While recently attending the National Restaurant Association’s annual exposition at Chicago’s grandiose McCormick Place, I was excited and daunted to see many industry trends emerging.
I tend to think of trends as surges in popularity for items or ideas. Food trucks. Twitter. Once upon a time, mozzarella sticks. And stuffed sole.
When a thing fades nearly away, I think of it as a fad. Pet Rock. Fondue.
And when something has legs, be it gaining or waning in popularity, I’m not sure of the definition. Perhaps, simply, a thing. My daughter’s fond of saying, “It’s a thing.” (Conversely, HBO’s snarky talk show comedian John Oliver asks often, “How is this still a thing?”)
He might ask that about Slinkys, as I bought one recently as an antidote to my squirrel vs. birdfeeder conundrum. I saw on YouTube — once a trend, now a thing — that a Slinky hung from the pole will abate climbing-squirrel thievery. To my chagrin, it’s so not true. I digress.
Being quasi-obsessed with trends, my attention is generally more attuned to restaurants. And passionately toward menu evolution. For instance, as food delivery grows in demand, so does cook-and-hold oven technology and to-go food packaging innovation. Likewise, in response to a greater call for sustainability, the plethora of products at this year’s show that spoke to recycled and biodegradable initiatives, plant-based proteins and energy-saving technologies, was staggering.
The creativity that abounds within my industry is mind-boggling — whether it’s the endless emergence of things anew or the ongoing rebirth of the known. Throughout my career, I have tracked trends and struggled over whether it was wise to engage, or avoid.
Menu writing is an art form. At its best, it is designed to harmoniously address so many issues beyond the whimsy of the creative. Proper cost, price and portion represent an omnipresent balancing act. Seasonality and perishability are juxtaposed with decisions to produce in house or contract with those who do it best — smoking fish, baking bread, making pasta and the like.
Above all, and often in sacrifice to preferences that a chef or restaurateur may be passionate for, our offerings clearly must resonate with our guests. No guests, no good. Herein lies one of the greatest challenges — satisfying the widely disparate desires of those who pay our bills, especially as new dining trends emerge. Should we focus on global influence or locally sourced? Gluten free? Spicy? Low fat or low carbs? GMO or no? Organic or affordable? As societal trends have evolved around me over the past decade, I’ve been constantly confronted to strike the greatest chord — without compromising those who “brought us to the dance.” What’s old is comforting. What’s new is exciting, and potentially a long-term staple. And buzz-worthy. What stays and what goes? Remaining ahead of the curve on the menu, on issues of technology, on employee retention and with social media is all exciting. But to quote Steve Miller: “It just keeps getting tougher every day.”
Some changes are easy — butter to margarine to oil-butter blends. Now, as “wholesome” re-emerges, it’s back to butter! What’s old often circles back. We adjust. Other times we stand firm that something is right, or wrong — for one reason or another. We struggle to accurately value the high cost of using OpenTable for guest reservation convenience vs. changing to the new, more affordable and trending app, while we dismiss “carrot foam” outright.
I like to tell the story of how, after opening Cobblestones in 1994, I discovered hummus where such exotic things first appear. Where the hip people go, among the vegetarians and the urbane. My first hummus happened at an organic café in NYC. Of course, it took time to catch on in Lowell as we removed it from the menu … several times! Now a top seller, it is ubiquitous in American dining — available in more flavors than the potato chip.
Other products struggle to gain a foothold. Acai is apparently poised to trend. Again. I recall maybe 10 years ago how this Amazonian “superfood” started to appear locally as juice. We added it to a margarita recipe at Moonstones — curating the best of both worlds! (“Curated” is trending. Listen for it!)
Since then, kale “happened.” And quinoa. We now see the emergence of farro, poke bowls and kombucha while society goes nuts over almonds.
The food show can make a head spin, like this year’s whirling cotton candy technology — sending streaming and wispy waves of spun sugar into the air — tamed by a samurai-like, paper-tube twirling Russian sales rep, handing out giant samples of pink bouffant. Its whimsy was reminiscent of cotton candy magic back when the circus was still a thing.
If you have discovered how to keep squirrels off your bird feeder, please email firstname.lastname@example.org!
Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories, which can be found here on our website.