Culinary trends are the leading indicator of what shoppers will soon be looking for in their local grocery store. From trendy new entrees, to new flavors and unique food combinations, what you see on restaurant menus today often become part of the recipe repertoire at home tomorrow. For foodservice operators, keeping menu options fresh, exciting, and on-trend is critical to building traffic and patron loyalty. For retail grocery, helping shoppers bring the restaurant experience home drives incremental purchases and elevates the shopping experience. In this edition of our 2018 Food Trends series, we look at some of the produce-forward trends that are heating up the restaurant scene to help inspire your own menu innovation and assortment and merchandising strategies.
Plant-based eating goes mainstream: Far from a passing fad, the move towards a plant-based diet is gaining momentum, and plant-centered menu items are here to stay. Whether for health, ethical, or environmental reasons, increasing numbers of people are turning towards flexitarian, vegetarian, or vegan lifestyles. To accommodate these customers, even non-vegetarian restaurants will be serving delicious, inventive vegetarian or vegan foods.
Consumers are looking for innovative ways to increase their daily intake of fruits and vegetables, and restaurants are designing more menu items that showcase fresh produce. For many years, with the exception of the occasional vegetable stir-fry or pasta primavera, chefs and consumers considered meat an essential part of the main course. Today, many chefs and restaurant concepts are making vegetables the star of the menu, appealing to consumers interested in healthier options, “clean” eating, and local ingredients. A number of restaurant chains have added zoodles, or zucchini noodles, to the menu, or other spiralized noodle options made with butternut squash, carrots, or cucumbers. Many of these dishes feature on-trend cuisines and vibrant flavors to counter perceptions of bland “health” food, with menu options like Middle Eastern charred eggplant topped with pomegranate seeds or Indian-spiced beet burgers. Especially during the summer, foodservice operators have an abundance of produce options to feature in a center-of-plate entrée, from stuffed peppers and tomatoes, to summer squash bowls to corn fritters topped with fresh salsa. Roasted veggies are trending in restaurants and at home, particularly during the fall and winter; in-season root vegetables lend themselves particularly well to roasting – potatoes, fennel, carrots, parsnips, etc. As a side dish, roasted vegetables are a staple, including brussels sprouts (the second fastest-growing side dish on menus today, after quinoa) and sweet potatoes. But they are increasingly becoming center-of-plate entrée options. Large heads of roasted cauliflower “steaks”, served with flavorful toppings, sauces, and mashes are trending on menus (think crispy cheese crust or basted in browned butter). Roasted vegetables also have a premium connotation that can upgrade traditional menu options, such as roasted peppers and corn on a pizza or roasted veggie skewers on a tailgate menu.
For protein, ancient grains, most of which are gluten-free, pack a powerful punch. Cited on the National Restaurant Association 2017 Top 20 “What’s Hot” chef survey, ancient grains are expected to gain even more traction in 2018, largely due to the increase in plant-based eating. Ancient grains include faro, quinoa, amaranth, and many more. They provide protein and a hearty, satisfying mouthfeel that add substance to meatless dishes. Green peas are being rediscovered as a source of plant protein, setting the stage for a big comeback in 2018. In terms of nutrition, peas are one of the best pulses you can eat, packed with protein, fiber, minerals, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories, and they contain eight of the amino acids that our bodies cannot naturally produce. Plus, they’re incredibly versatile and filling. One of the huge benefits of pea protein is that it has a neutral flavor, making it the perfect addition to soups, stews, bakes, and shakes.
Bowls in general and Poke bowls in particular: The “bowl” trend is also driving an interest in vegetable entrees. From Acai to Korean Bibimap to Hawaiian Poke, bowls are on the rise. Freshly prepared and easy to eat, bowl foods are perfect for those who want to stay healthy, despite ever-busier lives. Poke is a trendy fish salad that originated in Hawaii, but is now taking the mainland by storm, and Poke-focused fast casuals are popping up across the country. The name Poke means “to cut into pieces” in Hawaiian and features chunks of sushi-grade fish marinated in soy sauce, onions, and sesame oil, which is typically combined in a bowl with seaweed, green onion, and nuts. The explosion of Poke bowls on menus across the country, however, coupled with the customizable bowl trend, has led to an endless number of ingredients and toppings being used in this on-trend dish. In fact, variety is key; a successful Poke bowl often includes a range of flavors, textures, and colors. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including pickled vegetables, rich avocado, fresh cucumber, sweet pineapple, colorful carrots, crunchy radishes, and healthy edamame are all common ingredients. The resulting bowl is frequently served over rice, quinoa, or another grain. Essentially sushi in bowl form, the easily customizable recipe and broad array of flavors to choose from make it a convenient fast food concept. Operators are even taking Poke to the next level, serving the ingredients in a tortilla or flatbread for a handheld meal or as a shareable appetizer or small plate with crackers.
