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If there is one conclusion to be drawn from looking at the trends in food in the year 2011, it is this: The economic downturn has affected everybody, except the people it hasn’t.
At the Walt Churchill’s Market in Monclova Township, store manager Scott Reddish said that sales of some of their priciest food, such as prime-grade beef, have tumbled. And although part of the reason for that may be because the price for prime beef rose from an unusually low level the year before, the weakness in its sales seems to reflect a broader trend.
Fresh, never-frozen seafood is also a high-ticket item, and sales of it were likewise down last year, he said.
But if the average customer cut back on extravagances, not everyone has been tightening the purse strings. Jeff Peer is the director of Midwest purchasing for Sofo Foods, which distributes food to Italian restaurants and pizzerias around the country. He sees what restaurants are ordering and serving to their customers.
Despite the shaky economy, he said, "there are still some customers [restaurants] who do very well. The customers who do very well are not lowering their standards. As soon as someone shops for price, their quality slips and the public knows it."
One way the restaurants are drawing crowds, he said, is by selling "anything with chicken. Poultry is still growing and growing and growing. It’s incredible. Boneless chunks are huge. You come up with any sauce you want, and boom! You’ve got a signature dish."
Chicken is also growing as a topping on pizza, he said, now ranking third behind pepperoni and sausage. Even though it is being paired with high-calorie barbecue sauce and Alfredo sauce, "I think people perceive that as healthy," Mr. Peer said.
A move toward healthier eating, whether real or imagined, was one of the biggest food topics of the year. At the Walt Churchill’s Market, Mr. Reddish said that sales of gluten-free food soared, in part because more people are learning they have an intolerance to gluten. But also, people are eating gluten-free foods because they believe it to be healthier, he said.
It doesn’t hurt, he said, that "the variety and quality are getting better. The bread [used to be] like eating the newspaper, and now they’re really perfecting the cookies and the breads."
At the James Beard Award-nominated the Common Grill in Chelsea, Mich., chef and owner Craig Common said that customers with allergies to gluten are showing an increasing interest in fish and seafood, which are often not prepared with the grains (wheat, rye, and barley) that contain gluten.
Another trend, he said, is that high-end restaurants are increasingly listing which farms grow their foods, and "we’re seeing more relationships with chefs and farmers."
Chef Alan Merhar of Evans Street Station in Tecumseh, Mich., agreed both that people are eating healthier and that "more of my diners are interested in where their food is coming from."
To let them know, the restaurant has now joined with Real Time Farms, a Web site that shows a restaurant’s menus and offers links to information about the farms that produced some of the listed ingredients.
This availability of information was the biggest trend of the year just past, and possibly of the year just started, said Gus Mancy, a partner in Mancy’s Restaurant Group and the co-operator of Mancy’s Steakhouse. At the steakhouse, copies of the wine list are now available on iPads, with complete descriptions of every wine; and the staff sees people on their smart phones looking up the ratings of wines.
"People are educated because we live in an information world," he said. "Our guests in our restaurants and people in Toledo, maybe 25 years ago, 30 years ago, were not as abreast of the trends. But now with the Food Network and with the Internet, they know more, they know what they want. They have more information."
As a result, his restaurants have to meet their customers’ expectations, he said. They are buying more meat from Ohio and more local produce in the summer. The steakhouse also offers its own take on perhaps the biggest flavor trend of the year, a combination of caramel and salt, by incorporating it into its traditional bread pudding. They now top the bread pudding with caramel ice cream and pink Hawaiian salt, and then they finish with a handful of Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal.
The use of breakfast cereal for meals other than breakfast turned out also to be a trend in 2011. A New York milk bar called Momofuku started it by selling cereal milk ice cream, which is ice cream made from milk that has had cereal steep in it, Mr. Mancy said.
In the world of beer and wine, Bobby DeSeyn of Cavalier Distributing said there has been a huge increase in interest in imported beers and especially in domestic craft beers, with sales jumping every month for the last several years.
"The rest of the world in the past has made fun of the American beer industry because of our watery junk, but our craft beers have been making leaps and bounds," he said.
One trend he saw was for brewers to look at new ways to make beer, including going back to the very old days. Scientists have done chemical analyses of beers that were brewed 9,000 years ago, and one company is now brewing beers in the Stone Age style, including using cherries or honey.
And some beers are gaining cult status, he said, in which some hard-to-find bottles are sold for hundreds of dollars.
Matt Snyder of the Beer and Wine Cave dates one of the biggest trends in wines to an article in the influential Wine Spectator magazine in December, 2010. The article praised wines from Washington State, noting that the cold nights and hot days of the grape-growing region there create conditions that result, Mr. Snyder said, in "big, rich, stressed wines that age out beautifully in the bottle."
In the year since that article was published, he said, Washington wines have "gotten stronger and gained more momentum," particularly because the price of real estate there makes them more affordable than many comparable wines from Napa and Sonoma counties in California.
All of the trends put together give Mr. Common reason to hope. "I think everybody is eating good," he said.
That may be the best trend of all.
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.