Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I love surprises—especially when they are of the culinary sort. When Prepared Foods asked me to write about future food trends, it led me to think about all the change our food and beverage industry has endured during the past few years. I also am thinking how we’ve adapted so quickly, and with such extraordinary ingenuity. I started to reflect on what surprised me the most and what sort of change we can expect in the future.

Higher food costs, a challenging labor market and supply chain woes are very difficult to manage through, yet as a result, we are seeing more thoughtful, curated menus. We’re seeing the development of “future-proofed” restaurants, with flexible menus and design attributes that can serve a variety of offerings at different price points any time of day. Perhaps the willingness to pay more for goods could finally help the industry address fair labor wages.

Ongoing environmental challenges and robust conversations are spawning remarkable tech advancements in food production—from cell-cultured meat and seafood to the plant-based revolution. Many companies in CPG and foodservice are embracing the concept of “renovation” vs. innovation.

With so much in play, I put questions to several forward-thinking colleagues from SRG, including Chef Dina Paz, culinary director; Kiley Stone, associate director, culinary strategy; and Chef Rosalyn Darling, associate culinary director.

I also sent the same questions to SRG’s global Culinary Council members. They include Tony Pereyra, Bar & Beverage Specialist, The Spirits in Motion, Los Angeles; Chef David Berenson, principal, KJC Innovation, Denver; Chef Chris Martone, consultant, CulinaryDNA LLC, Milford, Conn.; and Chef Ryan Leinonen, Denver.

Here’s a look at our discussion.

Q: As the food and beverage industry begins to recover, what trend has most surprised you?

Tony Pereyra: The continued rise of ready-to-drink beverages in non-alcohol and alcohol offerings. From nitro coffee and teas to functional cocktails (like hard kombucha), this space has really expanded and continues to explore new flavors and creative package and design.

Ryan Leinonen: I am most surprised by the continuous resurgence of comfort food. Fried cheese is having a moment on menus again, as well as stuffed pretzels and pierogi. Of course, it’s a banner year for chicken wings.

David Berenson: We saw pandemic-inspired interest in homemade naturally leavened sourdough bread baking. Now I’ve been pleasantly surprised that this interest has broadly elevated both the industry and consumers’ knowledge and appreciation of better-quality bread, fermentation, and heritage grains.

Chris Martone: Plant-based is now in many other categories including soups, salad dressings, and snacks. Snack foods have been very creative and continued to grow the category. For example, we’ve seen products blending lentils and chia seeds into tortilla chips—all the way to kelp jerky for pets.

Kiley Stone: What has been surprising me is how quickly, rapidly, and unapologetically we are diving into the future. It’s so apparent in the way we are completely embracing the metaverse and leaning into these completely digital and virtual existences.

Dina Paz: As we continue to lean into science, tech, and AI-driven solutions, it also will drive us to seek products that follow hyper-traditional and hyper-local processes and practices. E-commerce and DTC-focused community supported agriculture (CSA) such as GrazeCart or Farmdrop, for instance, have cropped up alongside grocery models. These new options feature locally sourced and customizable produce subscriptions.

Q: What trend will you be watching in 2022? 

Pereyra: In 2022, I will keep a close eye on beverages that feature unique and exciting flavors—and [operations] that offer a surprise and delight element to their guests. It will be exciting to see how operators from QSRs to FSRs expand beverage menus and utilize different types of ice, unique garnishes, and textures.

Paz: I’m interested in how the conversation around diversity has at long last brought attention to underrepresented cultures and communities in the food space. The proliferation of CPG products in the marketplace by people of color is driven by a need to maintain the quality and authenticity of cultural foods while meeting health, dietary, and environmental implications of a commoditized food system.

Berenson: I'm watching how consumers’ seemingly insatiable demand for plant-based analogue proteins will translate into better tasting, less processed, cleaner label whole foods. There will be new alternatives to the current highly processed options.

Martone: I see a continued trends toward plant-based products and traditional foods with new twists on premium or upscale flavor. I’m thinking of products like salt-and-vinegar and barbecue-flavored pistachios, black truffle almonds, and sprouted grain almonds.

Leinonen: I’m really keeping an eye on robotic cooks, especially with the labor shortage in all restaurant models. Most notably, there’s Miso Robotics and its robot Flippy. Flippy has ability to cook burgers to temp and run a multiple-item deep fryer. It’s very exciting that it also can be integrated into an existing kitchen hood system via rails. Miso’s recent partnership with Inspire Brands and Buffalo Wild Wings is one to watch.

Stone: I’ve been watching food trends explode in the most unlikely of places. We’re no longer just tracking new items on shelves or dishes on menus, but now need to be looking to the TV shows we watch and the video games we play. Think of Dalgona candy from Squid Game; the Shortbread Biscuits from Ted Lasso. And Chipotle’s virtual restaurant opening on the Roblox video game essentially crashed the entire platform.

Foodservice and retail must be able to act quickly to be a part of these huge cultural moments that exist outside of our own physical world but influence it greatly.

Darling: The conversation around functional foods has evolved beyond just physical wellness. We’re really seeing a strong emphasis placed on mind, mood, and brain health. I’m continuing to watch the proliferation of all things cannabis—from CBD and CBN to THC—unlocking all the various efficacious compounds of the plant. The cultural conversation around mental health and healing power of plants is starting to accelerate, and it’s going to greatly influence our food world.

Amy Shipley is managing director and a partner at SRG. Headquartered in Boulder, Colo., SRG is a creative collective-- a nationally recognized brand consultancy and creative agency. The agency infuses creativity in all its work and has deep expertise in consumer insights, brand strategy and positioning, new product innovation, advertising and design. SRG has created over $10 billion in incremental value for clients over the past five years alone. SRG has been ranked on Outside Magazine's Best Places to Work list for the past 10 years and was also recognized by Ad Age as a 2016 and 2017 Best Place to Work. It is certified as a women-owned business.