’Tis the season for predictions. As old man 2013 shuffles toward the exit, scythe and hourglass in hand, it’s time to engage in the parlor trick turned lucrative consulting gig: What will be hot in the restaurant biz come 2014?
What’s funny about these sorts of lists is that they tend to make sense if you live someplace like New York or San Francisco or Portland: You look at, say, the prediction that “seaweed will go beyond sushi” by the Sterling-Rice Group, or the National Restaurant Association’s prognostication that “ancient grains,” like kamut, spelt, and amaranth, will be hot and kind of nod your head—while quietly congratulating yourself for opting for that blueberry-spelt muffin at your local indie coffee haunt last week.
But here’s a fun thing to do: If you’re headed back to Suburban Anywhere to visit the folks this holiday season, take one of these lists along. Then when you find yourself dragged to the nearest Applebee’s, staring out the window at the garish melted clown face that is the swirl of lights from every other chain restaurant on the business strip reflected in the icy slush while listening to the debate at your table as to whether the gang wants to split the fried mozzarella sticks or the cheeseburger sliders as an appetizer, you can entertain yourself by wondering how long it’ll take before, say, wakame or za’atar show up on the menu here.
We may be a country that disdains any notion of high and low culture (remember that Anna Nicole opera this year?). But we’ve just found different ways to encode our class distinctions, and one of those is definitely in the ever-widening gap in how we eat.
Among the top trends for “breakfast/brunch” is “egg white omelets/sandwiches,” and for kids’ meals, “fruit/vegetable children’s side items.” Given that McDonald’s made apple slices mandatory in Happy Meals back in 2011 and this year debuted its egg white McMuffin, those don’t seem so much up-and-coming as jumped-the-shark. Die-hard foodies will probably feel the same about the inclusion of quinoa, Greek yogurt parfait, amuse-bouches, and charcuterie on the list—old news, right?
Though surely you can imagine a dish like tagine becoming the next fajitas. Why not have another way to infuse a little excitement into the whole chain-restaurant experience? Particularly for those semi-restless suburbanites who might blanch to enter a hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint in Queens but pride themselves on whipping up a wicked sangria for the book club.
At the same time, it’s hard to imagine all of these dishes translating to Business Loop, USA—a term I use because those strips of big-box stores and chain restaurants that dot the American landscape are somehow more accurately reflective of middle America than the quaint, out-of-date concept "Main Street, USA." Who lives there anymore?
Of the NRA’s top 10 trends for 2014, a full five can be traced to what you might call the Michael Pollan effect, including “locally sourced meats and seafood” (No. 1), “locally grown produce” (No. 2), and the somewhat vague “environmental sustainability” (No. 3). “Hyper-local sourcing” (e.g., restaurant gardens) comes in at No. 6; “sustainable seafood” checks in at No. 9.
One can only dimly imagine some Jetsonian future-topia wherein your Filet-O-Fish is made from sustainably farmed tilapia, while the lettuce for your Big Mac is harvested from the rainwater garden on the roof of your local McDonald's—by workers making $15 an hour, no less.
While it may be next to impossible for the mainstream American food and restaurant industries to (honestly) embrace that kind of sustainable vision, they’ll no doubt be figuring out how to further capitalize on another big ongoing trend, what might be called the “exotification” of the American palate.
To be sure, this has more to do with the country’s shifting demographic makeup than with Grandma, say, suddenly developing a penchant for tabbouleh. Nevertheless, “ethnic” pops up on the NRA list nearly as often as buzzwords for sustainability. Think “ethnic-inspired breakfast items,” “ethnic dips,” and even “ethnic-inspired children’s dishes.”
As for what ethnic (a vague, somewhat racist term to begin with) cuisines, exactly, we should expect to see more of, the NRA’s survey predicts Peruvian (No. 1), Korean (No. 2), and Southeast Asian (No. 3) will hit big next year.
With that in mind, here's my prediction for Christmas 2020: You're back home, at that same Applebee’s, with everyone trying to decide between the Peruvian empanadas and the Korean barbecue wings. Oh, and Hostess will be making cronuts too.