It’s nearly the end of 2019, which means the experts are starting to weigh in on what they expect for restaurant trends in 2020.
Everything new eventually becomes old, which can leave restauranteurs constantly on the hunt for the next “of-the-moment” thing. Or, they can choose to entirely ignore the trendy new ingredient or plating style, and instead just be themselves. Which is the right course?
Trends of the Past
It used to take restaurant trends years to make the rounds through this giant country of ours. Molten chocolate cake first hit the American food scene in 1987 at the Drake Hotel in NYC. But it took over ten years before it made its way to fast-casual chains like Chili’s and Applebee’s.
The life cycle of today’s food trends is much shorter.
Just take activated charcoal. A major food trend in 2016 and 2017, this slightly earthy but mostly bland additive was touted as a great way to detox (and it looked sweet on the ‘Gram). But it also absorbs vitamins and nutrients that your body needs. And in some cases, it interferes with the body’s ability to process important medications. So activated charcoal is already out.
Restaurant trends also go beyond just the ingredients. Plating and service methods can come and go as well. And it’s much more disruptive to both your staff and your guests to shake up your whole restaurant structure in an attempt to follow the latest service style.
Remember molecular gastronomy? What a pain.
Restaurant Trends of 2020
The proposed food trends for 2020 aren’t terribly surprising. CBD is expected to be a big one. But even though the 2018 Farm Bill legalized CBD across the country, the FDA still hasn’t approved adding CBD to food items. So proceed at your own risk.
Fermented foods are also continuing to trend up — as long as they’re “exotic” or unusual. So kimchi is in. Sauerkraut is out, except for on New Year’s Day. Apparently it brings good luck for the year ahead.
And in today’s health-obsessed and sustainability-focused landscape, meat alternatives are still on the rise. Jackfruit is trending as a substitute for pulled pork. And plant-based foods like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are getting added to menus left and right.
In the service arena, some experts anticipate more kiosk-based ordering and fewer servers. Others say that meal delivery is where it’s at.
Personally, I think kiosk ordering may continue to grow at fast-casual restaurants. But dining out is meant to be an experience. Divorcing the human element from that experience is a niche that will only work in very specific restaurants.
I actually ate at a place in Austin that does kiosk ordering very recently. I didn’t mind the ordering process too much, but it would have been nice to have a human around so I could ask a couple questions. And at the end of my transaction, I was prompted to leave a tip! For what, exactly?
As for meal delivery, I think there will be a backlash soon, and some of the delivery services will start to see a drop off in participating restaurants. With fees as high as 40%, GrubHub and UberEATS obliterate any profit margin that the restaurant had built into their menu pricing.
For restaurants that can eat the cost as a marketing expense, there may be some value. But for many, it’s simply not worth it. Plus, with stories of cold food, poor customer service, and shifting loyalty away from the restaurant and toward the third-party service, there are definite risks involved.
Should Restaurants Chase Trends?
So should restaurants adapt to try to make the hot new trend work for them?
Adding something hip to the menu can keep your restaurant current. But the danger is a) if it’s everywhere, the item ceases to be a draw; and b) if you leave it on the menu too long, you date yourself.
A good option could be to add some trendy items to a rotating seasonal menu.
But do you have to?
Purely anecdotally, I worked at a Houston’s location from 2005 to 2008. I just checked the menu at one of their locations, and it’s essentially the same as it was 10 years ago. As far as I know, the company is still doing well.
The only trend they adopted was adding sushi to some of their locations. It was delicious, but they cut their rolls into absolutely enormous pieces and refused to cut them smaller. Still, with only minor restaurant tweaks, they’ve managed to stay in business for nearly 50 years.
If “the next big thing” fits in beautifully with your current menu and customer base, fantastic. If it doesn’t, don’t try to force it. Your customers are probably not clamoring for monk fruit syrup or watermelon seed butter — two items on Whole Foods’ list of trends for 2020.
Just be yourself. We like you that way.