Political and economic unease, here and abroad, has been growing well before the onset of COVID-19.  What the spread of COVID-19 has caused, is an amplification and acceleration of the Tide that was already rolling in.  It's no less significant for its abruptness and shock value, but pandemics can have the effect of shaping and altering the trajectory of already identified trends. 

It can be difficult to know which trends are most likely to rise above the noise over the next 12 months as the situation is still very much in flux. The duration and intensity of the crisis will matter as we continue to monitor the situation and both its short and long-term impact on the industry.  It can be even more confusing trying to decide what the impacts will be with your brand and customers, and how best to come out of the crisis in a strong place, ready to maneuver in a changed landscape.  

This report’s forecasts offer insight into how and why the current climate will affect trends for 2020/21.  We help you navigate, trend by trend, what to expect during the immediacy of this crisis and what the long-term effects could be in shaping the future of these trends.  Understanding that a trend is coming is only valuable if you know how to strategically leverage it.

The “Shifting Sands: Trends Shaping the Food Industry in 2020/21” report, released by Culinary Tides with contributions from Menu Matters, is a cross-analysis of 214 prediction lists for 2020 put forth by 162 industry experts.  In all, more than 1,700 individual predictions were evaluated for their potential during the coming year, however only well supported predictions are included in the final report.  All trends in the report are anticipated to remain in focus throughout 2020 and into the first quarter of 2021.  

Here are five of the most significant findings from this year’s release:

Low Touch Concepts Rise but High Touch May Capture Pent Up Demand Long-term

Long before COVID-19 we saw the growth of low touch foodservice concepts and following the current situation that trend will accelerate. First among these concepts is the ghost kitchen which will help segments from all types of restaurants to convenience stores, hotels and airports tackle foodservice in an age of heightened concerns about food safety and the sanitation at on-site restaurants. As many operators struggle to come back after months of closures or significantly reduced revenue, ghost kitchens offer a path to revival as well as new opportunities. Other low touch concepts that will enjoy success in the aftermath will be made-to-order and fresh vending machines as well as cashier-less or staff-less concepts.

As part of this general “hands off” theme, restaurant-based meal kits, plans and subscriptions are likely to rise. Operators are being creative now to drive revenue by offering recurring delivery, kits, meals with groceries, and other unique options for consumers concerned about going out or unable to find what they need at the store. These new ideas will expand revenue potential beyond standard delivery and, in the case of plans and subscriptions, allow them to build deeper relationships with their patrons while creating somewhat more predictable revenue streams long-term.

Once the initial shock has dissipated expect the high touch concepts that rely heavily on immersive themes, such as eatertainment concepts, to bounce back. Theatrical dining experiences will help consumers escape the last few months and re-enter social settings that distract and refresh. Themes predicted to do well include retro and nostalgic concepts, disco, pop-ups (also safer financial investments for shell-shocked restauranteurs), themed bars, escape rooms and cause-backed operations. For these concepts, losing yourself is key.

Functional Foods Find their Cause

Prior to COVID-19, consumers were expressing a growing interest in functional foods in all categories from gut health and beauty to mood enhancers and cognitive acuity. The spread of this pandemic is going to rapidly accelerate that trend and refocus much of the interest on immunity as well as mood enhancers, stress reducers and sleep. Interest in food as medicine, or foodceuticals, is impacting both food and beverages, and speaks to consumers’ desire for options outside traditional medicine and wellness products that are more approachable and work themselves more seamlessly into general health trends. Functional foods also tie-in strongly with the plant-forward movement, focusing on whole ingredients and the innate benefits they offer. Ingredients working within the functional food trends range from the familiar – blueberries, sage, grapes, caffeine, mushrooms, prunes – to the more unique such as moringa, holy basil, and jobs tears.

Whole Ingredients Steal the Spotlight

Despite high profile introductions and limited time offers, we’re going to see a return to a focus on whole ingredients, clean labels, and items that feature ingredients consumers understand and are confident in. After months of uncertaintly and anxiety, the unknown will become uncomfortable and we’ll likely a continued backlash against analog products that rely too heavily on lab-based ingredients and production. Let plants be plants is the moto going forward.  And for meat eaters, there will be a decline in faux burger sales in food service.  We should see a resurgence in “old school” plant-based burgers meant to be enjoyed for their own merit and based on ingredients consumers will recognize – beans, vegetables, and grains. Plant-based proteins will be celebrated for their own merits with key ingredients including pulses (including chickpeas, black beans, adzuki beans, and lentils) as well as hemp and seitan. Animal protein bounce back in many categories including jerky, alternative wings, bycatch fish, tinned seafood and seacuterie. Burger blends, or those burgers that incorporate a plant-based ingredient such as beans or mushrooms will be the hybrid allowing meat eaters to up their plant consumption. The global and ancient grains  likely to grow over the next year - farro, fonio, sorghum, teff, and heirloom rice – will benefit from the continued rise of bowls and the expansion of the global cuisines that will influence American restaurants and food coupled with strong backing from clinical health research on their broad health benefits.  

Fruit, Finally

With all the talk of plant-based cuisine, fruit has enjoyed minimal notice and a far smaller role then vegetables or grains. Fruit’s time, it seems, has finally come. In part, fruit is grabbing the spotlight thanks to the continued – and likely accelerated – rise in interest in functional foods as many heirloom, common and exotic varieties offer extensive health benefits. As with vegetables, heirloom varieties will gain greater notice as we’ve seen happening over the past year or more with apples. But interesting hybrid varieties will create new experiences from familiar types with many claiming to offer increased benefits as well as bolder flavors and longer shelf life. Classic fruits from abroad including lingonberries, pineberries, dates and figs will find themselves more frequently on the plate of American diners thanks to the growth of global cuisines. Other more exotic options such as baobob, bitter melon, mangosteens, and yuzu will allow for experimentation within familiar applications. Don’t count out old favorites like pears, plums, bananas, apricots and cantaloupe, all of which will benefit from the shift toward comfort and safe experimentation. That same skew will help drive increased menuing of unripe versions of familiar favorites including strawberries, mangos and avocados.

Growing Appeal of Global Comfort

This general trend, exacerbated by recent events, of growing anxiety and discomfort has led to the revisiting – again – of comfort foods. Americans want to feel peace, calm and increased security, and comfort food certainly fits the bill. But after decades of expanding food comfort zones, what constitutes a comfort food has shifted to include global options. In fact, many of the international foods predicted to grow over the next year are derived from street food, peasant/ country dishes, and other items that will be innately familiar to consumers even if the names or some of the ingredients are foreign. Consider karaage from Japan and braai grilling from South Africa, both of which are global versions of familiar preparations. Global breakfast options including the continued rise of shakshuka and the Instagram darling souffle pancakes offer patrons unique but approachable options that are also highly customizable. In fact, after years of the industry mourning the death of French food its’ time to welcome it back but in a far more relaxed and common man feel than its fine dining and somewhat stuffier former iteration. Other highly comfort-focused items we expect to see enjoy a higher profile over the coming year include biryani, jianbing, zakuski, Australian sausage rolls, and arepa.

All insights taken from Culinary Tides, Inc.’s 2020 report, with contributions from Menu Matters, Shifting Sands: Trends Shaping the Food Industry in 2020/21.”