One fact regarding foodservice trends is true regardless of whether or not carb-conscious consumerism will continue--Americans want value-added foods. By value-added they mean healthy, authentic, inexpensive food they can eat at their convenience, explains Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. (Chicago), a consulting and research company serving the food and restaurant industries. In the past, America celebrated convenience food for its low price, and upscale dining for its ethnic authenticity. When the quick casual segment emerged, the rules of the game changed. America grew up and, now, so must foodservice.

“The most prevalent trend that is driving foodservice today is 'up-streaming,'” says Gerry Ludwig, CEC, a consulting chef for Gordon Food Service (GFS--Grand Rapids, Mich.). The term up-streaming, he explains, describes the trend of upscale or white tablecloth restaurant menu items trickling down to the “lower” segments.

Fast food is a relatively new, albeit permanent, American institution. In the 50 years since the inception of the first McDonald's, the U.S.'s changing demographics, travel, cable television and gourmet cooking shows have matured American taste buds beyond the palatability of French fries. “Demand is on the rise for products that are more authentic, fresher, of a higher quality,” says Ludwig. “It all contributes to this up-streaming trend.” In the same manner, Americans desire less to spend their money (and, more importantly, their time) on leisurely, wallet-breaking, four-course meals.

Ludwig points out that up-streaming is prevalent in all segments of the full service industry. For example, Red Lobster (Orlando, Fla.), an establishment that not long ago served a mix and match of fried items, now offers upscale pan roasted and seared fish items with lime cream, and T.G.I. Friday's (Carrollton, Texas) touts a roasted vegetable and tuna wasabi sandwich, served with field grains and buttered brioche bread. “These are things you haven't seen in the past at family-style restaurants,” says Ludwig. He maintains the trend is going to continue and there is no turning back because the dining consumer continues to become more sophisticated and demanding--even down to fast food. “When a Cobb salad comes to a McDonald's menu, this is when up-streaming comes full circle,” explains Ludwig.

Obesity and Foodservice

In 2003, an onslaught of accusations from U.S. politicians and consumers arose against fast food as the world focused on obesity--the Millennium disease. Throughout the year, each state proposed its version of anti-obesity task forces, all of which emphasized the advancement of access to healthier food. Obesity is treated as a life-threatening condition because of its connection to heart disease, a variety of other ailments and type II diabetes, which alone costs this country over $130 billion a year. Fast food, in particular, is being blamed for its part in the epidemic.

Fourth-quarter 2002 sales at McDonald's (Oak Brook, Ill.) were the company's lowest ever. In January 2003, despite a federal judge throwing out a lawsuit alleging that McDonald's food was responsible for the waist-widening of America, many analysts predicted its demise. They were proven wrong. After introducing white meat Chicken McNuggets, McGriddles breakfast sandwiches and entrée salads, McDonald's posted $125.7 million in fourth-quarter profits for 2003.

In the aftermath, the fast food giant's peers took notice, and inspired by the low-carb revolution, every fast food restaurant worked to develop a healthy menu item.

A report by The NPD Group (Port Washington, N.Y.) stated that “from June 2002 to May 2003, orders for main dish salads at fast food restaurants grew 12%, compared to the same time a year earlier. That increase comes even though entrée salads at all restaurants increased by only 2% during the same time period.” As publicity grew around the obesity epidemic, more people also became aware of the Atkins diet.

Battling Quick Casual

The growth of the quick casual trend also prompted fast food restaurants to pick up the pace as the two competed for the same dollar. According to Technomic, quick casual restaurants have grown 15% over the past three years while fast food has only experienced an annual growth of 3%. For example, an increasing number of consumers are attracted to the likes of shops such as Panera Bread (Richmond Heights, Mo.), Cosi (New York City), and the Corner Bakery (Dallas, Texas).

Quick casual outlets upped the ante by introducing ethnic cuisines, fresh ingredients and upscale items at a comparable price to fast food. The two huge trends in the quick casual segment have been in the bakery and fresh Mexican categories. “They are impacting quick service tremendously. Panera and Cosi have been growing 25% in the U.S. since 1999,” says Joe Pawlak, a senior principle consultant at Technomic. “Arby's market fresh sandwich is a direst response to quick casual.”

