In an Uncertain Economic Climate, Candor in Cuisine Is the Catch of the Day
Moving into a new decade, while emerging from one of the toughest years in recent history, The Next Idea sets forth its food and dining outlook for the coming year. For both the kitchen and the consumer, 2010 is poised to be an interesting one.
The 80s, 90s, and Early Millennium
Given the complexity of the times we live in, to put the present into perspective, we must first understand the past…
In the 80s, 90s, and early millennium, we experienced a rapid expansion of chain restaurants. These companies delivered a combination of consistent quality, decent service, and relatively attractive environments. While their concepts and brands were “different,” in truth, they were all much the same: similar product range, service style, price point, and so on.
The brands in question (and we all know whom we are talking about) focused on costs and marketing, but generally reneged on product innovation. In fact, the practice of purchasing premade food products from large manufacturers was part of their standard operating procedure. Therefore, from a culinary standpoint, they functioned more as recycling kitchens (and not in a green manner) as opposed to traditional kitchens, employing a team of trained chefs, who cook from scratch and take pride in their craft.
In essence, these companies crowned convenience the primary driver. Unfortunately, they were less dedicated to customer convenience, and more to the ultimate in operational ease.
Nonetheless, this strategic approach generated results…for a time.
The Present: Fast Forward to Today
Of course, in the past 12 months, our economic landscape has transformed dramatically. So when examining emerging restaurant trends, we must first consider the external dynamics and broader trends affecting food and restaurants in general:
- Health. Childhood obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease are all higher on the agenda than ever before. The entire movement towards wellness and healthy eating has revolutionized the consumer’s thinking towards food. Gluten free, lactose free, casein free, and decaf represent staples in today’s dietary vocabulary. And all have been promoted heavily through a range of relatively new mediums: social media, new media, government health media—even the ever-increasing celebrity media.
- Supermarkets. Led by high-end health pioneers like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s, consumer food outlets have dramatically expanded the availability of superior-quality products. In today’s supermarkets, the consumer can buy organic, vegan, gluten free, lactose free, high amino acid, low sodium, and the list goes on. The important part is that these products—generally produced by more boutique manufacturers—focus on food remaining as natural as possible. And the consumer is taking notice.
- Economics. In the face of expanding unemployment and deflating 401(k)s, worried consumers have responded by cutting household budgets and turning their attention towards value. Simply put, the consumer has become more careful with their money. Food shopping is no exception.
- Environmentalism. While still in its infancy, the green movement has emerged as the defining cause of our era. The plight of the environment has impacted every industry, food being one of the most notable. Sustainable farming, livestock management, pesticides, packaging, and energy management are now at the forefront of the consumer’s mind. It’s reality: The environment now factors into our food-consumption decisions.
- Boredom. Consumers simply got sick of everything tasting the same. True, we like the large chains’ emphasis on value. But we’re no longer willing to accept premade, one-size-feeds-all fare that tastes like last night’s dinner…because it came from the same mega-kitchen as the super-diner down the street. In other words, consumers now realize it’s possible to find fresh, healthy, homemade food at a reasonable price.
The external dynamics have morphed over the past year at high velocity, and this has inadvertently altered the foundation from which restaurants traditionally build strategy. We will find that those restaurant chains unable to adapt quickly to today’s consumer trends and expectations will likely experience treacherous waters ahead.
The Recession and a New Postmodernism
At the time of this forecast, research illustrates that most consumers are saturated by recession speak. They are anxious to transition into a new phase, one with a more optimistic message and enhanced outlook.
However, to genuinely understand the consumer’s impression of the current food and restaurant terrain, it is vital to first consider the recession. Because any way you slice it, this recession will likely go down in history as the single most instrumental element in changing consumer behavior this century.
Consider this: In the early 20th century, society reflected a traditional culture; after World War II, this transitioned into a consumer culture. Quietly, in recent years, we have identified what has been described as a re-imagined culture: a version of postmodernism that combines very modern thinking with key traditions of the past. With this era, comes a new set of values. Among the most crucial is the inherent value of honesty.
