In a year when restaurant sales are projected to reach a record-high $660 billion, the quick-service industry will play its part by bringing in an estimated $188.1 billion in 2013, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2013 Restaurant Industry Forecast. Frequency of visits is helping bolster the higher sales numbers expected in 2013. The forecast reports that the average adult visits a restaurant 5.2 times each week, with 18–34-year-olds visiting most often. Mobile accessibility is also gaining in importance, as 59% of Americans now view menus online, one-third of consumers use online reservations, and 70% of 18–34-year-olds say they would use mobile ordering if restaurants offered it.
Other food trends that may significantly impact the restaurant industry in 2013 include:
VEGETABLES TAKE THEIR STAR TURN: As more diners discover the joys of occasional meatless meals, the flirtation with vegetarian fare evolves into fascination with actual vegetables. That means not only innovative salads but also creative presentations of roasted or steamed veggies. Vegetable at the center of the plate are welcomed by diners—who continue to seek fresh, local, healthful fare—as well as operators squeezed by rising costs for proteins.
GREAT GRAINS: Recognized as nutrition powerhouses—packed with protein as well as texture and full, rich taste—grains are also playing star roles on trendy menus. Dishes like polenta, couscous or bulgur are central to some of today's hottest ethnic cuisines. And a number of grains—quinoa, amaranth, millet, wild rice, corn, oats and buckwheat—do not contain gluten, so they're being nudged to the forefront as part of the movement to gluten-free eating.
CHICKEN: Chicken is ubiquitous thanks to its always-reasonable price and remarkable versatility, but now it's actually trendy as well. New quick-service and fast-casual fried-chicken concepts are popping up, offering Southern or spicy takes on a classic. And now that Latin-accented marinated chicken has established a niche, African peri-peri chicken may be next.
SNACKING NATION: Habits of around-the-clock eating, the street-food/food-truck craze, consumers' demand for flexible portions and prices, and operators' need to move beyond price-cutting on core menu items all combine to make snack fare a key trend. Tapas, mezze and upscale bar bites in full-service restaurants are matched by flavorful novelties in limited-service restaurants, from Spicy Chicken McBites at McDonald's and Chicken Littles at KFC to mini corn dogs at Jack in the Box and cheesecake bites at SONIC.
MORE IS MORE: On the other hand, there's an opposite value-as-volume movement. Look for more deals like Pizza Hut's Big Dinner Box (two pizzas with multiple sides) or Olive Garden's Dinner Today & Dinner Tomorrow (a dine-in meal plus a to-go meal), as well as multi-course feasts for two, four or more—even whole-hog pig roasts.
RETRO RISING: Concepts of many types are looking to the menus of traditional and contemporary diners and delis for inspiration. We'll see a proliferation of premium diner- and deli-inspired meaty sandwiches, full-flavored soups, even pickles—from traditional dill cukes to pickled red onion.
NOODLE-SHOP NOODLES: Look for ramen, udon, soba, cellophane and rice noodles to show up in hearty layered bowls, fragrant soups and even mixed-texture salads, not only in a burgeoning number of big-city noodle shops but in seafood and varied-menu restaurants as well.
SOUTH AMERICA — THE NEXT FRONTIER: Just as diners who love Asian fare have explored beyond Chinese to develop a taste for Thai and Vietnamese, those who favor Mexican are now looking south—all the way to Brazil, Argentina and Peru. We'll see mainstreaming of South American-style grilled meats, chimichurri sauce, ceviche, South American-Asian fusion seafood dishes and iconic drinks, from Brazil's caipirinha to Peru's pisco sour.
FAST-CASUAL GETS WORLDLY: Success in the exploding fast-casual sector is no longer limited to bakery cafés and Mexican concepts. Build-your-own-better-burger chains and gourmet brick-oven pizza restaurants have been on the rise for some time, but now we're also seeing more ethnic foods and flavors—from American barbecue to Southeast Asian soups and sandwiches to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare.
RESTAURANTS DIFFERENTIATE WITH BEVERAGES: Trends include fresh fruit (especially tropical fruit) beverages; natural energy drinks; housemade sodas; cocktails made with candy-like flavored vodkas; microdistillery liquors that promote drinking locally; regional craft brews starring in beer-and-food pairings; and the rise of hard ciders.[Source: "2013 Restaurant Industry Forecast." National Restaurant Association. 11 Dec. 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2012; "Technomic's Take: What's Ahead in 2013?" 19 Nov. 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2012.]