Everything’s connected. That’s the central theme that emerged from a report published by Technomic, Chicago.
Ever-shifting demands for health and flavor innovation are guiding menus toward new sustainably grown and sourced ingredients, which connects to an elevated prioritization around waste reduction—both on the menu and in back of the house. But, this heightened sense of social responsibility isn’t happening in a vacuum; it’s aligned with the changing consumer expectations, led by evolving life stages influencing the industry to respond in creative ways.
Macro financial, political and workforce trends are underway too. As global economic factors, political implications and labor concerns gain steam, consumer behaviors are impacted and their sensibilities are more attuned to the value equation for dining occasions. And, that’s linked directly to their choices, traffic and purchase drivers and response to new promotions and menu innovation.
Here are some hot-button predictions for food, flavor, operations and consumer attitudes in 2020:
Cool colors heat up
Following the hype of yellow turmeric, orange wine, red chile crisp and other warm-color foods, the industry is now seeing shades of trending ingredients cool off. Greens such as new rabes and cresses and new lettuces like celtuce, kale hybrids and komatsuna will pile up on plates, as familiar leaf vegetables, sea greens, peas and absinthe take over cocktails. In addition, spirulina and butterfly pea will bring the blues, while purple variations of common vegetables and herbs such as corn, broccoli, kale, snap peas, basil and potatoes, as well as orach, ume and juneberries will trend.
The year of the fad
Restaurants will increasingly menu wow-factor, uber-limited-time offers to cause media frenzy with fare that’s either expensive, laborious, hard to acquire from suppliers or off-the-wall. What this means is that operators—even large chains—will jump on fads instead of waiting for trends to arise. Expect fare such as Asian cheese tea, huitlacoche (corn smut), edible insects and technically illegal tonka beans and CBD to find momentum. Plus, operators will draw consumers in by menuing “mouth magic” ingredients that elicit surprising sensory reactions, such as sweet limes, habanada (looks like a habanero, but lacks the heat) and Sichuan bud.
New forces of nature
As the plant-forward movement carries on, operators will need to look to new natural resources to keep menus exciting. Previously overlooked parts of familiar plants, such as beet greens, sweet potato leaves and avocado blossom will get attention as a form of waste reduction. Another sustainable initiative is seaweed, which will make waves not just in snacks, but also in desserts and drinks, while sea beans will find interesting applications. And, although cow’s milk production is on the decline, consumers are learning that you can milk just about anything. Nuts and seeds are just the first step; up next, expect more oat, fruit and vegetable milks.
Sustainability is more than a menu initiative, it’s emerging as part of the foodservice industry’s new circular economy, evolving from a linear approach of create-use-recycle to create-use-reuse-sustain. Upcoming efforts will call for reusable cup programs; portion-controlling dispensers to limit overuse and waste; strawless lids, smaller napkins and wood-fiber utensils; traceable sourcing of paper products; and more investment into compostable packaging that cycles back into the soil. Look for the industry to incorporate a wider range of resource-efficient, circular practices in the name of sustainability—from hydroponic vegetable production to new ways of processing and distributing food leftovers.
Locking into life stages
Within the next six years, 80% of Millennials will be parents. Every day, an estimated 10,000 Baby Boomers retire from the workforce. These massive generations—and their Gen X and Gen Z offspring—aren’t defined by an age bracket anymore. The health, service, quality and technology needs of an older boomer or Millennial consumer may vary from those of their younger counterparts, just as social responsibility, menu innovation and pricing thresholds may carry greater importance among younger Gen Z vs. older Gen Z consumers. Going forward, the savviest foodservice companies will quickly pivot and develop a more strategic voice to reach specific subgroups within each generation.
Restaurant unit growth has been proliferating for years, yet guest traffic has lagged. Even as more foodservice locations launch, at-home delivery occasions are booming. This has left the industry in a quandary—do operators go all in on off-premise, double down on a core positioning designed to draw customers in the door or invest in some sort of hybrid strategy? Look for more operators to employ creative means to drive in-store traffic, from over-the-top limited-time offerings and dine-in-only buy-one-get-one meals to promoting loyalty/subscription-based rewards that require frequent visitation. Off-premise occasions will continue to flourish (the latest Technomic research shows that 78% of operators consider off-premise sales to be a “strategic priority”), but 2020’s traffic battle will also bring on a flurry of counteractive efforts by operators.
The pre-recession jitters
According to a study presented by Wolters Kluwer's Blue Chip Economic Indicators, New York, 38% of economists believe the country is headed for an economic recession in 2020, while 41% foresee the recession hitting the United States in 2021 instead. Macro impacts, such as the trade war with China, a slowdown in economic growth in the EU and drops in corporate profits all represent looming risks to the U.S. economy. In fact, heading into the close of 2019, the unemployment rate fell to a 50-year low of 3.5%, but caution is beginning to creep into their spending behavior. Higher gas prices may soon affect transportation costs, as well as restaurant visitation and purchase decisions in 2020. How do operators and their supplier partners prepare for a return to recessionary behavior? Expect a back-to-basics mentality to bubble up, as consumers increasingly trade down to lower-priced occasions across foodservice segments. And, in response, operators who’ve already learned the hard lessons of 2008 will communicate a more direct value story.