American consumers are no longer eating like they’re in crisis mode, as they get used to the new normal of economic uncertainty.
Although generally cautious about spending money, consumers will splurge if they perceive value in their purchases, as illustrated by marked increases in Champagne and Cognac sales this year.
If 2012 is anything like 2011, restaurants will focus on three types of dining occasions. They’ll offer inexpensive foods for guests who want something quick and easy, such as what Mimi’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, and Brinker concepts Chili’s and Maggiano’s did in 2011.
They’ll sell more healthful items for the growing segment of the population that watches what it eats, at least some of the time. Many, possibly most, chains did that over the past year, including McDonald’s and The Cheesecake Factory.
And they’ll also offer items for splurging — on either calories or money — for when the occasion warrants it.
Denny’s did that with its indulgent Baconalia menu this past spring. And Wendy’s, Arby’s and Burger King all did it in 2011 with new premium sandwiches.
Those trends will continue in 2012.
Below are some other trends to look for in the coming year. Follow Bret and his culinary trend watching throughout the year at his blog, Food Writer’s Diary.
Pistachios. Consumers are looking for ingredients that are exotic without being threatening. There’s nothing threatening about a pistachio, but we haven’t seen much of it on menus lately.
TCBY got clear indications that this nut was ready for a comeback when the frozen yogurt chain tested pistachio yogurt earlier this year. It did so well that they’re bringing it back as a core item in 2012.
On top of all of that, the same family that owns and successfully marketed pomegranates over the past decade also has major financial interests in pistachios and has turned its attention to the nuts. The planned marketing strategy, targeting men, will play on the results of recent studies indicating that pistachios might improve erectile function.
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Shake shots. This is the logical next step in the mini-dessert trend: four-ounce milk shakes, about 200 calories each, probably priced at around $2. They would be an easy, low-guilt, semi-indulgent mealtime upsell, mid-morning snack or 4 p.m. pick-me-up. They also would be portable, and strike a nostalgia chord with the many consumers looking for retro items.
Bananas Foster. Sautéed bananas, brown sugar and rum with vanilla ice cream. Delicious, retro and a component in a growing number of desserts these days. A big syrup company just released bananas Foster syrup, indicating that we’re going to see a lot more of this particular combination of flavors.
More local than you. Lots of independent restaurants have their own gardens, some have their own farms and at least one has its own herd of cattle. Keep an eye out for proprietary oyster beds and more heirloom plants and heritage breeds of domestic animals — whatever a restaurant can do to set itself apart.
Chains can be local, too. Chain restaurants will continue to get onboard with local foods when they can. Regional chains — such as Eat’n Park, based in Pittsburgh, and Burgerville in the Pacific Northwest — have been doing this for a while. Nationally, Chipotle has taken the lead with its commitment to buy local produce when it can.
Other chains also are getting creative in strategies for going local. Denver-based Smashburger develops hamburgers and sometimes hot dogs in each market it enters, often using local ingredients and certainly trying to appeal to local tastes. They also try to offer local beer.
We’ll also see more locally made spirits on menus. Local wines, however — with notable exceptions mostly on the West Coast — will probably remain absent from most restaurant lists. Customers interested in local wines know how much they cost at retail and will mostly be uninterested in paying the markup necessary for a restaurant to make a profit from them. Many sommeliers also consider most local wines to be overpriced.
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Not local, but interesting. There might be one or two restaurants in the country that genuinely don’t use any ingredient that’s not from more than a stone’s throw away, but all the others choose to make use of the global distribution system, and their customers want to know why. In 2012, restaurateurs will become even more adept at telling their ingredients’ stories. Even McDonald’s is doing that now.
Asian cuisines get even more mainstream. Thai cuisine hit the big time in 2011 when McDonald’s added sweet chili sauce as a dipping option for Chicken McNuggets. Indian food is getting a stronger foothold at chain restaurants, as Uno Chicago Grill continues to find new uses for its tikka masala sauce.
Korean food, too, has expanded beyond ethnic restaurants and Los Angeles taco trucks as non-Korean chefs find new uses for kimchi and gojuchang. This past autumn, Manhattan power-lunch venue Michael’s introduced a new cocktail program and, to go with it, a Korean bar bites menu developed by Michael’s executive chef Kyung Up Lim.
The popularity of Asian cuisines will likely accelerate in 2012 as consumers become more familiar with them.
Manufacturing in fine-dining restaurants. The technological revolution in fine-dining kitchens that used to be called molecular gastronomy has become well established. Immersion circulators are now so widespread at high-end restaurants that some executive chefs are despairing that their cooks can’t actually cook by conventional means anymore. Some, in an attempt to maintain tradition, refuse to let their cooks go near the circulator, dehydrator, centrifuge or distiller until they have mastered the classical basics. Others acknowledge that the newly popular techniques allow them to make better food. If that means their cooks don’t know how to sauté, so be it. Food in fine dining will likely get better in 2012, but cooks might actually become less skilled.
Cooking at chain restaurants. Meanwhile, at the chain restaurants, some of the corporate chefs responsible for developing menu items that can be recreated in hundreds or thousands of venues have noticed that many of the cooks working in their restaurants are quite skilled: They work multiple jobs, taking shifts at steakhouses and independent restaurants when not heating and plating food at casual-dining chains.
Assuming that there won’t be a dramatic change in the economic climate in 2012, restaurants will continue to have a relatively loose pool of cooks looking for jobs. As they continue to try to differentiate themselves from their competitors, while battling rising commodity prices, they might very well turn to these skilled cooks to do more of the prep work in-house.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary