We are still early enough into the new year to do a little crystal-ball consulting and see what lies ahead of us in the year to come.
Not that gazing into crystal balls — metaphorically or otherwise — has ever shown anyone anything other than the internal structure of a crystal ball. In January, people make predictions, they are quickly forgotten, and life goes on.
Nevertheless, we are drawn to prognostication as moths are to light bulbs. We read them and hope for a glimmer of insight, a sense of what the future will bring.
As metaphorical Ouija boards go, you could do worse than Mintel, a 40-year-old market research and analysis firm that, among many other things, follows trends in food. So when the company came out with its list of four trends that will affect the restaurant industry, I was all over it.
Trend No. 1: Where's the beef?
While the price of most commodities has risen, the company says, none has gone as high as beef. With consumers still hesitant to part with their money, restaurants will have to find ways to appeal to their customers.
One way, they say, might be to offer smaller portions of beef, so the increased cost is less noticeable. Another way is to feature other types of protein — perhaps chicken — as its premium meat.
I'm not entirely certain I agree. The most significant element in the rise of the cost of beef was last year's drought, which increased the cost of corn, which is often used to feed cattle. If the herds were not thinned too much (though that may have happened), a rainier spring and summer this year might drop the price of beef back down to where it had been before.
And I don't see any restaurant successfully trying to pass chicken off as the next beef. Chicken tastes great. I love it. I eat far more of it than any other protein. But it ain't beef.
Trend No. 2: Liquid Assets
Restaurants have long relied on beverage sales to supply a large portion of their income (a chef I know once told me that restaurants break even on their food sales and make their profit on the drinks). According to the folks at Mintel, customers are expecting more from their beverages these days, and savvy restaurateurs are going to to have to work hard to keep up with what they call the new "waves of innovation."
Americans' taste in drinks does seem to be going through a quantum change right now. Smoothies, once an exotic treat, are offered everywhere; craft beers are surging in popularity while the old standbys are remaining static; and the booming cocktail industry is searching for ever-more obscure liqueurs and mixes to put in their drinks. Even ice cubes have gone upscale.
Restaurants will have to scamper to keep up with the next new thing, and then the next. Failure to do so will drive the hip crowds to hipper locations.
As tastes change, fewer customers will be happy with just a glass of Coke.
Trend No. 3: Clean Food, Clean Conscience
Chalk this up to the greening of America and a new maturity in the health-food movement. A fair part of the population now actively seeks out foods it thinks it can trust. So if it knows a tomato has come from a local farm or that the ground beef was not made with pink slime, it will be more likely to eat at the restaurants that can make these assurances.
According to the Mintel folks, a second part of the equation is just as important: Restaurants will have to make their customers aware of this information by using the right language on their menus. Look for such indications as "cage-free eggs" or "made-on-premises" as subtle ways to gain the customers' trust.
Trend No. 4: 24/7 Hunger
They call it "all-access eating." Customers are coming to expect high-quality food whenever they want it, so they seek out food trucks, self-serve coffee kiosks, and even upscale vending machines. With these options more abundant, restaurants are going to have to offer better food at all times to compete with these all-day possibilities.
This is a new trend? I've been hungry 24/7 pretty much since I was 13.
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.