There’s no point in dwelling on the catastrophic impact the pandemic has had on independent restaurants. It is not news at this point and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone to hear that sector has been decimated in many ways. Yet what most don’t think about is the significant impact of independents on trend evolution.
Independent restaurants have always been the true innovation and trend engine in foodservice. Compared to larger regional or national accounts, these smaller operators look forward because they have a smaller base of consumers they seek to inspire and satisfy. They are less concerned with the need for mass market appeal or viability. As such, independent restaurants draw from world cuisines as yet unexplored in this country, experiment with flavors and ingredients not yet tested in the US market, and look to create a unique competitive position through innovative food and beverage formats and service styles.
Looking ahead, what does this mean to food and the evolution of trends? There are several immediate issues that both restaurants and food manufacturers should consider when considering trends for 2021 and beyond.
First, without a strong engine in independent restaurants driving new and unique food trends, what we’ll see in 2021 will be based on trends and preferences that were accelerating prior to the pandemic. As the trends lists continue to roll out through the end of 2020 and into the early part of 2021, note the number of ingredients, cuisines and formats highlighted that are not truly new.
Among those listed in several of forecasts are chickpeas, Chinese food, sandwiches, plant- forward/ plant-based and fermentation. These foods solidly build on the need for the comfort, reassurance, and confidence consumers are looking for (either overtly or subconsciously) as we navigate the way out of the pandemic. Applications, presentations, and innovations around these foods will use their familiarity and approachability as a base. However, most new offerings won’t innovate enough to create unexpected or engaging new experiences.
Second, truly new trends or those only just emerging in the US food scene will experience lagging growth patterns into 2022 and beyond. Though the overall independent restaurant sector has declined, there still are operators innovating and experimenting. However, their ability to influence the broader market is diminished and, as a result, any trends evolving will not accelerate in quite the same manner as was previously the case.
Prior to the pandemic, a trend’s life cycle was truncating from historical averages of 10 to 15 years down to a mere two to five years. Truly new trends in 2021 will have slower cycles until a fuller recovering of the independent restaurant industry, which is likely to occur in 2022.
Finally, the loss of independent restaurants—either through permanent or temporary closures over the last nine months—has fundamentally changed consumer behavior. Although some restaurants have thrived with off-premise options, many have pulled back on offerings to keep operations manageable. Unfortunately, this reduces consumer exposure to a much broader array of restaurant foods.
And although consumers have largely embraced delivery and to-go dining, many have shifted a good share of their foodservice dollars to grocery and are now experiencing new foods and flavors through retail foods. This ultimately can shift, at least for the near-term, consumer perception of what is truly innovative, new and exciting.
As always, both manufacturers and operators need to keep an eye to the future regarding innovation. Though trends may remain stalled to a large degree for the next year or so, this will not be the case indefinitely and innovation must be prepared to shift when consumer behavior changes again.
Independent restaurants will undoubtedly recover, driven in part by the availability of full outfitted restaurant spaces ready to open when both operator and consumer confidence returns. Until then, manufacturers and retail products have the opportunity to set the tone for food trends.
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Prepared Foods as Independent Mindset.