be proactive, and let your customers know you are concerned not only about their sales, but also about the quality of the food system in this country. Introducing the things that matter to your chef, owner, or advisory board doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Educating guests on your philosophies, no matter the scale of importance, help redefine food and help to build a better future for industry and the nation.