By Barbara L. Vergetis Lundin, Assistant Editor
A survey of chefs conducted by the National Restaurant Association predicted 20 trends for 2016. The chefs are obviously on top of their game, as all of the trends have come to fruition in some form or fashion. Which ones are in the hunt?
“True trends evolve over time, especially when it comes to lifestyle-based choices that extend into other areas of our everyday life,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association, in a statement. “Chefs and restaurateurs are in tune with over-arching consumer trends when it comes to menu planning, but add their own twist of culinary creativity to drive those trends in new directions. No one has a better view into the window of the future of food trends than the culinary professionals who lead our industry.”
Some of the predictions are “fully inundating top restaurant chains,” according to Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a Winsight Company.
Farthest along are natural ingredients, ethnic condiments/spices, authentic ethnic (think Middle Eastern and African spices like sumac and dukkah), ancient grains, ethnic-inspired breakfast items like coconut milk pancakes, and street foods, as a multitude of top chains are embracing these trends in one way or another, he said.
“In my opinion, the two biggest headliners of this year have been natural ingredients and ethnic condiments/spices,” Tristano said. “They’re showing up in all restaurant segments and cuisine types in so many different ways.”
When it comes to using natural ingredients, Panera is setting a high standard. Not only does Panera stress clean ingredients, but the chain has a “no-no” list of ingredients that they have committed to removing from their food by the end of 2016, including artificial flavors and colors; artificial sweeteners like aspartame; partially hydrogenated oils and artificial trans fat; fat substitutes like sucrose polyester and micro-particulated whey protein concentrate; lard; high fructose corn syrup; sucralose; maltodextrin; added nitrates, nitrites, and sulfites; and added caffeine.
California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) recently announced its intention to use more local, natural ingredients. For example, it will source vegetables like lettuce, kale, and arugula from local and regional farms whenever possible. Not only are the ingredients being used this summer at California Pizza Kitchen natural, they are simple – as evidenced by new seasonal dishes like California fields salad (with fresh field greens and baby kale, strawberries, watermelon, basil, California pistachios, feta, and champagne vinaigrette), strawberry shortcake featuring house-made candied lemon zest, strawberry lime margaritas, and strawberry mango coolers.
"It's been a long, cold winter for many and we are happy to welcome the warmer weather by offering a taste of the season's freshest ingredients throughout our menu," said Brian Sullivan, senior vice president of Culinary Development for California Pizza Kitchen, said in a statement. "Tender, leafy greens are a key component to many of our dishes and we're also giving fresh strawberries special emphasis this season…We love summer at California Pizza Kitchen when some of our favorite produce, like sweet strawberries and watermelon, are at their freshest and juiciest.”
Even McDonald's has jumped on the natural ingredient bandwagon with a new line of summer salads that are moving from traditional iceberg lettuce to red leaf lettuce, romaine, baby spinach, and baby kale peppered with vibrantly colored vegetables.
McDonald's culinary and supply chain teams have even traveled to some of the chain’s lettuce suppliers, learning, right in the field, how the leaves are harvested and how suppliers maintain consistent growing techniques.
Further, McDonald’s has committed to fully transition to cage-free eggs over the next 10 years. Annually, McDonald's purchases approximately two billion eggs in the U.S. and 120 million eggs in Canada.
Ethnic Condiments and Spices
American consumers are seemingly pretty adventurous when it comes to food. In fact, 80 percent of those consumers surveyed by the National Restaurant Association in 2015 consume at least one ethnic cuisine per month; 17 percent eat seven or more monthly.
Further, two-thirds are trying a wider variety of ethnic cuisine than they were five years ago, according to NRA research. Restaurants were found to be the main way consumers get access to ethnic food.
“Americans generally are more willing to try new food than they were only a decade or so ago – especially in restaurants – underscoring that the typical consumer today is becoming more adventurous and sophisticated when it comes to different cuisines and flavors,” said Annika Stensson, director of Research Communications for the National Restaurant Association, in a statement. “Ethnic cuisines are a long-term trend on restaurant menus, with some being so common that they’re hardly considered ethnic anymore, while others are still relatively unknown. However, our research shows that consumers are exploring a range of international dishes these days.”