Even McDonald's jumped on the bandwagon, as it tested the McCafe concept in select areas around the country. McCafe serves gourmet coffee, sandwiches and bakery items in a contemporary upscale interior. Burger King (Miami) got on board by employing Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill (Chicago) fame to help design and advertise items like its new Low-Fat Fire-Grilled Savory Mustard Chicken Baguette. However, it remains to be seen if the success quick casual bakery franchises enjoyed will endure the public's evasion of carbohydrates.

Healthy Trends in Foodservice

According to a Technomic Inc. report, the $270.9 billion restaurant sector will expand 3.2% in 2004, and grew 2.9% in 2003. Atkins Nutritional Inc. (Ronkonkoma, N.Y.) is taking advantage of this trend by breaking into the foodservice area and making partnerships with T.G.I. Friday's and other restaurants. “Atkins is a very strong brand name, but they get credibility because they are hooking up with a chain that has been established. I think it's pretty ingenious,” says Pawlak.

The new nine-item menu at Friday's debuts the Char Grilled Salmon Fillet served with a tangy lemon sauce, and revamps many of their customer favorites such as the Tuna Salad Wrap, served with wasabi and water chestnuts--all while maintaining menu carb counts below 17g. “They have been fantastic as far as getting publicity. They are staking a lot on one kind of platform. And I think the issues of obesity and nutrition are broader than that. [However] it does give them some legitimacy and a lot of attention. That's powerful,” opines Goldin.

Fast food chains are vying for a piece of the Atkins-action as both Hardees and Carl's Jr. owned by CKE Restaurants Inc. (Carpinteria, Calif.) introduced their first low-carb burgers with 1/3 - 1/2lb. of beef wrapped in iceberg lettuce, reducing carbs from over 60g to approximately 6g. An Atkins-Subway menu is offering sandwich wraps as an alternative to the gourmet fresh baked bread of which they were once so proud and Baja Fresh (Wendy's International Inc., Thousand Oaks, Calif.) now has a burrito in a bowl.

However, do not mistake this healthy meal trend to mean consumers want less food, warns Ludwig. A large part of Atkins' popularity revolves around the phenomenon that dieters theoretically can eat as much as they want. Foodservice operators serving “healthful” menu items need customers to believe they are eating their money's worth--without cheating on their diets.

Authentic Food Ingredients and Dishes

“Consumers want better quality foods. [Foodservice manufacturers] have to know more than their customer to offer them what they want,” says Pawlak. Foodservice restaurants and suppliers should keep their eyes on Asian and African Cuisines, advises Wilbert Jones, owner of Healthy Concepts (Chicago), an R&D research menu and recipe development company. He expects Asian, Caribbean, South African and North African flavors to have a huge influence on mainstream American foodservice in the next year.

“One of the things that has received a lot of attention is Calalou, a strong version of American spinach,” says Jones. He believes restaurants will start using this indigenous Caribbean vegetable like a Swiss char. “It's prominent throughout all of the islands and countries in the Caribbean, and now I'm beginning to see it in the high-end restaurants in Chicago.”

Jones expects Gram Masala--a combination of coriander, black pepper, cumin, and 12-13 other ingredients--to grow domestically. Gram Masala is indigenous to South African Malay cuisine and has German, Dutch, South African and Asian influences; it is similar to Creole cooking.

Jones notes that many in the culinary community already think that sushi, in particular, is just as mainstream as Italian and Mexican cuisines. However, he believes American chefs will develop sushi by incorporating non-traditional Asian ingredients, much like Chicago entrepreneur Daniel Cummins markets low-carb entrées at his sushi restaurant.

Twenty years ago, Cummins, a diabetic, recognized the positive effect sushi and seafood had on his health. However, it was not until almost four years ago that he realized a growing number of Americans are adopting sushi as their new idyllic health alternative, and he decided to open his full service restaurant, Maki Sushi (Chicago).