The concept of honesty—i.e. trustworthiness or truthfulness—is as old as civilization itself. So to say it has just emerged would be ludicrous. Therefore, we liken it to a hidden treasure: It’s been “buried,” and just recently “rediscovered.” When it comes to industry, more and more, the consumer is demanding honesty. You can see it everywhere. And it’s easy to understand why. Consider this:
Banks – The foundation of our economy, banks have fueled consumer contempt. Foreclosures combined with big bonuses and government bailouts is just not jiving with today’s consumer.
Government – In the most basic terms, consumers are wondering, Where were our leaders when we needed them most? True, which side of the political spectrum one sits generally dictates how they view the past and present administration’s performance. However, most consumers agree that the government manifestly failed to protect them from the recent financial meltdown. In light of this, it’s safe to say that trust in government is not heading north.
Employers – In the consumer’s eyes, employers have failed them. At the beginning of 2009, we endured almost daily reports of mass layoffs, as workers with 20 years of service were terminated with little or no severance. If not a casualty themselves, consumers clung to their cubicles in horror. The repercussions were far more dramatic than we could have imagined and have resulted in a tenuous relationship (at best) between employees and corporate America.
Essentially, these perceived betrayals have created a heightened level of consumer mistrust, characterized by deepened skepticism and concern. The reality, however, is that this might not be a negative: A consumer that demands honesty and integrity will create change. Odds are this change will be progressive.
The New Consumer Culture: What It Means for Restaurants
Today’s new consumer culture will translate into five core mandates for food service operators:
- Authenticity. It simply has to be real. The more so, the better.
- Lack of Pretense. Eating is about enjoyment, not about impressing. If a food’s appearance is pleasing, great. But its taste need be so as well.
- Real Opinions. Think less Michelin Stars by uppity “experts”; more Yelp and what their friends say.
- Relativism. The notion that some cuisines are “better” than others is not just wrong. It’s arrogant. Superiority by cuisine is subjective, and the consumer knows it.
- DIY. Food suppliers will have to compete with consumers themselves, as diners learn about pickling their own vegetables, curing their own meat, and even raising their own chickens. What’s the ultimate in guaranteeing truth and trustworthiness? Learn to do it yourself.
A close second, however, is witnessing someone else do it for you, by hand. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the artisanal movement, where people celebrate craft and traditions. The consumer identifies artisan as authentic and honest. And they’re fueling the growth of this movement at farmer’s markets, bakeries, cafés, cheese makers, microbreweries, and small, family-owned vineyards. These days, being handcrafted truly gives you a leg up.
Four Changes in Restaurants
Once the new culture is defined and the above five mandates integrated, the future becomes more transparent.
The Next Idea predicts four major changes in restaurants:
- Enhanced Quality and Real Products. While we will see many companies providing the same product types, brand-to-brand quality will vary more. In many cases, we will notice vastly superior and more proprietary recipes.
An excellent example is the new “gourmet burger” concepts. These provide fresh, homemade burgers created with a higher-quality beef (grass fed and range raised). These restaurants are also smaller and more intimate. Yet they’re still very affordable. Concepts such as Five Guys, SmashBurger, The Counter, and The Stand will grow with their offer of inviting settings serving honest food.
In fact, even the large food-service providers such as Aramark (Burger Studio) and Sodexo (The Original Burger Company) have developed burger concepts for colleges and universities. This demonstrates that the younger consumer is expecting increased quality at an honest price as well.
- Environment, Environment, Environment. Restaurants are going to do whatever it takes to be more environmentally conscious. From building their venues using environmentally friendly materials to utilizing solar energy, employing sustainable ingredients and biodegradable packaging, and selling their waste to recycling companies, restaurants will make immense progress in this area.
- Technology. Not surprisingly, technology will continue to represent expanded opportunities for restaurants. Implementing advances in order-taking and managing inventory, among many others, restaurants will continue to adapt to technology very quickly over the coming years.
One area of obvious technological growth is online ordering. Restaurants will reap financial rewards—and consumers will enjoy convenience advantages—by adopting the latest mobile phone and Internet ordering applications. (See www.nextonthego.com for The Next Idea’s own consumer-friendly food solution.)
