9 Restaurant Trends to Watch for 2019

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Early to the party

Is it too early for 2019 predictions? When I first started to see trend reports flood my inbox, I admit I felt that way. Maybe I’m holding on. But the truth is 2018 only has two months remaining and I think we can agree it’s always best to be prepared for a party, not late to it.

Baum + Whiteman International Food + Restaurant Consultants unveiled some of the hottest food and beverage trends for 2019 this past week. Let’s take a look at what’s in store.

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Raise menu prices at your own risk

TDn2K’s monthly Black Box report for September was pretty promising. Same-store sales growth of 1.2 percent marked four straight months of positive year-over-year gains and was the best performance since Q3 2015. This took place even as traffic fell 1.3 percent. From a two-year comp, traffic is down 5.7 percent, however. The counteraction, for many brands, continues to be higher checks. Beyond just the guest count issues, wage increases are going to accelerate menu price inflation. As Baum + Whiteman pointed out, Amazon just ignited headlines with its decision to bump minimum wage to $15 per hour. Rising checks are already taking their toll on restaurant customers, Baum + Whiteman said, especially “Americans whose hourly paychecks don’t reflect a 10-year stock market bonanza. Widening gaps between menu prices and costs of meals eaten at home is moving more of us to the family dinner table.”

And then there’s President Trump’s tariffs. If these raise prices for things like cars, clothing, electronics, and appliances, consumers may guard their money even closer.

Baum + Whiteman presented data that showed, for the 12 months ended August, food prices away from home rose 2.6 percent, while food purchased at grocery stores increased only 0.5 percent. In December 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the inflation rate for restaurant meals and in-home meals was essentially the same. As of last December, the spread was growing.

“As restaurants raise prices to offset staff-heavy wages per dollar of sales and increasing rents, which is where food retailers have an enormous advantage, revenue grows but customer counts stay fairly flat or down, especially among chains,” Baum + Whiteman said.

Issues at hand: Meal kits (maybe), better to-go food from grocers and C-stores, less spendable income for dining out, streaming Netflix fanatics. “Restaurant traffic would likely show drastic declines if not for growth in delivery options,” Baum + Whiteman continued.

According to the NPD Group, 82 percent of meals are prepared at home. While restaurant-going per capita peaked in 2000, the industry appears to have returned to 1990s numbers. Better Homes & Gardens says 93 percent of millennials eat dinner at home four nights a week. Shows you a slice of how competitive this business is before guests even get to the table.

“The situation’s especially acute in states and cities mandating higher minimum wages and abolishing tip credits, while workers clamor for benefits like health insurance. At the same time, labor pools have dried up, adding to wage pressures and increasingly bad service,” Baum + Whiteman said.

All that in mind, it’s not surprising to see full-service brands look to delivery-only formats and counter-service models to lessen the burden. It’s also a glimpse into why automation has never been a hotter topic.

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Some model stats

A popular fast-casual tactic these days, as you’ve likely seen in your day-to-day dining, are those tablets that suggest a tip. You just press 15 percent or 20 percent, etc. and then sign your name with a swipe of a finger. This is a helpful model in situations where you can distribute the tips and blur the back- and front-of-the-house lines. Doesn’t work in many full-serve spots, of course. Just like the flameout of no-tipping restaurants in general, guests who sit down for a meal still want to control that experience. It’s a power and critical assessment most guests don’t want to give up.

But here’s more on that average check rising note and why you see many restaurants shrink their footprint and focus on off-premises these days. Baum + Whiteman highlights the real-estate economics. If you could have 50 percent of the meals converted to takeaway and delivery, an 80-seat restaurant would need only 40 seats (naturally, and maybe, depending on a host of variables). So at 13 square feet per seat, that’s about 1,000 additional square feet not to pay rent on. If it’s $75 per square foot, a restaurant would cut $75,000 in rent, not to mention utilities and other operating expenses.

This definitely doesn’t make sense for many concepts. But for those with a product that travels and a heavy delivery presence already, being full-service doesn’t mean you can’t dominate off-premises. It might just mean it’s worth shrinking to do so at the best return. Simply put: If you already deliver and rely on take-out, do you really need a giant restaurant?

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pexels/Michael Fischer
Is marijuana really going to become a thing?

