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Bret-thorn-nancy-kruse-alt-wings-plant-based.jpg Hooters
Alt-wings is one of 2020's trends and Hooters has already released their meatless wing in the first week of the new year.

CBD, chicken sandwiches and plant-based everything: A look back at the biggest restaurant food and beverage trends of 2019

Menu trends analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food and beverage editor Bret Thorn revisit the ‘year of the menu mic drop’

What is that aroma, Bret? Could it be chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Or is it KFC’s fried-chicken- scented 11 Herbs & Spices Firelog? Either way, it signals the time of year when you and I compare notes on the menu hits and misses, triumphs and tragedies of the past year.

From my perspective, we’ll remember 2019 as the year when restaurant menus were deeply in the weeds, both literally and figuratively. The market for plant-based alternatives reached fever pitch, and everywhere I looked I saw items like the vegan shawarma at The Hummus and Pita Co., “egg” frittata made from mung beans at Le Pain Quotidien and “crab” cake sandwich at Veggie Grill. Dunkin’ rolled out a Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich, and Pizza Hut tested a plant-based Italian-sausage topping awkwardly dubbed Incogmeato. KFC chose a test store near my home in Atlanta to test drive its vegan chicken nuggets, thereby causing a traffic meltdown of near-epic proportions.

nancy_kruse_0.pngJust when I thought we’d seen it all, a company in Japan announced the release of vegan uni to replace the exquisitely expensive sea-urchin innards that are as precious and pricey as caviar. The delicacy can be washed down with O.R.E. 118, the world’s first raw vegan gin. The 82-proof quaff uses chardonnay grapes as the base spirit that is infused with green peppercorns and ginger. At this point I’m wondering when this trend will jump the shark — but I fear that the shark itself may have been replaced by some combination of roots and botanicals.

Speaking of weed, which you and I have, Bret, the CBD juggernaut is gaining speed, despite a stern recent reminder from the FDA that the stuff isn’t approved for use in food or dietary supplements. This spring, Carl’s Jr. unleashed the Rocky Mountain High Cheeseburger Delight in one store only and for one day only. The store was in Denver, Colo., which legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, the day was April 20, known to stoners everywhere as National Weed Day, and the price was, of course, $4.20. The burger got its boost, by the way, from a special Santa Fe sauce infused with CBD oil.

Despite the frantic activity in those quarters, I found the continuing innovation around vegetables, and here I mean real vegetables, to be the most creative and exciting area on the menu. Mushrooms were springing up like, well, mushrooms in sexy carpaccios, carbonaras and cocktails. The latter included the wonderfully named Earth Angel from Birds & Bees in L.A., in which fermented mushroom juice was combined with whiskey and garnished with chocolate-dipped dehydrated mushroom. Who knew that fungus could be so versatile?

Also on the veggie front, I’ll give a shout out to Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar, which tapped into the sizzling Nashville-hot trend with the clever Nashville Hot Portobello entrée; and on a less incendiary note, I’ll also nod to Leon in Washington, D.C. A recent British import that I’ve liked for years, the concept touts “Naturally Fast Food” at its three stores here. The menu has appealing veggie options like Lentil Masala, Sweet Potato Falafel and nifty Jack Bites, which consist of cheesy vegan jackfruit dredged in gluten-free crumb and served with dipping sauce.

This has also been the year of the menu mic drop, moments that had me grinning and groaning. Take Arby’s, which cheekily underscored its commitment to the meats with a goofy “megetable” promotion that turned the trend on its head. Instead of vegetables standing in for meat, meat would masquerade as vegetables. The first effort, the “marrot,” consisted of turkey breast meat rolled up in the shape of a carrot and covered in dried carrot-juice powder. Tasters claimed that, while it wasn’t exactly carrot-y, it was toothsome and somehow reminded them of Thanksgiving.

Then there was Popeyes, which dropped that microphone more than once in the past twelve months. The brand sparked a bit of a social media battle with its sandwich introduction, an event that led the Washington Post to dub this the “anno pulli” or Year of the Chicken Sandwich. Snarky exchanges with the ruler of the roost, Chick-fil-A, ensued, and KFC and McDonald’s found themselves drawn in as well.

This was merely the chain’s opening act, because in December, Popeyes grabbed headlines again with a truly amusing “mixed media work of art,” its chicken sandwich duct-taped to a canvas and offered for sale at $120,003.99. A lampoon of a duct-taped banana that had the glitterati abuzz at hoity-toity Art Basel in Miami, Popeyes’ version reportedly attracted a buyer. Or at least that’s what a company press release insisted.

On the subject of show-stopping press reports, I assume you saw the article in Eater New York that ran the headline “Chicken Parm is Reportedly Making NYC Singles Horny” and referenced a New York Post story on that subject. One young swain boasted that the homey standard is “totally an aphrodisiac,” and its appearance on dating-site profiles has lonesome New Yorkers swiping like crazy. It almost made me want to get out my frying pan.

