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Technomic’s David Henkes: How restaurants can keep up with food trends

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

From a food truck revolution to over-the-top dining experiences, restaurateurs can expect a slew of new trends this year. We spoke with Technomic‘s David Henkes about what to expect as the economy recovers and why restaurants need more than a trend for long-term success.

SmartBrief’s Linsey Isaacs contributed to this report.

As the economy begins to show signs of life, what actions should the restaurant industry take?

We believe that restaurants will grow this year, and while we’re not totally in the clear yet, the industry is recovering. Much of the recent increase in traffic, however, has been driven by deals and low-price deals — things that have appealed to the consumer in these hard economic times, but also things that we don’t believe are sustainable points of difference for restaurants over the long term.

We’ve devised a “winning restaurant formula” that calls for restaurants to excel at the basics — service, food quality, unit appearance — while excelling in some area that is “ownable” and unique to the restaurant. This point of difference must resonate with a restaurant’s consumer base, and it can be one or more of things like menu desirability, hospitality, atmosphere, craveable food, how the restaurant integrates into the consumer’s lifestyle and so on.

Technomic recently released its list of 11 top trends in 2011, which mentions a move away from brick-and-mortar restaurants and toward food trucks facilitated by social media. What will happen to brick-and-mortar restaurants  and how can they keep up?

Brick-and-mortar restaurants are certainly not going away, but consumer trends are moving away from large footprint stores. While food trucks are doing a great job of bringing high-quality food in a convenient format to the consumer, the restaurant as the “third place” is something that is still very valuable to the consumer, and concepts that can be inviting and draw people in to the atmosphere and make the occasion — whatever it is — special to the consumer will be those that keep up and excel in the new food-service environment.

What are some of your favorite food trends that have recently emerged, and which ones are you eager to see die out?

I love seeing how innovative the burger category has become — something that’s been around for a long time is suddenly very hot again, with “better burgers” appearing everywhere. Somewhat related to this is the rise of artisan products — providing consumers with a product positioned as being made with hand-crafted or unique skills. You see this a lot with exhibition cooking and prep stations that focus on chefs and the skills they bring to the table.

I’m happy to see more portion flexibility, and while restaurant portions in general are probably still too large, it’s nice to see many operators offer different options.

In terms of things that I’m happy to see disappear, we do a lot of work in the noncommercial space, and I’m very happy to see the institutional feel of cafeterias in colleges, hospitals, schools, etc., start to morph into friendly, welcoming restaurant-style concepts. These operators realize that they’re competing more and more with outside restaurants, and they’ve raised their game quite a bit.

What’s the best way for a restaurant to take advantage of emerging trends without seeming too trendy?

We believe every restaurateur needs to follow and understand the trends, but it’s clear that not everyone needs to be a leader in terms of emerging flavors, dishes and ideas. The key is to know your customer base — are they looking for the newest and hottest foods and dishes? Or do they come to you for the same menu item every time they visit your restaurant?

Limited-time offers and specials are great ways to slowly introduce new flavors and dishes into a restaurant without committing to them long-term. We like to refer to a “zone of creativity” in which consumers expect innovation at restaurants — for some, that zone is very narrow, for others it is much wider. However big it is, pushing the envelope just a little bit with these LTOs is the best way to work new ideas into the restaurant.

Have you noticed any up-and-coming food trends? What’s your restaurant doing to keep up?