But it’s not all about ordering in. Other mediums, such as social media and SMS marketing, will continue to grow in value and momentum over the next few years, as restaurants become more savvy in understanding consumer behavior and implementing new technologies.
- Small Is Big. The Next Idea expects to see restaurants evaluating their brick-and-mortar structures. By examining rents and per-square-foot sales, many restaurants will conclude that smaller footprints can generate more net revenue on a per-square-foot basis. Surprisingly, this could be a benefit for the consumer.
Smaller restaurants generally mean more intimacy and, often, enhanced service and an augmented sense of trust. And the theme of small does not just relate to restaurant size: Portion size will minimize somewhat as well. But this time, we’ll see consumer demand as the driver, not restaurant costs; think sliders, Michael Mina, Gordon Ramsay, sample platters, and molecular gastronomy. Yes, they may take varying guises as 2010 progresses, but multiple, smaller portions will supplant the traditional three-course meal.
Emerging Trends in 2010
Having identified the more pervasive trends, operator mandates, and industry alterations we might expect in 2010, we can fluently embark on the business of forecasting the year’s food and restaurant trends.
The Next Idea’s emerging trends for 2010 include the following:
- Branded Mobile Food Trucks. Over the past few years, mobile food trucks have exterminated their “roach coach” moniker and moved into high-quality burgers, baked goods, and specialty cuisine.
Portable restaurants like Burrito Girl, a Eugene, Oregon food truck that specializes in El Salvadoran food; Kogi, L.A.’s now-famous Korean barbeque taco truck; and Coolhaus, a modern, mobile, organic ice cream sandwich maker use social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to market themselves and update diners on their ever-changing whereabouts. Given the success of these trailblazers, this trend will continue to take off.
- Humble Is Hot. Bargains are in. To this end, we will see a premium placed on high-quality, seasonal ingredients that offer value. In 2010’s anti-decadence environment, emphasis will be on simple food, for the people, by the people. Yes, the economy will continue to dictate our cooking and shopping decisions. But we now know this can be beneficial.
- Single Estate. From chocolate to wine, single sources will be all the rage. This time around, however, the draw is to support the small farm, the family-owned chocolatier. In our (justifiably) suspicious minds, one source means “simple,” “superior quality,” and “something I can trust.”
- Homespun. In terms of food styles, the consumer will shift interest to more rustic, organic, free-range fare. Buzzwords like “heirloom,” will accelerate in popularity, as the consumer embraces (natural) comfort foods and more “homey”—i.e. honest—types of cuisine. (Martha Stewart’s homemade macaroni and cheese was a well-received addition to many a holiday menu this season.)
- Eating in. Consumers have rediscovered dining in…in a big way. While on the surface not positive news for restaurants, there is a message in this movement for restaurateurs: Create the atmosphere that is causing people to stay home—honest food at an honest price with genuine homespun hospitality—and the consumer will respond favorably.
- The Underground Restaurant Movement. Look for more restaurateurs to set up shop in unlicensed premises like warehouses, apartments, or even urban garages. Once again, expect social media to play a part.
- Compost. The compost pile is the new flower garden. And “growing your own” now refers to vegetables.
- Culinary Ethnicity. Heightened interest in culinary ethnicity continues, with new trends including Mediterranean, Peruvian, Costa Rican, Moroccan, and (more) Indian cuisine.
- Noodle Bars. Kiss carb-free goodbye, as hip Ramen bars spring up around the country. Possibly the most notable concept in this arena is Wagamama, the modern Japanese chain that originated in London 15 years ago and has secured an international presence.
- Ginger. Ginger is the new mint, and Mojitos are totally 2009. Expect an influx of ginger beers and cocktails (like the Ginger Rogers, Gin Gin Mule, and Ginger Smash), already popular at places like The Violet Hour in Chicago, Clock Bar in San Francisco, and Matsugen in New York. Ginger makes for a very healthy ingredient, with proven medicinal advantages. And today’s health-conscious consumer is asking for another.
- Smoking. Smoking is also back in a big way. (No, we’re not talking Marlboros and menthols.) From the subtle notes of fruitwoods to the more assertive marks of mesquite and hickory, smoking lets chefs imbue layers of flavor without adding fat, sugar, or sodium. In fact, even bartenders are smoking their bourbons. Who knows what could be next.
