The National Restaurant Association -- the NRA that most people are NOT talking about these days -- recently issued its forecast for the industry for the coming year. Basically, they’re expecting sales at the 980,000 restaurants across the country to exceed $660 billion, an increase of 3.8 percent over 2012. That will be the fourth consecutive year of growth since the recessionary decline of 2008 and 2009.
The report is cautious, however, citing uncertainty about the recovery and costs associated with implementing the Affordable Care Act. Still, restaurants are expected to outpace hiring in the general sector, employing 13.1 million people next year.
As part of the forecast, the NRA teamed with the American Culinary Federation to survey chefs around the country about menu trends for the coming year. Among the top 10 trends, three are related to children’s diets, which is perhaps a sign that the country is finally starting to notice that we have an epidemic of fat kids. (It isn’t baby fat, and they’re not going to grow out of it if you keep feeding them unhealthful crap.)
There are some other interesting things to consider, though most of them are continuations of what we’ve been seeing for a while now.
The top 10 menu trends for 2013 will be:
1. Locally sourced meats and seafood -- I’m seeing the words “locally sourced” so much that I’m starting to wonder how it is possible for the local producers of meat to supply all the restaurants that make the claim.
2. Locally grown produce -- ditto.
3. Healthful kids' meals -- This is a bit vague; we’ll need to see how the nation’s restaurants define healthful.
4. Environmental sustainability as a culinary theme -- This goes hand in hand with local sourcing, which is an aspect of reducing the carbon footprint of our food.
5. Children's nutrition as a culinary theme -- I’ll believe it when I see McDonald’s presenting McVeggie Happy Meals with carb calculators as the toy inside.
6. New cuts of meat (e.g. Denver steak, pork flat iron, teres major) -- Who knew they could discover new meat inside a cow? The Denver was “invented” after the meat marketing industry spent five years and $1.5 million studying the anatomy of a steer. The Denver steak was found in the shoulder, presumably just north of the Colorado Springs filet.
7. Hyper-local sourcing (e.g. restaurant gardens) -- This isn’t new to folks like Kevin Fonzo of K and the chefs at Primo who have been gathering ingredients from gardens out back for some time.
8. Gluten-free cuisine -- I still scratch my head at the gluten-free fad. Previously, only people who suffered from celiac disease sought out dishes made without wheat products. Now it seems some people just think it means the food is better for you. It could be, but I roll my eyes when I see a salad touted as gluten free just because it doesn’t have croutons.
9. Sustainable seafood -- Nothing new here, but I hope more chefs start to pay attention to overfishing issues instead of the bottom line.
- Whole grain items in kids' meals -- The less processing, the better, but I’m guessing we’ll also see whole grain gluten-free items.
Rounding out the top 20 hot menu trends for 2013 are:
11. Farm/estate branded items -- Especially those that are locally sourced.
12. Non-wheat noodles/pasta (e.g. quinoa, rice, buckwheat) -- Gluten-free.
13. Non-traditional fish (e.g. branzino, Arctic char, barramundi) -- Perhaps the Denver scrod?
14. Ethnic-inspired breakfast items (e.g. Chorizo scrambled eggs, coconut milk pancakes) -- What’s wrong with huevos rancheros?
15. Fruit/vegetable children's side items -- McPlease.
16. Health/nutrition as a culinary theme
17. Half-portions/smaller portions for a smaller price -- Although counterintuitive, this could be one of the smartest things a restaurant could do to increase sales -- and one of the smartest choices consumers could make.
18. House-made/artisan ice cream -- 4Rivers is out front on this one.
19. Black/forbidden rice -- Name anything forbidden and people are going to want it.
- Food trucks -- I sure was wrong about this one not having legs. Or wheels, as the case may be.
What trends are you looking for on restaurant menus next year?