Foodservice: State of the Plate

NACS Show session reveals menu trends that are heating up, and some that are on ice

In the face of recessions, home-cooking resurgences and innovations in the grocery aisles, one of foodservice’s greatest strengths is that people actually like to go to restaurants.

Nearly nine out of 10 consumers say they enjoy going to restaurants, compared to just 61% who feel the same way about the grocery store. “I’m not sure what that last person’s problem was,” joked Annika Stensson, senior manager of research communications for the National Restaurant Association (NRA). “Maybe they didn’t understand the question.”

Stensson brought the NRA’s consumer and operator research to the NACS Show to share what’s happening in the greater foodservice arena during the “State of the Plate” education session at the October trade show.

Local sourcing, environmental sustainability, nutrition, kids’ nutrition and ethnic cuisines are the overarching themes driving the industry, according to Stensson. Gluten-free items took the No. 1 spot among the top trends identifi ed by limited-service operators, followed by healthful kids’ meals, spicy items, fruit/veggie kids’ sides, and locally sourced produce.

To operators’ tentative relief, consumers are beginning to act on their demands for more healthful foods and are noticing the efforts of proactive restaurants. Seven out of 10 consumers say they are more likely to choose a restaurant that offers healthy menu options, and four out of fi ve say there are more healthful options on restaurant menus now vs. two years ago.

And trends on the kids’ menu go beyond health: Stensson pointed out that children—and their parents—are looking for more sophisticated options.

“Kids will be kids, but you don’t need to make everything shaped like a dinosaur for kids to eat it anymore,” she said.

But whatever their age, consumers don’t always want the hot new thing. Stensson reported that soft drinks, poultry items, milk, french fries and chicken sandwiches are the top perennial favorites at limited-service restaurants. Perennial favorites in the full-service sector include Italian cuisine, fried chicken, barbecue, eggs benedict, oatmeal, French toast and comfort foods.

Bottom line: Comfort foods, Italian cuisine, pizza and chicken items will always win. Trends that are, as Stensson called it, “cooling”—not dying but leveling off after years of great gains—include fl atbreads, Greek yogurt, sweet-potato fries and gelato.

In the year 2020, the NRA anticipates the industry will be all about freshness, authenticity, health and going local. As such, foodservice choices will continue to refl ect lifestyle choices. “Many foodservice meals are occasion-based,” said Stensson, “be it an anniversary or ladies’ night out. “But they want to maintain their lifestyle and their philosophy, whatever those occasions are.”