Restaurants have taken a big hit in the last year, and the financial blues driving the falloff in restaurant spending aren't going to be cured anytime soon, it seems. Fortunately, restaurants remain ingrained in the lifestyles of most people. But in today's climate, knowing what your guests want and giving them a reason to return are more important than ever. Here's what's looming on the horizon:
Relax! Formal is so yesterday; today's restaurant guests are more interested in simplicity. Back-to-basics, down-home cooking techniques are reclaiming their place alongside molecular gastronomy. “Wacky-weird-science cuisine that requires fancy-schmancy equipment doesn't necessarily make food taste better, and more often than not it adds needless complexity (there are exceptions),” opines James Oliver Cury of epicurious.com. “Expect to see comfort food stage a comeback. Again.” Braising, smoking, slow-roasting and other techniques add characteristics like tenderness, depth of flavor and value to less-prized cuts of meat and other simple fare. And restaurants are likely to extend that simplicity to the dining experience as well. Trend watcher Andrew Freeman believes “casualization” will be a recurring theme — shorter menus, dress-down dishes, counter seating and a neighborhood feel. He sees restaurants courting the loyalty of locals with themed events such as “Meatball Mondays” or family-style “Sunday Suppers.”
Snacks, fourth meal periods and breakfasts will continue to gain ground. Panera and Starbucks led the way, and others have followed and succeeded in capturing incremental business from midmorning, afternoon and late-evening through happy hours, post-event dessert and drinks nights and more. And breakfast continues to be a growth opportunity for many restaurant operators who previously never considered opening so early. With nearly three-quarters of consumers eating breakfast regularly, the stakes are huge: Foodservice breakfasts are expected to grow from $65 billion in 2006 to $85 billion in the next decade.
Bottom line: A bang for the buck is more crucial now than ever. Spending in restaurants was one of the first victims of the plummeting stock market, eroding home values and uncertainty about the future. Restaurants at every point of the spectrum are looking at ways to bring back guests, and value pricing, portion size options and bundling are their go-to tools. Some of the more creative responses to a down market include:
New York's famed Russian Tea Room offered a three-course weekday lunch for $35; half the regular menu entrées run more than that alone.
Through December 31, Morton's Steakhouse locations offered a $50 meal that included filet mignon, a seafood dish, sides and dessert through the company website.
A more drastic approach: Trio's Restaurant & Lounge in Ridgeland, MS, closed for two weeks, revamping the steak and seafood place into the more casual Crab's Seafood Shack. In its first week, the new restaurant served 1,500 guests, triple the number of the old one. Check averages are down but turns are up.
Palate Food + Wine, a wine bar launched by a former Patina group executive chef in suburban Los Angeles, boasts no dish over $20, paired with affordable wines.
After seeing a 15-percent decline in business this past fall, L'Auberge, near Dayton, OH, introduced a $30 “recession-proof” three-course meal.
Cheesecake Factory recently rolled out a value menu and a new guest loyalty program that provides $10 off on a future visit.
Value doesn't necessarily mean cut rate, either. It might mean getting fresher or more exotic ingredients in food or premium-priced cocktails, says Maria Caranfa, director of Mintel Menu Insights.
Bolder ethnic tastes are appealing to younger diners. Millennials are the most experimental and experiential of all demographic groups, and ethnic foods are right up their alley. According to Technomic, those aged 18-34 are three times as likely to try Thai, Greek, Indian, French, Cuban, German and Korean cuisine more frequently than older patrons, and a whopping 27 percent eat sushi at least twice a month. “With Gen Yers having the greatest interest in gourmet, ethnic and natural foods — and a tendency to become bored quickly — the time for restaurant operators to upgrade the flavor profile of burgers, nuggets and chicken sandwiches is now,” says A. Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends. And it's not just Millennials who have different expectations: Even the very youngest audience — kids — are being exposed to more exotic ethnic tastes at an earlier age than their predecessors.
Old favorites will take on new twists. From burgers to pizzas, variations on familiar themes continue to proliferate. Today, the likes of Thomas Keller and Bobby Flay are putting their stamps on the humble burger. John McLean, Levy Restaurants' recently departed chef de cuisine, has been looking at opening what he calls a “fun, casual, urban burger bar” that would serve traditional burgers as well as pork, tuna sashimi, chicken and turkey varieties, all ground on the premises and served on homemade buns with fresh-cut fries. And artisan pizza has hit its stride, with coal-fired ovens and other variations heating up the category.
The new rule about portion sizes: There are no rules. For lots of reasons, from a generation of grazers to concerns about calories to pinched budgets, portion sizes are more fluid than ever. At one end, sliders, small plates, wine bar snacks and nibbles, sampler desserts and half portions satisfy; at the other end, the idea of a kid's meal is growing up, both in size and sophistication. For older kids, happy meals just don't do the trick.
Food pedigrees and miles are getting scrutiny. Your guests want to know what is (and isn't) in your food, where it came from and how it got to the table. Adhering to that philosophy can be as simple as buying from organic purveyors to the kind of whole-hog approach taken by Chicago's Frontera Grill, where a commitment to sustainability includes investing in the community, the staff and local farmers; living in balance with the environment and the seasons; and running the restaurant in a financially responsible way. The restaurant's website lists brief histories of the dozen-plus local producers that supply it.
It's all about trust, according to a report from Mintel International, which follows consumer and product trends. “Crumbling economic markets, food scares and toy safety problems have fueled an era of doubt and insecurity. And so in the coming year, people will seek out trusting, open relationships wherever they can. People will want to know all about the products they buy, from where they were sourced to how they were manufactured.”
Don't-try-this-at-home foods and memorable décor have become essentials for building traffic. “Consumers love to eat out, and 2009 will be no different,” says Enzo Febbraro, the co-owner and executive chef of D'Acqua Ristorante in Washington, DC. “However, because of budget concerns, they are likely to be more selective about where they spend those dining dollars, opting for good-tasting food that also offers an atmosphere, so it's more like a night out than just a quick meal.”
Drink up: Mixologists are helping to satisfy customers' craving for something new and refreshing. According to Technomic, a key development at varied menu, family-style and steak establishments is the proliferation of specialty beverages, both for kids and adults. Fruit- and herb-infused beverages, smoothies, juice blends, energy-drink cocktails, artisan liquors and more are nudging aside more traditional drink choices. Younger diners' desire to try something new is driving the demand for these new concoctions. Eben Freeman, a genius mixologist who performs his magic in a windowed booth before the guests at New York City's Tailor, invents unlikely mixes such as house-smoked cola, walnut-infused cognac and dry-hopped gin. He adds red bell pepper juice to a rum-spiked lemonade he calls Paprika Punch. The bonus: these new concoctions, fortunately, also help boost check averages.
”Seasonal” and “artisanal” offerings continue to carry a lot of cachet, as long as value is clear. From craft beers and regional roasters to grown-in-the-backyard greens and designer cheeses, diners are embracing local and one-of-a-kind offerings. Menuing items that can be described as local, artisanal, seasonal, house-made, hand-made, natural and organic suggest that the chef cares more about the meal and differentiates a restaurant from the competition. But restaurant patrons these days are less willing to pay a premium, so tread lightly.
Each year the National Restaurant Association surveys members of the American Culinary Federation to take the pulse of the industry. This year, more than 1,600 ACF members weighed in. Among their 10 top “hot trends” picks for 2009:
Source: National Restaurant Association