Constellation Brands, owner of Model and Corona, spent $4 billion-plus on an investment with Canadian marijuana company, Canopy Growth. Heineken-owned Lagunitas is selling a boozeless sparkling water with a modest dose of THC called Hi-Fi Hops. Molson Coors worked with a Canadian company on a similar product. Cannabiniers, in San Diego, sells THC-infused beer where it can, along with coffees and teas that fit the bill. Baum + Whiteman said Coca-Cola is even flirting with the notion.

“As more jurisdictions in North America legalize pot in one form or another, Big Beverage’s “legacy” products, from generic beer to sugar-filled soda, face a shaky future, anticipating a massive consumer shift to hemp and marijuana drinkables,” it said.

As for restaurants, there’s no shortage of products out there. CBD or Cannabidiol, which comes from hemp and is said to relive pain without the high, is a big trend.

“Early adapters: Millennials, of course,” Baum + Whiteman said. “Vegans and vegetarians. Wall Streeters. And the wellness crowd that revels in mindfulness and meditation. The rest of us will follow.”

Cocktails are a perfect medium. Spring, a restaurant in LA, features a power lunch with three CBD-sprinkled courses. Green Goddess Café in Stowe, Vermont, has a chill-latte infused with CBD oil. Henderson, Nevada, restaurant Panacea has CBD-infused syrup for pancakes. You can add 33 milligrams of CBD to a smoothie at Harlow in Portland for $3. Juice Crafters in LA offers CBD teas. By Chloe in New York City has an ice cream cake called Mary Jane with CBD frosting.

“It’s all mainstreaming, which is better than mainlining, although we haven’t heard from Olive Garden and Applebee’s just yet,” Baum + Whiteman said.

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pexels/Malidate Van
Should you care about meal kits?

Meal kits are an interesting space. Depending on the company they fall somewhere between to-go and dining out, and is there actually a space for that? According to Baum + Whiteman, only 15 percent of Blue Apron’s subscribers stick around for a year. That bears wondering, is it a business that extends past the novelty stage? Not every consumer is up for the commitment of subscribing, the packaging, and, not to forgert, the expense. “Now, we believe that customers go to supermarkets more often than they order meal kits, and go to restaurants even more often. So maybe the future belongs to food stores and restaurants,” Baum + Whiteman said.

Home Chef sold to Kroger. Plated sold to Albertsons. Gobble is partnering with Walmart. Some Costco stores sell Blue Apron meals. The space is undoubtedly changing. It’s why supermarkets are developing their own kits.

“The idea: Put kits where customers are, where they can buy something today for today. Here’s where impulse triumphs over commitment,” Baum + Whiteman continued.

In theory, the idea applies to restaurants. Chick-fil-A has even given this a run with its take-home meal kits that feature items like chicken parmesan and pan roasted chicken with greens, which feed two people and run around $16. In Baum + Whiteman’s view, there’s no reason casual dining brands can’t “hawk their own [food] at lunch for people to have for that day’s dinner,” or at dinner “for customers to take home for lunch tomorrow.”

“With a la carte pricing and packaging, restaurants could produce highly flexible meal kits of the ‘always on-demand’ generation.”

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Don't be bitter

The last decade has been all about bitter—coffee, dark chocolate, Brussels sprouts, broccolini. Now, it’s time for sour foods. Baum + Whiteman credits this movement to the popularity of Korean food, the rising influence of Filipino cooking, and “just now emerging,” Persian’s love of sour.

“Think of how kimchee has migrated from Korean restaurants to “new” American menus, into tacos and quesadillas, pots roasts, flavored mayonnaise, mac-and-cheese,” Baum + Whiteman said.

With Filipino dishes, various vinegars in braised dishes, marinades, and dipping sauce. Even the vinegar-based chicken adobo and trendy tart calamansi.

Persian cuisine, which poured into London after the 1979 religious revolution, is gaining momentum in the U.S., especially in LA. Rhubarb, sour oranges, fresh and dried limes, tamarinds and pomegranate.

Then, of course, there’s kombucha. Once a difficult sell to consumers, you’ll see it flowing out of taps at restaurants now. Fermenting also remains a staple at restaurants from coast to coast and everywhere in between.

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TGI Fridays
TGI Fridays is now offering the Beyond Burger.
The rise of meatless meat

We all know about plant-based foods. That’s a trend as tired as farm-to-table. But what about lab-grown meats? Baum + Whiteman called the phenomenon “profound long-range game changers.”

“… meat grown from animal cells will transform the way we think about ‘food,’” it said.