Figs are featured: Already a fine-dining favorite, figs are emerging on casual-dining menus in numerous sweet and savory applications, from fig mole to bacon-fig marmalade. Chefs and specialty food stores call out fig varietals such as California Black Mission or Turkish Calimyrna, for their regional flavor notes. Figs bring star power to sweet and savory. In restaurants, the home base has been fine dining, where figs appear in about three out of ten menus. But upscale casual dining is where the growth has been, with menu call-outs steadily notching up between 2007 and 2017.
Expanded borders for sweet potatoes: A long time mainstay of Southern soul food and, more recently, a challenger to baked potatoes and potato fries, Sweet Potatoes are now appearing in a variety of internationally inspired dishes, including Mexican tacos, Italian pasta, and Japanese cocktails. They are being infused with flavorings such as dukkah, miso, paprika, or shishito, and paired with Kabocha squash, blue/purple corn or quinoa, ginger, and turmeric. Sweet potatoes also bring stick-to-your ribs ballast and gorgeous color to vegetarian/vegan plates.
Produce on pizza: Pizza is America’s favorite food. Almost any ingredient can and is used as a pizza topping; increasingly, more, and different, produce items are finding their way to the top of the pie. Colorful beets, on-trend brussels sprouts, winter mushroom varieties, earthy parsnips, and both traditional and sweet potatoes can all be found on pizzas. Kale is easily the fastest-growing pizza topper, but the addition of sweet fruits like apples and cranberries is also on the rise, often paired with ingredients like fennel and sausage. With the focus on healthier eating, especially at the start of the new year, produce-centric “veggie lovers” pizzas, or options like salmon flatbreads with arugula, will begin to show up on menus. Seasonal or holiday themed pizzas offer an extensive palette on which to showcase different produce throughout the year: for example, as Valentine’s Day approaches, heart-shaped pizzas may feature red ingredients (red peppers, tomatoes) or artichoke hearts.
Moringa makes the list of hot new superfoods: A superfood derived from the dried leaves of a plant native to parts of Africa and Asia, moringa has far more protein, fiber, potassium, calcium, and vitamin A than matcha, and a new study at UC Davis shows early promise that moringa may be more bioavailable and effective than turmeric for anti-inflammation. It tastes like dried spinach, so the flavor impact is fairly benign in smoothies and other beverages. Some progressive chefs are starting to cook with it, and it can be found in bars. It is predicted to become the next matcha latte. Kellogg Co.’s venture capital fund led a $4.25 million Series A funding of Kuli Kuli, a maker of nutrition bars, powders and beverages featuring moringa. Expect the ingredient to pop up in more packaged foods, beverages, and even hummus.
Turmeric takes off for health and international cuisine: Long celebrated for its reported medicinal qualities, turmeric is a milder relative of ginger, known for its earthy flavor and deep orange-yellow coloring. Turmeric contains bio active compounds that boost digestion, and in China, it has long been used as an anti-inflammatory. Its primary ingredient, curcumin, acts as an anti-viral agent, an antibacterial agent, and fights against cancer. Laboratory tests have also suggested that curcumin lowered cholesterol levels and enhanced liver function following liver disease or damage. Although it’s native to South Asia and used throughout the region, turmeric is now common in African and Middle Eastern cuisines, as well. While the leaves can be used, most U.S. consumers are more familiar with the vibrant yellow powder made from the ground turmeric rhizome, or rootstock. The color is so intense that it not only adds a yellow hue to curries, mustards, and cheeses, but it has also been used as a dye for fabrics. Turmeric has increased its menu penetration by 155% in the past four years, and can be found in on-trend beverages like cold-pressed juices, detox drinks, tonics and “golden lattes.” Its superfood status means chefs are adding this functional food to a variety of health-driven menu items, including vegetable bowls, soups, rice dishes, tofu scrambles, and seafood. Some mixologists are embracing turmeric for its vibrant color, creating their own turmeric infusions or oils to use in cocktails. At the same time, U.S. consumers are becoming more interested in the cuisines of Southeast Asia and Africa and turmeric can be found on U.S. menus in Indian curries or Moroccan chicken dishes.
These culinary trends represent new and exciting opportunities to satisfy your patrons and drive fresh produce sales. Does your menu offer produce-centric choices to meet the consumer shift towards flexitarian, vegetarian, and vegan lifestyles? Do you provide your shoppers with recipe ideas to help them enjoy these trends at home? Do you cross merchandise with all the ingredients needed to inspire making a Poke (or other) bowl entrée? These are just few thought-starters to help you leverage today’s trends. We’re happy to brainstorm more ideas and help you execute them on-menu and in-store. Let’s talk about how we can work together to take advantage of these trends to delight consumers and grow your business.