Thorn and Kruse take stock of 2017 menu trends Starbucks
2017 saw an uptick in cold-brew coffee.

Thorn and Kruse take stock of 2017 menu trends

Thorn looks back on his predictions, while Kruse examines the year’s contradictions

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they look back at predicted and actual menu trends of 2017. 

NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn revisits his menu trend predictions for 2017.

Happy New Year, Nancy.

As you know, with the turning of the calendar comes a slew of trend predictions. It seems that 2017, more than any year I can remember, saw a nearly ridiculous proliferation of prognosticators spewing forth easy-to-compile, clickable lists of what to eat and drink in 2017.

I put together a list, too, but I think it’s important to take stock of what I predicted last year and how those trends bore out.

I predicted that Indian food would become more mainstream, and it did, with fast-casual Indian chains such as Kati Roll Company in New York City, Biju’s Little Curry Shop in Colorado, and Choolaah Indian BBQ in Cleveland spreading their wings a bit. More tellingly, trendy restaurants such as Olmsted in Brooklyn, N.Y., served gobi pakora, or cauliflower fritters, and a southern Indian stew called chakna, revealing more openness to the cuisines of the subcontinent than in the past.

Kati Roll Co.

Kati rolls at Kati Roll Co., an Indian fast-casual chain based in New York

Furthermore, I’ve seen curried cauliflower at airport kiosks run by Cibo Express. And Sweetgreen, the fast-casual salad chain that is a favorite among coastal Millennials, saw so much success with its curry cauliflower salad that corporate chef Michael Stebner developed a warm bowl featuring curried chickpeas for the chain last winter.

Meanwhile, mentions of the Indian flatbread naan increased faster than any other bread on menus across the country, according to menu research firm Datassential, thanks to chains like East Coast Wings and Grill.

The 37-unit casual-dining chain introduced the ECW Triple Dip sampler, with Buffalo chicken dip, jalapeño pimento cheese dip, and spinach dip served with tortilla chips and naan chips. Two years ago, the latter would have been called pita chips. That indicates a growing acceptance of Indian food, if you ask me.

Wayback Burgers

Philly cheesesteak at Wayback Burgers

In 2016, I noticed an uptick in foods with fillings and toppings inspired by the Philly cheesesteak, like Philly Cheesesteak Potstickers at Ruby Tuesday and Loaded Street Philly Tots and Johnny Rockets (fried potato tots topped with cheddar cheese, thinly sliced grilled sirloin, caramelized onions and green peppers). I expected that to continue into 2017, because once you’ve had the magical combination of flavors that is the Philly cheesesteak, why would you ever go back?

But although tots enjoyed a renaissance, cheesesteaks petered out. Wayback Burgers did introduce a classic Philly Cheesesteak for three months, starting in January 2017, and Boston-based chef Michael Schlow offered a recipe for cheesesteak burritos for the Super Bowl, but other than that, I didn’t see much action in the category.

I predicted an uptick in cold-brew coffee, and I was correct. Mintel projected 460-percent growth in ready-to-drink cold brew between 2015 and 2017. A fledgling industry has sprung up around roasters making their own cold brew and selling it in kegs to restaurants, allowing for a more consistent product. 

I said there would be growth in low-alcohol cocktails, and that trend continued into 2017, with mixologists developing new drinks with sherry and vermouth, as well as beer, wine and sake. A growing number of operators with beer-and-wine licenses started using low-proof “spirits” that are either wine flavored to taste like gin or whiskey, or agave wine, which is tequila before it has been distilled.

Farmstand

Lower East Side lemonade made with muddled lemon, rosemary simple syrup and whiskey-flavored wine at Farmstand in New York

Low-alcohol cocktails tend to pair better with food than more potent potables, and customers can drink more than one of them with less risk of being too drunk to drive. Everyone wins, so I think we can expect to see more of these in 2018, too.

I said we’d be eating older animals. I predicted that more restaurants would follow the lead of Pineapple and Pearls in Washington, D.C., where chef Aaron Silverman was cooking steak from an old dairy cow. The meat is less tender, but more flavorful, and is arguably a fitting culmination to an animal’s life cycle. It’s also a way for dairy farmers to make a profit from their old cows, which otherwise would be ground into hamburger, while giving chefs a compelling story to tell. I also speculated that we’d see more slow-growth chickens, since major producers were toying with the idea of raising birds that would have fewer deformities and taste more like chicken.