Maki Sushi offers sushimi, or sushi without rice. Dishes like the Carlos Special, a tako (octopus) hand roll with spicy mayo, tobiko (fish eggs), tempura and cucumber are listed as low-carb menu items. Deleting rice from the recipe allowed Cummins to market his restaurant as one that offers low-carb menu alternatives. In fact, he portends that the majority of his low-carb dishes have net zero carbs. His restaurant has become so popular with dieters that a Weight Watchers group holds its meeting at Maki Sushi every Wednesday. The emerging popularity of sushi and seafood that exists in the world of weight control can only represent the tip of the iceberg for restaurants such as this.

In the time since Maki Sushi opened, over 30 new sushi restaurants have opened throughout Chicago, says Cummins. Jones notes that the apprehension toward sushi has diminished so much that carry-out sushi bars like Wow Bao (Lettuce Entertain You, Chicago) are appearing in well traversed places. Wow Bao sells six variations of Asian steamed buns for less than $2.00 a piece, along with specialty Asian-influenced sodas, frappes and teas.

With the intention of repeating the success that Cummins has garnered, many restaurant operators call GFS's Ludwig for advice. He answers, “You have everything in house that you need in order to do a low-carb menu. You simply restrict the starches, the sugary vegetables and rely on your meats, butters, creams, sauces, fresh vegetables and you should be all set.”

As fresh food preparation takes the driver's seat, food manufacturers are beginning to wonder if they are going to be left at home. “As far as prepared foods and packaged foods are concerned, the onus is on the manufacturer to continue to push the envelope and create those value-added items that possess those more authentic regional flavor profiles,” suggests Ludwig. A meal made on the spot is where foodservice is heading, and manufacturers need to determine how they can get in on that action. “There are still opportunities for suppliers,” says Goldin. This opens the door for manufacturers to target seasonings and sauces for fresh foods, broad-based health, wellness platforms and frozen soups. “You will see a trend towards bolder or fuller flavored seasonings and dressings,” states Pawlak.

“On the sauce side, we're seeing more prepared flavor concentrates or sauces,” says Ludwig. He points to Minors sauces and bases, a subsidiary of Nestlé USA (Glendale, Calif.), and flavor concentrates like Chipotle's (Denver, Co.) base, herb de prevance, roasted garlic, nacho chile base, and ready to serve bourbon sauce. “They are so versatile, because [Chipotle] can use them in flavorings, like butter or a mayonnaise or in any of their cold sauces, hot sauces or cream sauces,” adds Ludwig.

According to Technomic's research, indulgent foods, fried foods, desserts and appetizers have lost some popularity. Despite those findings, Ludwig maintains that Americans want the same world-renowned delicacies and comfort foods they would find at a five-star restaurant, but they want it quickly and economically--without diminished quality.

Going Global

In the past, food became popular in America if it was first chic overseas. These days, there seems to be a reversal of roles as American fast food franchises stake ground on new soil. Papa John's (Louisville, Ky.) opened franchises in seven countries during 2003, including its very first in Shanghai, China; South Korea, Greece; Aruba; Bahamas; and Moscow. The new Russian store offers “Pizzas of the World,” which includes the “To Russia with Love,” a pizza consisting of mashed potatoes, bacon, onions and garlic butter sauce. Papa John's also franchises 135 Perfect Pizza restaurants in the U.K.

In July 2003, McDonald's (Oak Brook, Ill.) McCafe disembarked on Sweden at the same location where the very first Swedish McDonald's was opened in October 1973. McCafe, which highlights gourmet coffee and bakery items on real china served by baristas, has been remarkably popular overseas in countries like Australia and Hungary, though only a few have opened in the U.S.

Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits (Atlanta) plans to add more than 214 new restaurants in Mexico, China and Jamaica over the next 10 years. At the end of 2003, Domino's opened its 2,500th global branch. The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company has over 6,000 branches. All of its franchises are locally owned and cater to regional tastes. For instance, in Brazil, the chain serves pizza topped with mashed banana and cinnamon.