Just, a company that makes plant-based eggs and mayo, claims it will have a ground chicken product in an overseas KFC by year’s end. Is economically viable production only a few years away? “Mind you, making whole chicken breasts, sirloin steaks, and pork chops could take five years, 10 years, or beyond your lifetime,” Baum + Whiteman said.

Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger are becoming widespread in the restaurant space. White Castle launched an Impossible Slider nationwide in September. Micro-chain Bareburger features the Beyond Burger on menus nationwide. So does TGI Fridays. In one example, 47-unit fast casual Luna Grill said its Beyond Burger out-performed its Grass Fed Burger in sales by 40 percent. There are also companies like Memphis Meats, Future Meat Technologies, Mosa Meat, Clara Food, Finless Food, and Perfect Day.

Really hard to predict what this space is going to look like down the line, but it’s coming fast.

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John Labbe for Barnes & Noble
The non-restaurant restaurant

Retail spaces adding restaurants to improve guest counts: Just another traffic concern for operators. We’re talking Capital One bank installing cafes to reverse declining traffic in too-large bank spaces. Next-gen theaters like iPic, Silverspot, Alamo Drafthouse, and Cinepolis delivering real food to luxury seats. Some even have luxury restaurants in the building. “At iPic’s Tuck restaurant in Houston guests dine on brioche-crusted crab cakes and frisee-citrus salad with yuzu vinaigrette, or a turkey burger with barrel-aged goat cheese, harissa, and green goddess dressing,” Baum + Whiteman notes.

AT&T is even piloting a 3,000-square-foot space in Seattle with a café, cellphone store, and lounge seating. Crate & Barrel is planning a restaurant. There’s a 90,000-square-foot Restoration Hardware with a barista on the second floor and full-service restaurant on the roof.

Barnes & Noble has found the space challenging. Time will tell if other retailers do as well.

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flickr: toyohara
To katsu or not to katsu

The Katsu sando—pork cutlet, panko breaded, deep fried, and served between soft crustless bread—is taking off. The snack, “sold at zillions of convenience stores in Tokyo” is touching upscale sensibilities in the U.S., Baum + Whiteman said.

Some examples: a Duroc pork rendition at Stonehill Matcha in San Francisco; Hi Collar in New York selling 10 a day starting at noon.

“By today’s loosey-goosy standards, the filling can be anything fried. At Momokoni in

Atlanta, that means fried shrimp or chicken or steak or wagyu for $58. Pagu’s chicken katsu in Cambridge is flavored with aioli and a blitz of shallots, ginger, and soy.

Katana Kitte, New York, makes theirs with a slab of mortadella. Someone soon will use Spam,” Baum + Whiteman said added.

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Bill Milne
Take it from a chef

Let's see what a culinary expert had to say. Momofuku Chef Shaun King offered up his predictions:

Which ingredients will we see more of next year?

More house-fermentation, unique grains, aging of poultry and pork and koji.

Which presentations will we see more of next year?

There will be a shift back to the classics. Less tweezers-focused food, molecular gastronomy and micro-greens and more focus on origin and stories of certain dishes.

Are there any current trends that you believe will continue into the new year?

Activated charcoal is gone, but toasts and large-format dining will continue. Large-format dining is like a celebration for the table and we are all in this together. Cooks also take great care in large-format entrees, as they usually take hours to produce.

What are your thoughts on seafood trends?

We will start seeing a greater variety of unusual seafood offerings, such as squid, cuttle-fish, geoduck and roe. Uni is everywhere now, but that wasn’t the case a few years ago. People are getting more adventurous and letting the chef run their dining experience. 

Are there any dessert trends that you believe will become more popular?

I think we will start seeing more juxtaposition with savory in sweets—for example, bone marrow, puffed beef tendon, chicken skin and fermented products like miso and koji.

Regarding cocktails, what are some flavors we will see more of next year?

More rum-focused bars and less gin. Rum is so complex and I believe it has a more rounded palette in which to create cocktails. I also think there will be more sherry and fewer mules … hopefully. Regarding drinks in general, I think we’ll see a resurgence of more “natural” approaches (i.e. unfiltered wines, beer and sake). 

What do you predict will be the hottest trends of 2019?

Dry-aged poultry and pork, higher end quick-service restaurants, three-ingredient dishes and showcasing exceptional products. I also believe there will be more house-fermented hot sauces, aging in toasted grains or barley, cold-pressed juice and server-less restaurants.