The research revealed that, not surprisingly, Italian, Mexican, and Chinese are the most familiar, while consumers are least familiar with Ethiopian, Brazilian/Argentinian and Korean cuisines. However, condiments and spices with these origins are popping up on familiar menus.
Lizzy Freier, menu analysis managing editor with Technomic has been tracking the up and coming trends in spices and has found that berbere (a staple spice mixture in Ethiopian cooking) and other African influences are making their way onto North American menus. In particular, True Food Kitchen serves a Moroccan Chicken with chickpea, olive, spinach, and chermoula (a North African marinade); BLT Steak features a rack of lamb with a spicy North African merguez sausage; Veggie Grill has unveiled a super green salad featuring hummus and harissa (Tunisian hot chili pepper paste); and Modern Market’s eggplant goat sandwich offers a spicy helping of harissa tahini.
Nando’s chicken chain has made peri peri (also called piri piri) famous, if not infamous. The Portuguese seasoning, which is prevalent in South Africa, contains crushed chiles, citrus peel, pepper, salt, onion, lemon juice, basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon juice, pimento, paprika, and bay leaves (although Nando’s recipe is a secret). A chain similar to Nando’s, albeit much smaller, Boneheads Grilled Fish & Piri Piri Chicken also capitalizes on the South Africa influence.
Noodles & Company has incorporated a similar, more exotic version of sriracha into its menu. Called gochujang, it plays heavily in the fast-casual restaurant’s new dish Korean BBQ meatballs with gochujang sauce – making Noodles & Co. the first national restaurant chain to feature gochujang on its menu. Sriracha is also a popular condiment at Noodles & Company, as well as other chains like Subway.
Ghost peppers, the world’s spiciest pepper, are a hot menu item, as evidenced by Wendy’s ghost pepper fries and Quaker Steak & Lube’s dusted ghost pepper flavor which is available for a limited time as a wing sauce.
Brazilian-influenced brands include Texas de Brazil Churrascaria, Fogo de Chao, and Tucanos Brazilian Grill. Plus, these kinds of ethnic influences are also appearing on non-ethnic restaurant menus. For example, Yogurtland offered a limited-time Argentinian Dulce de Leche Cookie frozen yogurt flavor at the end of April.
Argentinian Chimichurri sauce has been popular at national brands, particularly paired with shrimp (Taco John’s, Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, and Red Lobster).
Early Stage Trends and Laggards
On the opposite end of the spectrum, many trends – like hyper-local sourcing, artisan ice cream and butchery, and house-made sausages – are in their early stages, appearing in mostly independent restaurants.
“[These trends] are really tough for large restaurant chains to do on a national level…because it’s expensive and equipment can be tough to source,” Tristano said.
Some of these trends do well in non-commercial as opposed to commercial.
“Hyper-local sourcing and food waste reduction/management are both well-developed at college and university foodservice,” said Tristano. “Applying these to the mainstream could be tougher, though some chains like Sweetgreen and Shake Shack have approached trends like food waste in interesting ways by repurposing food scraps.”
For example, for a limited time, Sweetgreen and Shake Shack featured a burger created by Chef Dan Barber (the wastED juice pulp cheeseburger), which used leftover vegetable pulp, leftover cheese trimming, and bruised beets for ketchup, atop a repurposed bun made from stale rye bread.
While other trends, are making progress, it has been significantly limited. For example, chains like True Food Kitchen and Top 500 chain Sweetgreen feature sustainable sea bass and sustainably farmed trout, respectively, but many other large chains aren’t quite there yet.
While pickling has been a huge trend in recent years, even making it onto menus like Red Robin which recently unveiled a Battered Broccoli with house-made pickled jalapeno aioli, there hasn’t been a significant surge on other top menus.