Well, I wasn’t served any cow steak for dinner, but slow-growth chickens became a priority for many foodservice providers, particularly at colleges and universities, so I give myself half credit for that.

I hesitantly predicted a growing interest in insects as food, and the dialog about eating them that began in 2014 continued in 2017. In fact, there were some surprises.

When I brought up the idea of serving insects at a panel on the future of food at MUFSO, my panelists shuddered, but insects got mainstream media coverage, including in the Washington Post and Sports Illustrated. Both of those publications pointed to Centerplate’s hit at Safeco Field, where it sold chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers, to enthusiastic Seattle Mariners fans. It’s a head scratcher, but it’s a trend.

Brio Tuscan Grille

Housemade pickles at Brio Tuscan Grille

I predicted a proliferation of delicious vegetable preparations, and they were all over the place. Blaze Pizza rolled out a salad of roasted butternut squash with quinoa, feta cheese, mixed greens and lime vinaigrette. Seasons 52 highlighted the “heritage carrots” that it served with boneless beef short rib, and Brio Tuscan Grille introduced housemade pickles for happy hour. Over the summer, Houlihan’s served French fried asparagus with lemon-horseradish crème for dipping — not the most healthful way to eat your veggies, but still.

I said sour beer was likely to grow in popularity in 2017, and it did. Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson said retail sales of five major sour beer varieties grew by around 40 percent in 2017, and restaurant and bar sales probably grew even faster. (India Pale Ale is still king, though: Retail sales rose 12 percent from a much larger base.)

However, I whiffed on my prediction of an anti-caffeine backlash. Actually, I hedged my bets, saying that something was going on with caffeine. While cold brew was hot, the Coca-Cola Company pointed to a nearly 2-percent boost in caffeine-free drink consumption, including a 10-percent increase in Sprite consumption, from its Coca-Cola Freestyle machines.

What did that mean, I wondered.

Well, apparently it meant that people enjoyed playing with Sprite on the Freestyle machine, perhaps because it was more receptive to the vanilla, cherry and other flavors that can be added. Caffeine was pretty controversy-free in 2017.

I know you don’t like predicting trends, Nancy, and I applaud you for that, because you seem to be one of the only people in our field with the dignity to refrain from doing so. But looking back at 2017, what were the trend highlights for you? 

A year of contradictions 

Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse responds to NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s take on 2017 menu trends.  

Dignity, Bret? It’s lovely of you to say so, but the reality is a little different. Shortly after every Labor Day, as some of the best brains in the business start unleashing their fearless forecasts, I struggle to find something valuable to add to the conversation. I alternate between, “That’s what I was going to say,” and, “I wish I’d thought of that.” It’s the time of year when I feel most inadequate. However, since fewer analysts look backwards to make sense out of what the heck just happened and what it actually means, I’m happy to plant a flag in that turf, especially in light of the menu dynamics of the last 12 months.

A comforting cliché of our business is the customer’s propensity to say one thing and do another. It is the proverbial truth universally acknowledged that allows us to shake our heads, commiserate with colleagues, and excuse all kinds of strategic snafus and menu missteps. But the past year has seen consumer contradictions stand out in such stark relief that I have come to view 2017 as the “But Then Again Year.”

California Pizza Kitchen

Spicy buffalo cauliflower at California Pizza Kitchen

As you point out, vegetables at long last have come into their own on the menu. Cauliflower continues its long and unlikely run as everybody’s favorite crucifer, and you noted some nifty Indian-inflected treatments. I also liked the no-ethnic-holds-barred approaches exemplified by the Korean Fried Cauliflower at The Cheesecake Factory, Spicy Buffalo Cauliflower at California Pizza Kitchen and Kung Pao Cauliflower at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. Who knew that cauliflower would become such a focal point for innovation, alongside other previously underexploited items like carrots, Brussels sprouts, celery and radishes, all of which have become culinary superstars on both the side and center of the plate?

But then again, American diners remain utterly unabashed in their love of meat. Bloomberg reported that 2018 will see Americans consume a record 222.2 pounds of animal protein, and restaurateurs in 2017 pulled out all the stops to address our carnivorous cravings. Arby’s continued its extraordinary brand revival by claiming it has the meats, and then delivering the goods with unexpected porcine offerings like the Smokehouse Pork Belly Sandwich. Hickory-smoked, cooked sous-vide and topped with crispy onion strings, it was brought back by popular demand as a limited-time offer last spring.

Arby's

Pork belly at Arby's

But wait, there’s more: The Maryland-based Ledo Pizza chain offered wild boar on pizzas, salads and sandwiches, while the Rattlesnake Stew at Southfield, Mich.-based Zoup! featured rabbit-and-rattlesnake sausage. P.F. Chang’s created sophisticated Chengdu Lamb with mint and toasted cumin as part of its “Farm to Wok” program, and Bahama Breeze introduced a Curry Goat Bowl with the now ever-present naan on the side. The result is the rare win-win, as restaurateurs have the opportunity to romance both meat and vegetables to meet the desire for “real” food that appears fresh, attractive and unprocessed.

Demand for clean foods accelerated, influenced by the commitment of major grocery retailers like Kroger, whose Simple Truth line of organic, natural and free-from foods at affordable prices sold to the tune of $1.5 billion last year. On the restaurant side, Panera Bread proclaimed in 2017 that 100 percent of its food is 100-percent clean, quick-casual Italian chain Fazoli’s invested substantial time and money to remove all artificial ingredients from its menu items, and Taco Bell announced that, in addition to its earlier commitment to cage-free eggs for breakfast, ingredients in any and all dishes that contain eggs will be cage free in the future.

But then again, as the egg industry scrambled to make a very, very costly transition to cage-free hen housing — an investment pegged at about $6 billion — industry experts at United Egg Producers bemoaned the fact that 90 percent of consumers continue to pick conventional caged eggs in the grocery store. The reason is simple. Thanks to oversupply, conventional egg prices in 2017 were at historic lows. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that a dozen cage-free eggs cost about twice as much as their conventional counterparts. This is a great example of how marketers continue to be whipsawed by customer contradictions, and it underscores a major and immutable law of behavior, namely, that when all is said and done, we continue to vote with our wallets.

Eatsa

Automation technology at Eatsa

The past year has seen a steady increase in the use of technology to facilitate activities both front and back of house. You and I have considered the impact of burger-flipping and pizza-making robots on patron perception and human employment, and we’ve talked about concepts like Eatsa, which uses technology to bring the automat into the 21st century. Analysts hold up the ideal of a totally frictionless interchange between operator and patron as the inevitable wave of the future and the holy grail of transactions.

But then again, there has been a resolute embrace of old-fashioned, low-tech concepts like tiki bars and speakeasies that have decidedly 20th century vibes, and much of the menu follows suit. Sure, last year saw the ongoing and inexorable creep of culinary appropriation, or the mainstreaming of ethnic ingredients. From the Latin larder, we embraced cheeses like Mexican cotija, which pops up in the Spicy Vegetarian Chili at Chopt Creative Salad Company, and condiments like crema, as with the cilantro crema topping at Relish Burger Bar in Seattle. From the Mediterranean pantry, we helped ourselves to skhug, the Yemeni hot sauce in the Cauliflower Rice Bowl at Zoë’s Kitchen, and harissa, the red-pepper paste that spiced up the Mo Rockin’ Turkey Sandwich at Bruegger’s Bagels.

But then again, some of the most popular “new” menu items are actually old standbys that harken back to Mother Goose. You couldn’t open a trendy menu without tripping over puddings and porridges. Admittedly much of the action was at independents, as with the Sunflower Seed Porridge at Atlanta’s Staplehouse or the clever Sorghum Toffee Pudding at nearby Table & Main. Chains adopted less storied, but still treasured traditional dishes, like Spicy Bacon Hash, which gets a contemporary boost from Sriracha-avocado mayo, at Bob Evans Restaurants. Local Provisions, an independent operator in Asheville, N.C., created Buttermilk Curds and Whey with orange, radish and fennel, while the Gordon Biersch chain opted for the more mass-market friendly cheese curds made from white cheddar tossed with candied bacon.

Bob Evans

Spicy bacon hash at Bob Evans

What are we to deduce from all this, Bret? We know that consumers have always been a moving target, and we know that the only consistent thing is their inconsistency. It seems to me, however, that the extremes are getting more pronounced, and this makes sense. As we hurtle into the digital unknown, it’s logical that we also yearn for counterbalancing comfort, simplicity and signifiers of the familiar. The higher the tech, the higher the human touch that will be required to keep consumers comfortable and anchored.

But then again, that’s leaping ahead, something I’m loath to do. So let me close here, Bret, by paying you a compliment. I truly admire the fact that at year’s end you step up and review your predictions, both the ones you got right, and, just as importantly, the ones you missed by a mile. Few of your fellow prognosticators have the courage or, perhaps, the dignity to do so.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary



Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected].

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