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:

Immersive Experiences Aren’t Just for Restaurants

Much of the focus on the eatertainment and immersive experience trend has focused on restaurants. No more, as bars get into the action with a range of immersive concepts and experiences that rival their restaurant brethren. Theme-based bars, pop ups, escape rooms and high-touch experiences such as tea sommeliers, tea baristas and CBD sommeliers all offer patrons an escape from the anxiety of recent (and building) events. Even zero-proof bars create a unique atmosphere for those looking to experiment with low and no proof alcohol experiences, though the COVID-19 crisis may slow the onward march of sober curiosity as patrons return to higher octane spirits to drown their shelter-in-place boredom. 

In the face of contagions, however, low-touch beverage experiences driven by high tech are likely to flourish. Self-serve tap stations, for example, in everything from bars to hotels and airport lounges will reduce labor costs and potentially increase consumer confidence if sanitation practices are placed front-and-center.

Shifting Potential for Spirits

Ahead of COVID-19, cocktails were set to continue their innovative streak. New specialty spirits, most of which were sourced from countries around the globe, were predicted to grow including baiju, shochu, soju, mezcal, sherries and ports. These may continue to see interest but with consumers forced to stay in we’re likely to see a rise in easier to consume at home alcohol such as wine (biodynamic, natural, low alcohol including vinho, verde and txakoli and orange wines all poised for growth), beer (look for hazy or juicy IPAs, fruit flavored, hyper local, American craft lagers and less bitter IPAs all trending), cider (rose, hybrid and single varietal), and spirits commonly blended with one mixer or enjoyed straight (bourbons, whiskeys, gin, and handmade, ultra-premium or sugar-free vodka). Similarly, cocktails will revert back to far more familiar options ranging from 90’s cocktails, margaritas, pina coladas and the easy to make but newer on the scene paloma. Of course, don’t discount the more recent darling of the spirited scene as hard seltzers continue their climb, joined by hard sodas and alcoholic kombucha.

Functional Beverages and Healthier Options Will Dominate – Spirited or Low/No Proof

As with food, functional health has and will continue to be a huge trend in the beverage category. This interest in beverages that offer health benefits ranging from energy, beauty and digestion to sleep aids, mood enhancers and stress reducers. Immunity beverages will steal the show in the near term with a host of ingredients with immunity supporting functions featured including mushrooms, ginger, citrus, yogurt, nuts, turmeric and green tea. It’s important to note that these functional benefits can come in the form of both nonalcoholic and alcoholic options, and every operator from quick service restaurants and convenience stores to high-end bars will be featuring their own take on immunity-boosting beverages. Low and no proof cocktails, and the bars featuring them, play in this category, and while consumption may slow somewhat during and immediately after the worst of the crisis, the perceived healthfulness of these options will drive renewed interest in the long-term. Look for CBD to play a large role in this category for the multitude of benefits it has and is perceived to have, coupled with its ability to drive additional revenue for shell-shocked foodservice operators in states in which its been legalized.  

Prep Becomes as Compelling as the Final Product

The quality and taste of the final product will always be paramount (after sanitation, which will trump all over the next 12 months), but prep and the role prep plays both in impacting the final flavor and creating an immersive experience is becoming a bigger star of the show. New spirits creating unique flavors by barrel aging in used wine barrels create unexpected experiences with familiar spirits including whiskey, bourbon and tequila. Nitro and tapped cocktails continue to offer patrons quality options that reduce labor and, in our increasingly sanitation focused culture, lower touch final products. Switching, or super-chilling spirits to freeze the water in order to remove it and replace it with juice, tea or other liquid, may be out of reach for many mainstream operators but will certainly be of interest to operators with more staff and equipment, allowing them to create items with a strong competitive differentiation.

Alternatives and Replacements Multiply

There’s no doubt patron interest in alternatives has and will continue to climb. These products have become mainstream for a large share of the population, even if their base ingredient changes to offer more health benefits, operational benefits (think improved foaming for espresso-based beverages) and vegetarian/ vegan options. Alternative milks are moving well beyond their almond and soy beginnings to feature cashew nuts, oats, and seeds such as sunflower. Bolder flavored and natural sweeteners are replacing white sugar with the most interesting options including caramelized sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, maple and molasses. The demand for alternatives, supported by a host of drivers, is unlikely to abate even in the face of the current situation, though supplies may create uneven revenue the deeper we get into the current situation.

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”  https://menumatters.com/trends-forecast-report/