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2012 trends focus on consumer needs

Seven emerging trends could help shape restaurant strategies in 2012, according to the foodservice research firm Technomic.

Amid an uncertain economy, restaurants are challenged on many levels, and these trends have the common theme of staying relevant to one’s customer, said Mary Chapman, director of product innovation for the Chicago-based consultancy.

Technomic sees these seven developing trends on the horizon:

Twists on the familiar: While customers are uneasy about taking risks in this economy, they do embrace novel flavors incorporated into comfort foods. “We might consider a taco a comfort food, or at least a certain generation of Americans do, so a Korean taco would be a twist on that familiar item,” Chapman said, pointing to Los Angeles-based Kogi’s Korean tacos as an example. Other examples include chef Michael Mina’s lobster corn dogs at his Bourbon Steak and Michael Mina restaurants in San Francisco, with the deep-fried lobster mousse carrying the familiar corn dog’s cornmeal batter and a mustard dipping sauce. “It’s probably valid to say the ‘better burgers’ also stem from comfort food with a twist,” Chapman added.

Rustic fare made in-house: As commodity costs rise, labor costs are holding steady, allowing restaurants to offer simple, fresh ingredients prepared in-house. Technomic cited cheaper cuts of meat, beans, grains and produce that require more back-of-the-house prep but produce home-style food. The seasonal fried green tomato sandwich at Gott’s Roadside in San Francisco and Napa and St. Helena, Calif., and menu offerings at upper-scale restaurants like chef Linton Hopkin’s Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta are examples of this, Chapman said.

Further steps in local sourcing: Growers, manufacturers, distributors and operators continue to work toward a more transparent, safe and efficient supply chain, Technomic said. “The next step is more a food-chain process than necessarily what is being served in the restaurants,” Chapman said. Restaurants like Burgerville USA of Vancouver, Wash., which get their ingredients from local and regional sources, are driving that process, she said.

Acceleration of social networking: Consumers increasingly trust friends and peers more than professional marketers, Technomic said. “Consumers are reviewing restaurants on Foursquare, Facebook and Twitter. Even broader, they are posting reviews [on such sites as Yelp and OpenTable] and posting pictures on Flickr,” Chapman said. “It seems to drive restaurant popularity so quickly.” Certain operators and chefs are good at getting into the conversation, she added, citing Chicago’s Rick Bayless as an example. “People who follow him on Twitter say to themselves, ‘Hey, I’m friends with Rick Bayless,’” Chapman explained.

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Demand for more information: Consumers are seeking increased transparency from restaurants in everything from menu disclosure of calories and allergens to labor and local-sourcing practices. Chapman said Technomic’s upcoming “Market Intelligence Report: Restrictive Diets” — to be released later this month — shows that 80 percent of women and 66 percent of men agree or strongly agree with the statement, “I believe that restaurants have a responsibility to inform customers about their food’s content, including allergen and nutritional information.” Darden Restaurants’ Seasons 52 was an early adopter of the trend.

Restaurant rewards: Operators are turning a cold shoulder to daily deals and are discounting creatively in an effort to recognize repeat patrons, such as serving surprise desserts on the house. “This is about operators trying to figure out how to reward loyal customers rather than just discounting an order to drive traffic,” Chapman said. Panera Bread’s year-old rewards program, which offers various surprise offerings, is a practitioner of this method.

Flexible formats: “Format flexibility is required as restaurants cater to new around-the-clock dayparts, switch gears from fast-casual by day to full-service at night, or transform their kitchens into catering commissaries during slow times,” Technomic said. Mama Fu’s Asian House of Austin, Texas, does the day-night switchover. “It’s about revolving around customer schedules. … Other concepts have rejiggered their staffs in the kitchens to do catering,” Chapman said. “It almost turns into a commissary during slow times.” CiCi’s Pizza of Coppell, Texas, just this week opened a new unit that emphasizes catering and to-go orders, for example. Food trucks also aim to be at customers’ disposal, Chapman said.

“Each of these trends represents an evolution or possibilities for an evolution,” Chapman concluded. “These are more driving forces that are changing restaurants.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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