Consumers want comfort foods. But they don’t want the good old comfort foods like mac and cheese or sloppy joes; they want them with a twist.
“We are in a stall—not in a recession, not in growth—and we have a thousand things going on in the world, so consumers are not grounded or comfortable right now,” says Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides in Tulatin, Oregon.
Because of this, we want comfort hybrids, she says, which means restaurants need to offer approachable and familiar foods “then add some intrigue on top by add-ins or seasonings or how you’re preparing it.”
This, she says, even affects cooking methods. Nobody’s braising or slow cooking right now—"that’s really recession behavior, the wet cooking methods.” Instead, there are dry methods like frying, grilling, and roasting.
Here’s what else we expect to be hot as we dig our forks into 2019:
Cuisine wise, Peruvian is making a comeback, along with regional Italian, Russian (because of politics), regional Mexican and country-specific Asian that doesn’t go as far as dig into countries’ regions, Badaracco says. “And we’ll probably see Southern USA like Floribbean, Cajun, Creole, and then traveling up the East Coast: Ozark, Appalachian, Pennsylvanian Dutch.”
Daniel Boutarel, managing associate with The New England Consulting Group in Westport, Connecticut, expects to see ethnic foods like African and Middle Eastern given more prominence in 2019, and he anticipates particular growth from Filipino and ramen.
Badaracco expects to see flavors go regional, with sauces such as chimichurri from South America; African harissa, dukkah, berbere; za’atar, zhug, tahini and baharat from the Middle East; adobo, sambal, chaat masala from Asia; sweet and sour and fermented foods from Eastern Europe; and varietal citrus, pepper sauce and jerk seasoning from the Caribbean.
“Seasonings are going hyper-specific,” she says, “because consumers aren’t feeling grounded and the seasonings are very specific and you know what they taste like.”
Boutarel says, “2019 will be the year where restaurant guests will look for their food to work harder for them.” He especially expects to see menus focusing more on plant proteins, since, according to Nielsen, 40 percent of Americans are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets. “We expect to see more offerings that have similar taste and texture to meat, yet are plants.”
IPAs are the hot ticket for beers at the moment, and they’re regional and local. “They are calming and satisfying and they are polarizing, too—you either like them or you do not,” Badaracco says. Hard cider is also becoming varietal—with both apples and pears—and regional products, such as from the Pacific Northwest, are winning. “There’s more of a story and the consumer feels grounded, comforted, educated by that,” Badaracco says. “That makes consumers feel they have some sort of control in their life.”
Marijuana (as CBD or THC) is gaining in popularity, as it’s approved in more states—33 and the District of Columbia to-date. Expect to see cannabis beverages from Heineken, Coca-Cola, and Constellation Wines, says Badaracco.
Boutarel expects to see cannabis everywhere. “We believe 2019 will be the year where CBD-infused menu offerings start making their way onto menus across restaurant concepts.”
In the wake of the era of kale, there’s no posterchild vegetable for 2019. Instead, a vegetable family is being lauded. Dark green leafy veggies including chicory and cabbage are coming into the spotlight, partly, Badaracco says, because they’re fairly bland. “You can do a thousand different things with them and put crazy seasonings with them, while kale was the opposite—it had to be the center of attention.”
Food eaten off-premises is nothing new, even as it continues to grow. This year, Boutarel expects to see restaurants enhance their delivery platform through third-party vendors such as Uber Eats and Grub Hub to offer direct delivery. This, he says, would “enhance the guest experience, set a higher quality standard and [allow them to] own the guests’ data. This would enable these concepts to target current, lapsed and lost guests by specific day of the week or daypart, and communicate relevant limited time offers to guests based on past purchases.”
He believes the concepts that will win the delivery war will be those “who will leverage both third-party and direct delivery on a white label platform (the restaurant’s own delivery platform, typically built by an outside company) to decide whether to fulfill incoming orders directly or via a third-party, based on in-store traffic and employee count.”
In the delivery arena, Boutarel also expects restaurants to offer delivery-only items that will offer greater margins and travel well. These will more than likely be sides that can be added to an entrée. And because of this, he says, we’ll see more delivery-only storefronts with no in-store seating.
Finally, to accomplish all they want to with delivered orders, restaurants are likely to test alternative methods to deliver their products, possibly through drones or driverless vehicles, Boutarel says.
Due to labor shortages, Boutarel believes restaurants will start to limit the number of table touches by servers and this will be accomplished via tablets which streamline the ordering process and reduce service time. As a side benefit, restaurants can use these tools to easily alter menu offerings and prices.
Restaurants will also enhance their mobile app, website and loyalty programs this year. “They will have to ensure their mobile app and website do not create unnecessary barriers for consumers to interact with them. Further, loyalty programs will now have to be more than a simple promotional tool, but rather a customizable value-enhancing platform.”
And restaurants will have to work hard to retain their customers. This will require investing in CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems “that will allow them to own guests’ data and ‘ping’ current, lapsed and lost ones with targeted and relevant messages by daypart, day of the week or for offers that match their previous purchases,” Boutarel says. “An effective way to gather guests’ contact information is by offering text-based notifications to let patrons know when their table is ready, all while retaining their contact information.”