Analysts Forecast the Top U.S. Restaurant Trends for 2012

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Amid an uncertain economy, restaurants are challenged on many levels.  One such challenge is commodity costs, which continue to present a major problem going into 2012; operators are expecting inflation of 2.4% in the coming year. However, operators’ confidence continues to be strong in the long-term as same-store sales expectations for the next six months are positive across all sectors for the first time since April 2011. The fine-dining segment showed the biggest swing in operator confidence, going from a net 38% that believed sales would worsen over the next six months in October to a net 25% that believed sales would improve over the next six months in November, according to the December 2011 NRN-MillerPulse survey.

Seven emerging trends are expected to help shape restaurant strategies in 2012, according to the foodservice research firm Technomic.

TWISTS ON THE FAMILIAR: While customers are uneasy about taking risks in this economy, they do embrace novel flavors incorporated into comfort foods.  Look for comfort foods with a twist (gourmet, ethnic, artisan, wood-fired) as well as innovation in familiar formats (sandwiches, wraps, pizza, pasta) rather than breakout items taken from less-familiar global cuisines.

RUSTIC FARE MADE IN-HOUSE:   As commodity costs rise, labor costs are holding steady, allowing restaurants to offer simple, fresh ingredients prepared in-house.  Operators will curtail purchases of value-added items in favor of cheaper cuts, beans, grains and produce that require more back-of-house prep to transform into honest, homestyle food.

FURTHER STEPS IN LOCAL SOURCING:  Growers, manufacturers, distributors and operators continue to work toward a more transparent, safe and efficient supply chain.  The rising use of seasonal and local items suits the less-is-more culinary trend.

ACCELERATIONS OF SOCIAL NETWORKINGConsumers increasingly trust friends and peers more than professional marketers. They’re taking control of social media to share their restaurant experiences and opinions with the public (via review sites such as OpenTable), with their own circles (via Facebook and Foursquare) or both (via Twitter). This helps some restaurants rocket to popularity and leaves others quiet.

DEMAND FOR MORE INFORMATION:  Consumers want transparency—looking for disclosure of everything from calories and allergens on menus to labor and local-sourcing practices. A small but growing number are serious about nutrition, labeling, sustainability and community involvement, and they are using such knowledge to make purchasing decisions.

OPERATORS TRY TO RESIST DISCOUNTING:  The foodservice industry will continue to operate in a take-share environment, but discounting is cutting to the bone. To counter daily deals and other forms of discounting, operators turn to creative, sometimes in-the-moment, methods to reward their best customers, such as a free dessert out of the blue.

FLEXIBLE FORMATS: Format flexibility is required as restaurants cater to new around-the-clock dayparts, switch gears from fast-casual by day to full-service at night, or transform their kitchens into catering commissaries during slow times. This flexibility is also evidenced in streamlined, high-efficiency smaller-footprint units and brand extensions.

[Source:  "NRN-MillerPulse survey."  December 2011.  Web.  19 Dec. 2011; "Technomic names seven leading U.S. restaurant trends for 2012."  Technomic.  8 Nov. 2011.  Web.  19 Dec. 2011.]