Middle-of-the-road flavor profiles are out; robust flavors are in. Once noted for their unadventurous palates, Americans now just can't seem to get enough spicy fare at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our former “fear of flavor,” which once largely dominated domestic eating habits, is being supplanted by a bold, global attitude that embraces multiple culinary experiences — particularly those ethnic foods that pack a punch. Authentic Mexican and Latin concepts are among the most popular influences, together with other ethnic-inspired cuisines like Southeast Asian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. And white-hot ingredients like Sriracha can be found in virtually every professional kitchen today. 


A collaborative effort by The Culinary Institute of America, the University of California at Davis and the Mushroom Council found that both health and flavor concerns can be addressed by the blending of chopped mushrooms together with ground meat. Not only does this mashup yield a food product that is tastier, juicier and more nutritious than traditional ground meat items like hamburgers, meat balls and meatloaf, but it adds volume as well, proponents say. At the same time, blending helps to reduce the amount of sodium, fat and calories in a menu item. Today, an increasing number of commercial and noncommercial operators are embracing the blending process, with many more expected to join the ranks this year.

It's no surprise that today's customers care more about what they put in their bodies, and, as a result, chefs and restaurateurs are trying to accommodate this concern by offering healthful alternatives. The National Restaurant Association, in fact, states that nutrition will still be a prime mover among menumakers in 2015, bolstered by the further attention to healthful kids' meals and the addition of fruit and vegetable side items for children. Continued interest in gluten-free alternatives also will drive menu trends on the health front. And while you can expect there to be some nutrition-related fads in the future, the overall tenor of the times is that flavorful, healthful foods are becoming the new normal.

Technomic Inc. says the operative word for the coming year is “small.” The Chicago-based research firm predicts that consumers will be looking for small plates or reduced portions when they dine out. In addition to providing a way of enhancing the dining experience through the sharing of multiple tastes, small dishes enable guests with health and wellness concerns to control their calorie intake without compromising the enjoyment of their meal. At the same time, Technomic predicts that some restaurants will reduce the size of their menus and concentrate on offering fewer dishes.

Restaurant consultants Baum + Whiteman predict that Americans' sweet tooth will dovetail in the coming year with their newfound love of spicy foods and ingredients. In their predictions of the top food trends for 2015, the New York-based consultancy says to look for a tsunami of sweet and spicy sauces and condiments powered by honey. Chefs and restaurateurs are experimenting with “piquant honey,” says Baum + Whiteman, pointing to such flavor combinations as habanero honey, jalapeño honey, chipotle honey, and ginger citrus honey. Look for them flavoring chicken and waffles, whipped into butter, mixed into salad dressings and included in sauces.

While local sourcing has been on the NRA's Top 20 Food Trends list for awhile, it continues to gain momentum as chefs and restaurateurs focus on items grown and raised close to home in an effort to lure the neighborhood locavores. The expanding interest in the local sourcing of meats, seafood and produce ranks as a formative industry trend as opposed to just a passing fad, says Annika Stensson, the NRA's senior manager, research communications. Also fueling the trend is hyper-local sourcing, by which chefs and operators raise their own produce and herbs in their restaurant gardens.

While an apple a day may keep the doctor away, a good artisan cider will help attract customers — at least that's what San Francisco-based Andrew Freeman & Co. says. The popularity of craft beers has opened the door to a growing number of artisan ciders — whether on tap, in bottles or in the can — which the experts at AF&Co say “are a welcome addition to bar menus.” Cider is a great addition to cocktails too, they say, pointing to a restaurant in Miami featuring a drink that pairs bourbon with other ingredients often accompanying pork like cider, apples, mustard and thyme.

As Americans develop a greater interest in the food on their plates, chefs and restaurateurs will be working harder to provide customers with more transparent and actionable information enabling them to make more informed ordering decisions. This “clean label” movement will lead to the inclusion of more natural ingredients and minimally processed foods, the NRA says, while ingredients that are perceived as “artificial,” “processed” or “chemical-sounding” will increasingly be shunned. Meanwhile, consumers will be seeking information on a wider range of issues touching on such diverse topics as the provenance of an ingredient, whether it is local and sustainable, whether it is organic or allergen-free or contains saturated fat, and whether it comes from an animal that has been humanely raised.

As restaurateurs search for exclusive food items and ingredients that can help generate traffic and sales, more are turning to local artisans to give them an edge. The NRA predicts that items like specialty ice cream made in house or by small, local suppliers will become a more important factor in menu merchandising in the coming year. At the same time, the NRA's Stensson says small batch, artisanal cheeses that have been locally produced will help some restaurants stand out from the competition. Housemade candies and pickles also will be piquing diners' interest and tastebuds in 2015.

Just when you thought you had decoded the dining habits of the baby boomers and the millennials, along comes Generation Z and it starts all over again. Who are the Z's? They're younger teens born somewhere around 2000, and they form the industry's next target audience. According to Technomic, Z's have their own style and their own opinions about where and what they want to eat. What appeals to this new wave of customers? Technomic says high-speed, high-tech service, louder music, heightened experiences and more frenetic visuals. Look for them beginning to make their mark in 2015.

From Sysco Shape January 2015…