2014 Food Trends

Let the awe of the flavor journey begin

Menus have changed over the year into barely recognizable shadows of their past counterparts. With eye-catching designs, bold and unique flavor profiles, and an insurgence of global, casual, and economical dishes, restaurants have done away with rigidly defined categories and have introduced a new frontier of menu innovation. From new foods, to new applications, operators are taking the familiar and giving it a twist. Throughout 2014, several mega-trends will be on the cutting edge of the foodservice industry, and according to experts, these trends will not only make their debut, but will likely become permanent fixtures.

2014 Food Trends

Laid-Back Sharing Plates

More and more diners are flocking to “jeans and a t-shirt”-style establishments, where they can order a few sharing plates or small plates with big, bold flavors. Diners want to be able to share a meal with a few friends, sampling foods they couldn't make at home, and end the night with a reasonable guest check. “Certainly our society has gotten more casual,” says Mary Chapman, Director of Product Innovation at Chicago-based research firm Technomic Inc. With casualization and sharing/small plates becoming so widespread and mainstream, Olive Garden, the national Italian chain, has even added seven small plate items to their menu, system-wide.

The Year of the Taco

It’s no secret that street-food is hot. Street-food tacos, especially Baja-style, with deep-fried fish, lettuce, and a signature sauce all loaded into soft corn taco shells, are even hotter. If you can roll something into a flour or corn shell, it’s fair game for a taco, and that’s what makes it so on-trend. “We have gotten to the point where tacos are being treated the same way as burgers,” says Gordon Food Service Corporate Consulting Chef, Gerry Ludwig, CEC. Not only are they popping up on menus everywhere, customization and bold flavor profiles are enhancing tacos beyond entrees, as 24 percent more chain menus featured taco appetizers in the third quarter of 2013 than they did in 2012, according to Technomic research.

Goodbye Wings, Hello Boneless, Skin-On Chicken Thighs

Whether they’re grilled, breaded and deep-fried, or served as a sandwich, appetizer, or sharing plate, dark-meat chicken thighs are taking a stand as a menu staple. The price of thigh meat is more reasonable compared to wings or breasts, says Brian Darr, Managing Director for the Chicago-based research firm Datassential [cq]. Chicken thighs “are a prime sales opportunity”, confirms Ludwig. Not to mention boneless, skin-on thighs are not generally available on the retail market – increasing a diner’s desire to try something they wouldn’t find in their own kitchen.

New Flavors of the Old South

The South continues its culinary rise and Southern-themed restaurants are popping up across the country, bringing new flavors north of the Mason-Dixon line, and west of the Rockies. The continuing interest in comfort food drives this trend; and so does the popularity of foodstuffs that are the foundation of Southern cuisine, Chapman says. She cites the continuing popularity of pork and chicken, particularly buttermilk-battered fried chicken, as examples. If a menu has room for only one Southern dish, make it a big one. “The absolute superstar is shrimp and grits,” Ludwig says.

Niche Trends

Savory Pancakes
While Americans have topped pancakes with sweet syrups or whipped creams, other cultures have enjoyed savory pancakes as a lunch or dinner option. In a savory application, Ludwig says, “pancakes make an ideal sharing dish.” Try adding toasted seeds, a spicy slaw, or sauerkraut before frying pancakes, then top them or wrap them with pork belly, bacon, or greens in a light vinaigrette.

Hot Oysters
Making an appearance on more and more seafood menus, chefs have now been featuring oyster dishes beyond the traditional Rockefeller. Char-grill, pan-smoke, or roast oysters until they’re just warm, Ludwig advises, then top them with uniquely flavored compound butters, such as one spiked with a bit of charcuterie.

Other Trends Making an Appearance in 2014

  • Dessert mash-ups - such as the famous Cronut
  • Snacks - anything from popcorn, nuts, and chips
  • Waffles – both savory and sweet
  • Ancient grains – such as barley, faro, quinoa, and polenta
  • Flatbreads – sandwiches and pizzas
  • Breakfast sandwiches
  • Late-Night menus
  • Burgers
  • Gluten-free
  • The new “healthy” – what foods are (natural, organic, etc.) instead of what they lack (fat, sodium, calories)

What trends do you plan on integrating in your menu in 2014? What trends have you already seen taking over in the foodservice industry?