CBD-infused Food and Drinks Are 2019’s Hottest Restaurant Trend

If you’ve been following the endless stream of food trends over the last few years, you’ve likely heard about cannabidiol, also known as CBD. CBD is a chemical compound that comes from the marijuana plant, but unlike what your nephew Chris smokes in his basement while playing video games, CBD doesn’t get you high.

While the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) grapples with the chemical’s perceived benefits, Americans are already jumping onto the CBD bandwagon. Recently, CBD has grown in popularity thanks to its use in an FDA-approved anti-epilepsy medication, but is also finding a large-scale market in everything from balms and creams to gummies, juices, and oils.

Consumer Reports suggests about a quarter of Americans have tried CBD at least one time over the past two years, mostly to combat anxiety or help with painful joint inflammation. On top of that, 47 of 50 states in the U.S. have legalized CBD in some form. And if you’re thinking this fad will come and go like New Coke, the Brightfield Group believes the CBD market is primed for a major boom in sales, leaping from about $327 million in 2017 to an estimated $22 billion in 2022.

So, why is CBD suddenly exciting? You can thank the 2018 Farm Bill for CBD’s exponential use and production, which made hemp an agricultural commodity crop. Farmers and growers immediately started converting some of their fields to hemp, generating a massive supply of products and creating a new market seemingly overnight.

Savvy restaurant owners, seeing an opportunity to jump on an exciting new trend, have begun using CBD in a variety of interesting ways, ranging from infused mixed drinks and coffees to CBD donuts, olive oil, gum drops, chocolates and honey. For customers adventurous enough to try one of these allegedly calming concoctions, they’re likely going to pay a premium. For example, if a customer decides to buy a CBD-infused coffee, it can easily cost $2-3 more than a plain old cup of joe. Adding the chemical compound to a smoothie can virtually double the price of it. Seeing an area ripe for improvement and refined elevation, restaurants are finding plenty of ways to incorporate the intense and unique flavor into menu items.

For those who are unanointed to what CBD oil tastes like, it might best be described as a mix of grass with an additional flavor that tastes like marijuana smells. The reason for the marijuana smell and taste are because of terpenes, oils found within the hemp plant (and many other plants) that normally allow it to attract pollinators and fend off fungi or insects. Despite the strong taste and smell, it hasn’t stopped chefs from finding ways to include the full-frontal flavor of CBD into their dishes.

Not to be outdone, bartenders are grabbing onto CBD as the next big cocktail mixer. The taste of the CBD oil combines well with certain types of liquors like gin. In an interview with Food & Wine, Altered Plates founder Rachel Burkons said the terpenes found in gin-based drinks plays well with the terpenes in the CBD oil, creating a different depth of flavor.

The multi-million-dollar opportunity isn’t lost on larger restaurant chains, either. In April 2019, Carl’s Jr., known for pushing the boundaries on both its burgers and its advertising, sold its “Rocky Mountain High: CheeseBurger Delight” at one location in Denver on, you guessed it, 4/20, for the low price of $4.20. The burger included a CBD-infused sauce and was, according to the company, an experiment to see if Carl’s Jr. could one day feature a CBD burger permanently.

Reports following the one-day event were positive, though the true number of burgers sold has been disputed. The lowest accounts suggest Carl’s Jr. sold 1,000 CBD burgers throughout the day, while other stories have put the number of burgers sold at north of 2,000. In any case, the experiment was likely considered a success.

Large restaurant chains (except for CKE) are most likely waiting for the legal waters to calm down a bit while also attempting to sway the minds of wary investors and stakeholders. At the same time, smaller restaurants have leapt at the chance to feature this year’s version of avocado toast, siracha, activated charcoal or kale.

According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2019 “What’s Hot Culinary Survey,” close to 80 percent of respondents said cannabis or CBD-infused drinks would be the biggest trend. However, it should be noted that all this excitement comes with a rather large caveat; federal law isn’t totally on board just yet.

Federal law, specifically the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, prohibits CBD from being included in food or drinks because it is currently being used as an active ingredient in an FDA-approved drug. On top of that, state laws have varying rules on the books regarding cannabis and CBD, making the entire situation murky for restaurant owners. The point here is that while CBD may be the cool new thing to toss into an already overpriced arugula salad, it’s best to know exactly what the laws are in your state and whether adding it to your food is allowed.

The good news is that the U.S. government does seem to be open to changing how CBD regulations are handled in the U.S. and is currently collecting comments following a federal hearing held in late May. The goal now is to learn more about what CBD does and if it backs up the number of claims currently being made by supports. However, in another surprise twist, the Drug Enforcement Administration removed CBD from its Schedule 1 drug list, normally meant for drugs like heroin, peyote and LSD. The move is seen as a positive step and a sign of the government relaxing its grip on cannabis in general.

Despite all the hoops restaurant owners and operators will have to jump through, it’s very apparent that CBD plays an interesting role in our ever-evolving food scene and has a huge profit ceiling. As cultural norms continue to shift, it will likely open more avenues for adventurous chefs, mixologists and owners to experiment with and profit from, the next big thing.