Green will be the color of the restaurant industry in 2008. Also, look for restaurants to concoct more healthful and unique flavor profiles next year. And Burger King's Subservient Chicken may just find some new interactive friends over the next 12 months.
The restaurant industry is never static, and the coming year should prove no different, restaurant observers say. Restaurants are expected to carry over some burgeoning marketing and culinary trends from 2007 and also could spawn some new concepts in the year ahead.
One trend that is likely to continue is the move among restaurants to be more environmentally friendly. More companies want to show their patrons that they care about the types of products that they use to serve and cook their food and about the ingredients that they use.
"One of the most powerful words in branding is 'consciousness,' " according to Aaron Allen, chief executive of Orlando, Fla.-based Quantified Marketing Group, a restaurant marketing and public relations firm.
Patrons are seeking out restaurants that use sustainable, recyclable products, he said, adding that restaurants will take cues from hotels — where it is common these days to see signs in bathrooms asking consumers to reuse their towels — by displaying signs reminding patrons of the importance of recycling.
Joe Durocher, associate professor of hospitality management at the University of New Hampshire, agrees that restaurants are keen on green.
"It's not a fad. I think it's a trend," he said.
Durocher said he expects next year that more restaurants will be certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, a designation that verifies that a building meets the highest green building and performance measures.
He also said that quick- and casual-service restaurants will go out of their way to use sustainable materials — such as corn-based disposable plates and cups that break down easily in a landfill. Composting also is popular in some urban areas, he added.
"[Restaurants] are going to try very hard to use those angles as a point of differentiation from the guys down the street," Durocher said.
The push to go green extends to the quality of food restaurants serve as well, according to both Durocher and Allen. Many patrons have had it with the junk, they suggest.
"Consumers have a much more heightened sense of consciousness, what we are putting in our bodies," according to Allen of Quantified Marketing Group. Durocher points to the success of Chipotle, a quick-casual chain based in Denver with more than 670 restaurants around the country.
"Part of their success and the way they differentiate themselves is a product that has no chemicals, no antibiotics and no growth hormones given to animals," Durocher said. "That's important to a lot of people."
There also is a movement not necessarily toward organic products but away from beef enhanced with hormones and fish potentially laced with mercury, Durocher said.
In addition, restaurants are looking to market more local foods, both Durocher and Allen said.
Along with environmental concern and health consciousness, another major trend toward bolder flavor profiles and experiential dining is afoot. Times Grill, a five-unit casual chain based in Jacksonville, Fla., is one example of that effort as it turns the standard hamburger into a specialty item by adding nontraditional toppings, such as sauerkraut, brown mustard and Swiss cheese.
Shearn Lemoine, founder and chief "burger" officer for Times Grill, said that the "wow" factor is key to attracting guests.
"I have a vision that our hamburgers not only need to taste great but to visually impress as well," he said. Consumers are looking for more sophistication, high quality and choice out of cuisine, he noted.
Durocher echoed Lemoine's remarks.
"It really comes down to menu fatigue," Durocher said. "People are looking for new and innovative and different stuff."
The success of casual players like Times Grill has put the squeeze on more established, larger family- and casual-dining players, according to experts. A new concept called modified-casual is emerging, Allen said. He defines modified-casual as more sophisticated than fast-casual but more focused than casual dining.
Some characteristics of a "modified casual" concept include:
- It offers the same service and amenities as a large chain or mega-independent, but in a smaller footprint.
- It has a more focused menu than a casual-dining restaurant.
- It has no counter service.
"The tectonic plates of the industry are shifting to such a major degree with fast-casual and what is happening on the higher end," Allen said. "Fast- casual will put the squeeze on a lot of operators."
Some of those operators include mid-market operators such as Applebee's, of Overland Park, Kan., which has more than 1,900 units; and Bennigan's, of Plano, Texas, with more than 300 units. Such companies have been forced to introduce new menus and conceptual designs to compete, he said.
Yet another major trend that is likely to pick up steam next year is interactive marketing, Allen said. In this vein, more chains need to follow the lead of Burger King, the quick-service giant based in Miami and which has more than 11,000 units. BK has created the iconic Subserviant Chicken, which Allen considers to be one of the best interactive campaigns around in the way that it allows users to interact on the Web with a costumed chicken character.
To attract younger patrons, Allen said, restaurants need to make better use of the Web and its social sites, such as YouTube and MySpace, as well as branded video games.
Other trends to look for in 2008, according to Quantified Marketing Group, Orlando, Fla., 2007:
- Restaurants in nontraditional locations, such as offices, airports, campuses, stadiums and hospitals. The high cost of real estate is fueling this trend.
- Mini-dessert programs
- Consolidation in the form of acquisitions and purchasing co-ops
- Compressing size to drive sales – so a kiosk can actually generate bug business
- Bolder flavor profiles, such as spicy Mexican tastes