But seriously, Bret, let me say once again how I treasure our monthly exchanges and look forward to a dozen more this year.

Bret Thorn responds:

Happy New Year, Nancy.

2019 certainly was the year of the plant, and of the mic drop. I think we’ll see more of both of those in 2020.

Meatless high-protein options are becoming a required menu option, and not just for vegans, but for people who want to eat less meat for a variety of reasons ranging from health to environmentalism.

Bret_Thorn_0.pngAs for the mic drop, in the increasingly noisy world that we live in a company needs a little clatter and feedback to get people’s attention.

As for the chicken parm as aphrodisiac, well, on the one hand, the New York Post understands the mic drop as well as anyone, and, on the other, a high-calorie item with plenty of carbs for a quick energy boost might be what a young swain needs to get his juices flowing. I don’t know; I haven’t been a young swain in quite some time. 

Here are other predictions I’ve gone on the record with for 2020:

Plant-based 2.0: Vegan meat substitutes will be used more as ingredients (in chilis, tacos etc.) rather than just as stand-alone ingredients in burgers etc. Also, we’ll see more plant-based seafood and dairy substitutes.

Alt wings: The popularity of chicken wings continues to rise, but it’s not the chicken wing itself that people love, per se as seen by the increasing popularity of “boneless wings” made out of chicken breast, but rather their role as a highly flavored shareable treat. Given the intrinsic limited supply of chicken wings — there are and will only ever be just two per bird – we’re seeing duck and turkey producers getting in on the act, plus Buffalo thighs, plant-based protein and trending vegetables.

Functional waters: Water with vitamins, chlorophyll and other nutrients are on the rise.

But I also like to look back at my past predictions and see how I did.

Nancy, you have the wisdom not to make trend predictions. I, however, am not so wise. Also, making trend predictions is part of my job. But I do like to look back and see how I did, so allow me to take the time to review the trends that I thought would be moving the needle in 2019.

Khachapuri: I thought this photogenic egg-topped cheesy bread from the Republic of Georgia would get more exposure this year, and it did a little. Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Bill Addison wrote a love letter to it in September, reporting on its spread in New York City and its popularity in Armenian bakeries in Los Angeles, but it hardly took the country by storm.

West African cuisines: I did a little better on this one. Several fairly high-profile restaurants featuring West African food opened in 2019, including Teranga in New York City, Aduke African Cuisine in Los Angeles, Eko Kitchen in San Francisco and a second location of Houston restaurant Komchop. Also, the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef of the Year award, which goes to someone age 30 or younger, went to Kwame Onwuachi, chef of Washington, D.C.’s Kith & Kin, which reflects his Nigerian roots as well as his Jamaican, Trinidadian and New Orleans Creole ones. But I admit that this production was hardly a homerun. A double, maybe.                                                                        

I’d keep an eye out for specifically Nigerian and Senegalese dishes in the coming years. For a breakout dish to watch out for, I’d suggest jollof rice. 

Lager: I predicted palate fatigue from beer drinkers who’d had enough IPA, and who tried sour beer and were shocked into the realization that they actually prefer brews that don’t make their mouths pucker and that they can drink more than one of. As a result, craft-beer drinkers would move toward the crisp refreshing lagers that have long been the country’s most popular beer variety.

And indeed, Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association, which represents craft brewers, tells me that lager sales are up by 6% in dollar terms and 7% in volume terms. Watson would be angry if I didn’t tell you that there are certain caveats to those figures having to do with how beers are categorized and other issues, but I put that prediction in the “win” category.  

Cold brew backlash: At the end of 2018 some coffeehouse owners and other industry folk were grousing about the fact that making coffee without heating it prevents the grounds from releasing some of their nuanced flavor notes. But consumers didn’t listen to them and cold brew coffee is more popular than ever. There was no backlash and my prediction was simply incorrect.

Oat milk: In the 52 weeks ended Oct. 26, 2019, oat milk sales grew by 636% in the United States, according to CNBC citing Nielsen data. I’d drop the mic, but I have some more trends to review.

Better spirit-free cocktails: Yes, 2019 was the year of the plant, but it was also the year of the “sober curious.” Sobriety went from a medical necessity for some and a personal choice for others to a social statement among many (mostly) young people. A few non-alcoholic bars — mostly pop-ups — opened and restaurants expanded and improved on their offerings for people who were happy to spend money on drinks but didn’t want to get drunk in the process. I’d say I called this one pretty well.

And finally, I said we’d see more “Better-for-you” desserts, and indeed we saw a bunch of dairy-free treats made with coconut milk and assorted nut milks. They’re not necessarily better for you, but they certainly have a health halo about them, and I did put “better-for-you” in quotation marks. I’ll go ahead and take credit for that one.

So that was my year in trend predictions. Not bad overall, if you ask me, which you did.

Here’s hoping we see more khachapuri in the coming year, because it’s delicious, and more of whatever you like eating and drinking, Nancy, in 2020.

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]

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

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