Bret Thorn, Nancy Kruse look back on 2012 culinary trends

Bret Thorn, Nancy Kruse look back on 2012 culinary trends

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. This installment is also part of the 2012: Year in Review series from Nation's Restaurant News, which recaps notable news from the restaurant industry over the past year.

2012 food trend predictions hit and miss

NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn takes a look at how the culinary trends he predicted for 2012 actually fared.

Nancy, for the past few years I’ve been making predictions about what food trends we’re likely to see in the coming year. I’ll be doing that again soon, but first I’d like to take a look at how my predictions panned out this year.

In December of 2011, I predicted [5] that consumers would continue to seek convenient foods on some occasions and more healthful foods on others, and that on occasion they would be willing to splurge on calories, money, time or all three.

We’ve seen all three of those trends take shape over 2012. From a convenience perspective, for example, we saw pizza become even faster, with the emergence of a fast-casual pizza segment [6] among chains and a growing number of independent restaurants offering thin Neapolitan pizza that cooks in 90 seconds in super-hot wood burning ovens.

In the health arena, Subway teamed up with the American Heart Association [7] to label some of its sandwiches with a Heart Check logo. We also saw a growing use of “ancient grains,” such as faro and, of course, quinoa.

We also saw improved performance at steakhouses and chains at the high end of the casual dining segment as consumers sought levels of service, food and ambience that they couldn’t get elsewhere. And this year’s holiday season looks promising [8] by many accounts.

But when I became more specific with my trend predictions they became more hit-and-miss.

As I expected, pistachios grew in popularity this year, thanks in part to a strong marketing campaign. But my prediction that bananas Foster, with its low food cost and high nostalgia value, would make a comeback, was a complete flop.

I predicted that chefs would get more creative with their local sourcing, and I lucked out in suggesting that we might see proprietary oyster beds [9], something Todd English did, indeed, introduce in 2012.

I also expected that more chains would find ways to source locally [10], and in 2012 we saw chains like Jim ’n Nick’s and Sweetgreen get creative by raising their own hogs in the first case and working with mainline distributors to visit local farms in the other.

I did not anticipate the prevalence of rooftop beehives in hotels [11], however.

I predicted that Asian ingredients would go even more mainstream, and indeed they have, with Sriracha, the Thai hot sauce, being one breakout hit; it not only has made it to the menu of Pei Wei Asian Diner, but also to Red Robin, where it’s on a spicy burger called The Cry Baby.

At independent restaurants, the Korean pickled vegetable kimchi became a darling of chefs, with some even making their own. Actually, pickles in general practically took the country by storm [12], and I didn’t see that coming.

I predicted there would be more manufacturing in fine dining restaurants, but by that I really was thinking of sous-vide cooking and other modernist techniques that require more precision than artistry. Instead what we saw was an outpouring of pickles and no small amount of house-made charcuterie.

I also thought we might see more cooking at chain restaurants. With commodity costs going up and the labor pool staying fairly loose, I figured chains might start doing more value-added in-house cooking. Unless I missed something, that didn’t really happen this year.

How about you, Nancy? Did 2012 food trends happen as you expected?

Next: Nancy Kruse’s response

Carrying 2012's R&D creativity into 2013

The following is Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse's response to NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn's look back on food trends in 2012.

You’re a better man than I am, Bret. Not only do you make predictions, but you actually own up to them later on. I, on the other hand, tend to avoid such prognostications, which makes me just about the only consultant in captivity who can make that claim. But you’re right: Year’s end is a good time to consider how things have fared in the industry and to think a little bit about what the next twelve months will bring. On that subject, rather than make predictions, I’d like to make some wishes for the next year.

I wish that all operators, whether chain or independent, who work so damn hard in a tough, competitive environment, realize the fruits of their labors. They bring a great deal of joy, as well as sustenance, to their customers, and our lives would all be immeasurably poorer without them.

I wish continued creativity to the wonderful R&D chefs who made 2012 a fantastic food year and rocked my world with:

Chickens and eggs. Who would have believed that chicken would top the charts in totally unexpected new products like Burger King’s Chicken Parmesan Sandwich, Wienerschnitzel’s Der Chicken Dippers or McDonald’s Bone-In Mighty Wings?

Even better was the long overdue restoration of the egg to its rightful starring status atop cool items like Carbonara Flatbread at Del Frisco’s Grille, Pitfire Pizza’s Greens, Egg & Ham Pizza and The Poacher Salad at First Watch.  

Powerhouse proteins. As the better-burger boom enters its fifth year, it would be easy for chefs simply to coast when it comes to beef innovation. How wonderful, then, to see nifty items like LongHorn’s new Rancher’s Sirloin with smoky bacon, Bordelaise sauce and, yes, a poached egg, or the Chianti BBQ Steak at Romano’s Macaroni Grill served with a side of prosciutto mac and cheese.

Pork promoters moved way beyond bacon with some innovations of their own. Smith & Wollensky’s stepped outside the box with Cracklin’ Pork Shank smartly turned out with creamy sauerkraut and spicy applesauce, while California Pizza Kitchen finished the year by testing a Korean BBQ Pizza with pork loin and spicy kimchi salad.

Super sides. Side dishes at long last shook off their image as culinary also-rans thanks to tasty touches like the ginger and lime in T.G.I. Friday’s cole slaw, curried rice with mango chutney at Souplantation or jalapeño corn grits at Marlow’s Tavern in Atlanta.

On the subject of corn, no development was more delightful than the appearance on independent-restaurant menus around the country of elote, Mexican-style corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise and white cheese and finished with chile powder. On the chain side, T.G.I. Friday’s weighed in with a summertime variation: Chipotle-Roasted Corn on the Cob.

I wish all the luck in the world to the entrepreneurs and young chefs who’ve set their sights on making it big in the restaurant business in 2013. We need their ideas, and we need their enthusiasm. I can’t wait to see what they cook up.

Speaking of which, I am enthusiastically looking forward to cooking up more of these digital dialogues with you, Bret. So here’s to a happy new year, and may all your predictions come true.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] [13].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary [14]

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] [15].