Restaurant Food Trends: What Does It Mean to Follow the Crowd?

The Cronut. Kale. Unicorn Frappuccinos. Every year, customers are treated to an ever-growing and increasingly exotic selection of menu items influenced by everything from healthy food trends to popular culture. But what does it mean to truly follow the trends, and does it make sense for every restaurant to jump on the bandwagon?

First off, it’s important to understand what it means to be trendy. While we’re not going to need a textbook definition, it’s interesting to think about how trends got their initial starts. Remember the big low-fat food craze that swept through every American home, restaurant and cafeteria during the 1990s? The fad was actually set into motion during the 1970s, following a string of Congress members who died of heart disease. In the wake of new scientific data suggesting that our poor diets and high fat intake were causing the problems, food manufacturers rushed into action, introducing low-fat foods that were higher in sugar and carbs.

And what about kale? Once thought of as a bitter-tasting garnish plopped next to your steak, kale went from being an afterthought to a health food superstar! But how? Well, as it turns out, although there is plenty of scientific evidence suggesting that kale is nutritious, its rise to stardom is most likely traced back to…. a cleverly designed and well-implemented public relations campaign. Neat, huh?

The art of finding the next big name in food has become a big business, as marketers, food producers and even AI-based companies that track everything from what diets people are following to what ingredients are popping up in recipes. Companies like Tastewise, Mintel and Datassential all follow data points to help chefs with their menus using popular ingredients and can even drill down to what items are most popular in whatever segment your restaurant might fit into.

But the race for finding the next big “it” food doesn’t have to be picked up by everyone. In fact, there are certain circles where the next big thing just has to be slightly different than what people are used to getting.

In 2016, Arby’s, the longtime purveyor of roast beef sandwiches and curly fries, went out on a limb to offer up a venison sandwich topped with frizzled onion straws and a tangy sauce in select markets where deer hunting was popular. The result? In most of those locations, the sandwiches sold out within a couple of hours. The next year, the company rolled out its sandwiches nationwide and saw similar results.

The venison sandwich is one of a long line of off-the-beaten-path fast food offerings that the roast beef chain has used to excite its fan base and fast food aficionados alike. Over the past half-decade, Arby’s has offered customers everything from duck to brisket and from elk to turkey, following through on its slogan of “We Have the Meats.”

While a venison sandwich doesn’t sound like a major departure for high-end restaurants that are more inclined to explore different cuts and types of meat, the sheer size and scale of the move are impressive for a restaurant with more than 3,300 locations across the United States.

But what about those who only have a handful of restaurants or a singular location? Well, following the trends has become a high-stakes game. Americans are clamoring for more healthy foods, less grease and increased convenience, so restaurants are offering their customers more farm-to-table options, different cooking styles and using spices that people may not be totally familiar with, like za’atar.

This year’s biggest trend seems to be adding CBD oil to everything from cupcakes and smoothies to cocktails, meatballs and even salads. However, there is still a little controversy surrounding the popular product, and New York City has banned serving CBD-infused food in restaurants, fining those that break the rules.

Equally interesting is the rise of non-meat “meat” options becoming increasingly available at grocery stores and restaurants alike. These vegan-friendly alternatives have a similar texture and taste of their animal-based counterparts but are plant-based. The Impossible Burger is currently the biggest name in the fake meat universe right now, thanks to the use of heme in its patties much mimics the hemoglobin found in the traditional beef patties we’re accustomed to.

Of course, like everything in life, all good things must come to an end eventually. And if there’s one thing all trends have in common it’s that they can fall out of fashion just as quickly as they came in. Taking advantage of what’s popular is an excellent advantage for your restaurant, especially if you’re able to time everything correctly. It also helps to have a POS system that makes it easy to both implement and roll back those menu items when the time comes for them to be retired.

Making sure your POS software is nimble enough to handle an endless parade of limited-time offers may seem like a daunting task, but it’s just another way of delighting people who are used to having access to the latest crazes. Whether it’s putting specialty items on your menu that contain locally grown and sourced ingredients or performing a trial run with a new “superfood,” having the freedom to change your menu with the click of a button can make a huge difference in your offering and, ultimately, your bottom line.

Want to learn more about trends in 2019? Check out the Restaurant Technology Trends Report below!

2019 Restaurant Technology Trends