One of the most enjoyable things for me is being able to listen to food-trend presentations given by experts during industry events. As a consumer, I seldom have the time to fully appreciate what’s taking place in the foodservice industry. Sure, I notice new products on a menu and when prices go up or down, but in the daily rush it’s hard to “connect the dots” regarding all the foodservice product trends swirling around me.

During the recently held 2012 Meat Industry Management Conference in Chicago, sponsored by the North American Meat Processors Association, I attended a foodservice outlook presentation delivered by Mike Snodgrass, regional vice president of sales, Griffith Laboratories USA, Sycamore, Ill., and Matthew Mandeltort, senior consultant, for Chicago-based Technomic. Both provided a good, quick overview of current foodservice trends.

In covering food and flavor trends, Snodgrass said the top 10 ingredient nutritional claims, by incidence, Q4 2007-Q4 2010 — according to Mintel Oxygen, January 2011 — were fat-free, light (nutritional), natural, organic, low-fat, lean, low-carb, gluten-free, cholesterol-free and low-calorie. Yet, despite this building focus on healthier eating, the main menu-driver by far still remains diners want to order something that tastes great, Snodgrass relayed.

Ethnic foods, which have been touted for decades as being trend-setters, are still building in customer and consumer interest. Two-thirds of recent survey respondents who eat ethnic food at home said authentic or traditional flavor is the most important factor when they buy or eat ethnic food.

Packaged Facts predicts, given the increasing number of food trucks that are working the streets, there will be a wider assortment of ethnic food available with the specific skills and inclinations of individual entrepreneurs driving local trends, Snodgrass said.

Not only are food trucks much more than the sandwich and sweet-roll trucks of yesteryear, they are expected to make many American consumers more aware of the South American cuisines of Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Venezuela and those of specific regions of Mexico, including the Yucatan, he continued.

While Chinese cuisine remains highly popular in the US, Japanese food is predicted to attract the most attention regarding Asian cuisine in the near future, especially when it comes to yakatori — a Japanese type of skewered chicken or skewered food, in general. Indian and Korean food may also become more established in US foodservice. What’s more, Moroccan and Turkish food will become more known while an entirely new genre of Scandinavian cuisine could find increasing interest in the near future, he added.

Many recent media accounts have touted the growing interest among consumers in knowing food origin. This is being driven by interests in supporting local suppliers, ethnic-style lines, quality and safety plus authenticity. Fresh ingredients are also in more in demand by today’s consumers.

Regarding flavors, Snodgrass said products exhibiting bolder tastes, higher flavor profiles and exotic ingredients are all part of the latest trends in quick-service and casual dining.

Expecting something more exotic, I found it fascinating that the following are considered the top 10 sauces for American cuisine (in descending order of importance): mayonnaise, ranch dressing, barbecue sauce, broth, vinaigrette, vinegar, Caesar dressing, tomato sauce, mustard and blue cheese dressing.

Snodgrass relayed that Mintel Menu Insights reports the top-five flavors on menus by protein are:

  • Beef – BBQ, spicy, smoked, savory and slow smoked
  • Chicken – BBQ, spicy, Buffalo, smoked and Cajun.
  • Pork – Apple-wood smoked, smoked, hickory smoked, BBQ and slow-smoked.

I, as well as millions of other Americans, am a big fan of having higher heat levels in some of my foods. As a result of this “ratchet it up” trend, restaurant operators are moving beyond the descriptor “spicy” and focusing more on touting those individual ingredients responsible for providing a “kick.”

Urban fusion, the blending of different cuisines from various cultures, which has been covered extensively in recent years, remains a strong trend. Snodgrass pointed out this is evident in the growing number of Asian ingredients in Latin applications, such as Korean tacos, sushi burritos and kimchi quesadillas. Soy sauce is a good example of a flavor that reaches across several ethnic cuisines.

Of particular interest to readers should be some of what’s listed in the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2012 report he highlighted in part. In descending order, the top trends in dining are: locally sourced meat and seafood; locally grown produce; healthful kids’ meals; hyper-local sourcing (eg, restaurant gardens); sustainability; children’s nutrition; gluten-free/food allergy conscious; locally produced wine and beer; sustainable seafood; and whole-grain items in kids’ meals.

Despite the struggling economy, limited-service and full-service restaurants are in “positive, same-store sales territory,” Technomic’s Mandeltort pointed out. Restaurant sales real growth continues to climb.

Fast-casual restaurants (FCRs) are the bright spot in the US restaurant industry at present. Chipotle Mexican Grill, for example, enjoyed an 11.3 percent sales increase for 3Q 11 in same store sales vs. the same quarter in 2010. Six of the fastest-growing restaurant chains are FCRs – Five Guys, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Wing Stop, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Pei Wei Asian Diner and Noodles & Co. In addition to the food, FCR price points are also attractive to diners, he added.

Many fast-casual chains are offering upscale hamburgers. McDonald’s Angus Chipotle BBQ Bacon Burger, Wendy’s The W, Jack in the Box Outlaw Burger and Burger King’s BK Chef’s Choice are several examples.
Ethnic flavors abound at FCRs while FCR pizza is also a hot trend.

Snacking is on the rise at restaurants, according to recent research from Mintel Menu Insights. Menu items containing the descriptors “snack,” “snackable,” or “snacker” have increased by 170 percent since 2007 and growth is expected to continue as restaurants explore this new trend, Mandeltort said.

Consumers are looking for snacks to satisfy between-meal hunger and to actually replace or become a meal — at almost any time of day. The growing influence of new pan-Asian and pan-Latin American preparations is seen in the growing popularity of Latin American snackable handhelds and light Asian snacks that focus on flavor, portability and health, he added.

Retailers have long dominated the snack market, but Technomic research shows restaurants are gaining share of consumers’ snack dollars. This competitive marketplace calls for both segments to innovate with appealing snack offerings that help them both gain share.

Last but not least, new micro snacks — with an emphasis on affordability, indulgence and a portable preparation — emphasize bite-sized foods as a craveable between-meal trend.

That was a lot to digest. But their presentations indicated to me that regardless of the economy, there are always opportunities to cash in on evolving and emerging trends for those meat and/or poultry companies that have an appetite to satisfy the ever-evolving demand for trendy, top-quality foodservice products.