A restaurateur's guide to the trends within the trends for 2018

| by S.A. Whitehead
A restaurateur's guide to the trends within the trends for 2018

If you're a player in the restaurant industry, every day since October has likely landed a new 2018 trend list in your inbox. But what are they all really telling us about diners in the year ahead? Are there any commonalities or over-arching themes that can help restaurateurs respond in their own ultra-creative ways to meet diners' needs?

In an effort to arrive at some answers to those questions, this site reviewed dozens of lists, while taking an in-depth look at the lists and associated studies or polls, from these organizations, in particular:

  • National Restaurant Association and American Culinary Foundation
  • Coca Cola 
  • Campbell's
  • CCD Innovation, a California-based food product developer
  • Limited-service brand, McAlister's DeliLim

After reviewing the research and survey results that produced the lists from each of the above, it was clear that there are at least four major factors in the lives of today's diners that run as shared themes in all the lists. Taken together these four factors tell restaurateurs and chain leadership a lot about diners' needs today. 

In essence, the major 2018 identified trends all target harried, time-stressed diners who choose brands that save them precious minutes, as well as money and trips in the car. Likewise, the winning brands will be those who can accomplish the aforementioned feats while simultaneously making diners feel good about the time they did take to eat out, by assuring them that restaurants they patronize are also providing their communities, health, environment and overall lives with an assortment of benefits. 

Here then, are this site's four major take-aways from a review of the 2018 trends lists:

Save a diner a minute, take a mint

Anything a restaurateur of any category can brainstorm to save their diners a second or two is game as a money-making option in the year ahead. All the studies emphasized this through aspects like trends toward increasing use of automation and digitization to enhance ordering, delivery, loyalty, kitchen efficiency and payment.

But it goes beyond that to include an assortment of store-level creative approaches and the proliferation of new eating-out venues that give time-pressed customers ways to interact less, combine tasks and trips and socialize with friends in the process. Coca-Cola, which performs ongoing third-party research into dining trends, emphasizes this in its trends list with repeated references to so-called "hyper-convenience” restaurant features that have become something akin to a siren's song for pulling in busy consumers.

The company's research and polling finds that trends in the year ahead involve restaurateurs' increasing reliance on things like on-demand delivery, out-of-outlet engagement, in-store kiosks and other automation that reduces face-to-face interaction. The company also lists "channel blurring" as a growing industry trend where restaurants find new homes in grocery, gas outlets and other venues that let customers eat out while tending to another task, like gassing-up or buying groceries.

The company's research found that today about one-fifth of American consumers would rather use technology to interact with a brand than talk to a real live human being. And for the 35- to 44-year-old age group, that soars to almost 30 percent. But the Coke study said also that doesn't necessarily mean "robots delivering or preparing food," with only 15 percent of those polled claiming they want their food delivered that way and just 10 percent okay with the idea of a robot making their grub. 

Make that diner feel great about eating out
All the studies also honed in on the fact that today's diners want to eat out with both a clear conscious and a clean gut. For instance, in its survey of 700 professionals chefs in the American Culinary Foundation, the National Restaurant Association determined good-for-you, good-for-the-planet qualities like sustainable sourcing and operations, as well as natural "clean" menu items that are locally sourced will all continue to be expected by today's conscientious customers. 

The Campbell Soup Company's research found that health benefits from food are essential, along with the clear communication of this fact to customers. Among that company's top six trends for 2018 are restaurateurs inclusion of nutrient-dense items that also connote "indulgence" like "fortified ice creams, vegetable desserts, mood-enhancing ingredients and protein-packed chips."

Also big in the year ahead in the company's view are both antibiotic-free and exotic meats, as well as botanical ingredients, like herbs that are flavorful and healthful and alternative food sources that do double-duty like lab-cultured burgers, cricket-based flour and alternative milks. 

"It's an exciting time to be a food lover and a chef!" Campbell Culinary & Baking Institute Vice President Thomas Griffiths said in the company's materials about their Culinary TrendScape report to be released in full in January. 

Take 'em away, …
This was a big theme in the NRA-ACF poll and 2018 trends list. The 700 chefs polled for this year's list tell of diners who don't just want to "eat out," but tour the world in the process by tasting the best of the world's many cuisines. The trends list these two organization produced, based on poll results, is brimming with an assortment of culinary ethnicities like those from Africa, Peru, Thailand and even earlier America and ancient history, as seen in trends toward more heritage-breed meats and grains, like kamut and amaranth.

"Chefs strive to strike the right balance between offering consumers what they want to eat now and guiding them toward new and exciting culinary frontiers," ACF National President Stafford T. DeCambra, said in materials distributed about the organizations' list for the coming year. 

The list from CCD Innovation adds to this trend toward culinary "Calgon, take me away,"moments through listings like increasing businesses built around cannabis cuisine and so-called "pot-preneurs: developing all manner of THC- and CBD-enhanced cuisine. And McAlister's Deli's list adds to the "indulging-the-diner" theme with a prediction of a trend toward more "fine-casual” branding, referring to restaurateurs who strive to indulge their diners more through the in-restaurant experience. 

"Value" them … sorta.
Meeting today's consumers' demands for a "deal" was another big theme in these studies, particularly that from Coca-Cola, which refers to the industry's increasing need to offer "Value Plus” deals. To highlight this need, the company cites two competing facts from their restaurant market research: 

•    A 21 percent increase in last 10 years in restaurant meal prices.
•    Stagnant income levels seen in the fact that 34 percent of diners now have annual household incomes of under $45,000. 

But these factors also present opportunities for restaurateurs, who Coca-Cola said can really benefit from LTO promotions in the year ahead because today's diner loves to at least "think” he or she is getting a deal. In fact, the company's research indicates that nearly one-fourth of today's diners (21 percent) said they would pay more for LTO's than everyday menu items, with 29 percent of Gen Z-ers saying the same.

And if a restaurateur really wants to score with an LTO, put a "secret ingredient” in it and promote it.  Fifty-four percent of millennials see LTOs with secret ingredients as more unique than standard LTOs, 

Other ways to win the value wars include offering more of those less expensive "snack” menu items, while making changes that improve so-called "perceived value” through better in-restaurant experiences and out-of-restaurant technology.  

Taken together, these four factors in the lives and viewpoints of today's restaurant customer go the distance when it comes to the restaurateur's perpetual problem  of "knowing the customer." Better yet, they provide a sort of virtual framework in which to build your brand's plan for the year ahead. Of course a whole lot of life can change in jut 12 months, so only time will tell which brands travel the infinitely curving road best in the year ahead. 

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Trends / Statistics

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

Sponsored Links:

Related Content

Latest Content

Subscribe for QSR trends & news

QSR Industry News


Quick Service Restaurant Trends


Restaurant tech: 1 change = dozens more