- Free. Free is in—and we don’t mean free food. Consumers are not just looking for additive and pesticide free. Minorities are now the majority, and they want food free from their nemesis…whatever said nemesis may be. For example, the estimated three million Americans with celiac disease want gluten free. Lactose-intolerant consumers want lactose free. A range of folk need casein free, and so the list goes.
Contributing to this cause is the nearly epidemic rise in childhood disorders. And this will further fuel the trend, as parents look to their child’s diet as a potential cure for disorders such as autism and ADHD. Sure, clinical evidence supporting the link between such diets and a decrease in childhood diseases is limited at best. But when you couple parents publically testifying to positive results with the determination of mothers with afflicted offspring, you end up with increasing demand. Increasing demand means restaurants will respond (i.e. expect a gluten-free or casein-free establishment in your area soon).
- New Concepts. The Next Idea predicts a larger than usual launch of new concepts in 2010. With a surplus of cheap commercial property available, and a large number of highly experienced, unemployed executives, we see frustrated food and beverage professionals investing their savings in their own destiny. In turn, consumers will support these businesses, as the new enterprise resonates with today’s “honest” principles of buying local and supporting one’s community.
- Regional Coffee Retailers. Coffee has come full circle. Take Starbucks. What began as a local coffee phenomenon migrated to other cities and turned Americans (and the world) into java addicts. But the chain lost site of the neighborhood.
Cut to 2010, when the old-fashioned, neighborhood coffee roaster is thriving again: like Stumptown (Portland), The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (Los Angeles), Blue Bottle Coffee (San Francisco), and La Colombe Torrefaction (Philly). But don’t dismiss Starbucks yet. They’ve responded with their own regional coffee brand: 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea…which also sells beer and wine.
- Tea. Look for tea to take over as the hip drink of choice for the Twitterati. Yes, the same set that brought us pizza as a food group and $20k coffeemakers has discovered tea. And along with peak performance (read: instant messaging and energetic bodies), this Internet-savvy consumer is claiming the leafy beverage as their latest accessory.
However, tea drinks themselves will also transform. One of the biggest trends on the horizon is bubble tea, a beverage typically served cold. This tasty treat originated in Taiwan in the 1980s, first spread to nearby East Asian countries, and then migrated to Canada, before spreading to Chinatown in New York City and subsequently to various spots throughout the U.S. West Coast.
In 2010, the drink of choice for young Asians is forecasted to become a western fad, although we should expect variations. (The Next Idea is advancing this trend further with a line of proprietary tea recipes made from natural seeds, berries, herbs, fusions, and other unique flavors; look for these tea-based beverages via a range of U.S. and European café concepts.)
Summary: The Food and Restaurant Forecast
Simply put, honesty is in, and the future is going to be more real. With this, we will experience the further growth of microbreweries, small manufacturers, sustainable farming, organic and innovative foods, and above all else, healthier eating.
As we reflect on 2009, we still shudder at the carnage. Because, regardless of what the media says, we are still clearly facing recessionary economics.
However, at The Next Idea, we believe considerable good will be generated by this recession. Moreover, this good will be driven by the people who were affected most: Some of today’s unemployed will start new food businesses that will facilitate innovation and alter the landscape of the industry. And communities will support these survivors, because they will trust in their integrity. Finally, people will seek out higher-quality food, which will, in turn, make them healthier.
But most of all, we will see this new value of honesty. And this will impact everything. As a result, restaurants, retailers, and manufacturers will be held far more accountable for what they sell. Those that embrace this coming clean can look forward to being very, very successful. Honestly.
Robert Ancill is CEO and managing partner at The Next Idea. His career spans over 24 years in the restaurant, retail, and leisure industries, with a specialization in international restaurant concept and brand development. Throughout his career, Robert has managed over 220 restaurant/café openings and the launch of 22 new concepts in the U.K., Europe, the Middle East, China, India, and the U.S.
Nicole Wood is an L.A.-based freelance copywriter and staff writer for The Next Idea. She is an expert in print/online copy and concept development for the health, beauty, food, and leisure industries.