9 restaurant trends that matter


Trends in the restaurant industry are fast-paced and disruptive—and they’re helping to inform diners’ expectations. As foodservice directors and chefs examine their own programs and menus for ideas and ways to meet those rising expectations, FoodService Director has identified nine top restaurant innovations that are primed for adoption by noncommercial operations.  

1. Food halls

revival interior

What: From coast to coast, food halls are booming. In New York City, Chicago, Denver, Atlanta and Phoenix, there’s an influx of these trendy multiconcept dining operations—most fueled by multimillion-dollar renovations. But is it possible for noncommercial operators to invoke the spirit of a food hall on a smaller budget?

On the restaurant side, there’s no end in sight for the food hall trend, but as competition grows, new concepts have to go beyond the standard formula—local vendors, industrial-chic spaces and millennial-friendly tastes—to show why they’re worth visiting. Food halls are adding a new spin with nontraditional locations, community amenities and diverse retail options.

Restaurant concept to watch: Part upscale market, part gourmet food hall, Denver Central Market is composed of vendors that serve a variety of food for on-site consumption and options to prepare at home. All stalls are independent, including new concepts or offshoots from local purveyors.

Noncommercial application: Last year, Northern Trust, a financial services company based in Chicago, converted its corporate cafeteria to one inspired by food trucks and food halls. It did so without any renovation or redesign, but by partnering with Fooda, Chicago, that enlists rotating vendors to sell different styles of food, such as sushi, tacos and lobster rolls.

“We weren’t ready to invest millions in the look and feel of the food hall,” says Martin Clarke, global head of corporate services for Northern Trust. The cafeteria already had a multistation format, allowing vendors to just drop into existing spaces. So instead of drawing attention to the design, food became the focus.

2. Delivery

delivery app

What: Whether food is delivered via third-party companies or by the restaurants themselves, investors and consumers alike are beginning to demand more door-to-door service. But as with most emerging trends, delivery is a bit of a moving target.

The drawbacks of using third-party services are prompting a number of chains to try a new way of exploiting the off-premise boom. Call it Delivery 2.0, a drift toward restaurants’ transporting more orders themselves as volumes grow and ordering patterns change.

Big-name proponents such as Red Robin, Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill and Zoes Kitchen aren’t abandoning their collaborations with dedicated deliverers like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Amazon. But each is tempering that reliance with a self-delivery/third-party hybrid.

Restaurant concept to watch: The Red Robin casual-dining chain has revealed plans to open a storefront-free production facility in downtown Chicago to offer Red Robin-branded products solely for delivery.

Delivery will be provided by employees of the new business, Red Robin Express, as well as by Amazon and DoorDash. Takeout and dine-in service will not be offered. Customers will be able to order most items from Red Robin’s regular menu a la carte, as well as in catering-sized portions.

Noncommercial application: The University of Southern California in Los Angeles offers a food delivery service to students who are too sick to eat at the dining halls. Students who have used the sick meal program are very grateful, says Lindsey Pine, registered dietitian at USC. “We offer this service because they don’t have to stress over how they’re going to eat when they’re too sick to come into the dining halls,” she says. “The program is also important in preventing the spread of illness.”


3. High-tech ordering

shake shack

What: Kiosk-based ordering is becoming less of a novelty in noncommercial. Touchscreens are finding their way into a greater number of foodservice spots as operators discover their labor-saving and check-boosting potential. As with any emerging technology, though, it takes some time to work out the kinks.

In restaurants, some operators are using kiosks with facial recognition that remembers customers’ order preferences and quickly moves them through the line.

Restaurant concept to watch: Shake Shack opened a self-service unit in New York City where customers can only place orders via kiosk and app.

The store also doesn’t accept cash payments, and features a kitchen designed to produce more orders during mealtime rushes. Customers who order through the kiosks are alerted via text when their orders are ready.

Noncommercial application: The State University of New York at Albany switched to a made-to-order format at one of its campus eateries and is leaning on kiosks to facilitate the ordering process. Students visiting Food on Demand at the Alumni Quad dining room place their orders at kiosks and pick up their meal at a nearby counter. Previously, students served themselves from a buffet-style line.


4. Second breakfast


What: Eating a second breakfast is becoming a habit among some consumers, as they would rather snack on two small morning meals than a single larger one. Younger consumers are especially drawn to the trend, with 57% of consumers ages 18 to 34 replacing breakfast with a snack, according to Technomic’s Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report, powered by Ignite.

Restaurant concept to watch: Morning Collective in Denver offers a deal for consumers who want to enjoy a small sit-down breakfast as well as one to go. For $10, customers first choose a meal to be eaten at the restaurant, such as a mini omelet, and then select a to-go item, including fruit salad or a bag of granola, that’s packed up and handed off on their way out the door.

Noncommercial application: Salemwood School in Malden, Mass., has seen an increase in school breakfast participation after adding two breakfast kiosks in the hallway. The grab-and-go kiosks were funded with a $10,000 grant from the New England Dairy & Food Council and allow students to eat breakfast before class without having to come to school early.

Along with fruit and smoothies, the kiosks include nonperishable breakfast items such as cereal—a key consideration for students facing food insecurity. Kids can bring whatever they don’t finish home for a snack or to share with another student or family member.

5. Asian island cuisine

Indonesian food

What: The next progression of food trends coming from the Far East is Asian island fare. As momentum builds around Filipino foods, expect culinary influences from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to crop up. The sour, bitter and aromatic flavor profiles from these island nations take influence from mainland Asia and Europe, making them both familiar and exotic. Food forecasts: Ingredients such as sambal and kaffir lime will become more commonplace menu features, while Filipino adobo and bagoong will emerge. Look for street food common to Southeast Asian island hawker centers (open-air markets of food stalls), such as Hainanese chicken rice and laksa, to also make menu waves.

Restaurant concept to watch: Yard House jumped on this hot flavor trend this year with the introduction of Pork Lumpia, a Filipino-style spring roll. Here, the kitchen encloses a savory pork filling in a thin, crepe-like lumpia wrapper, then fries it until crispy. It’s served as a starter or snack and marketed as a globally inspired item to pair with Yard House’s extensive list of craft beers or cocktails.

Noncommercial application: Nicholas Williamson, the former executive chef of resident dining for Sodexo at Drexel University in Philadelphia, developed a Filipino pulled pork recipe. This dish is served at a station based on world cuisine and street fare. Pork shoulder is slow-roasted overnight with a blend of spices and tossed with a soy-sweet chili barbecue sauce. The preparation is a common item on street carts in the Philippines.


6. Fast fine

the heart

What: Some new restaurant concepts are boasting elevated ingredients and decor (and ensuing higher prices). Concepts dubbed “fine fast,” “fast fine,” or “polished fast casual” appear to be launching a renewed insurgence on fast casual’s turf.

Restaurant concept to watch: MidiCi, a growing Neapolitan pizza concept, bills itself as fast fine based on its high-quality ingredients and decor. One Los Angeles unit, for example, features a live olive tree to mimic an Italian courtyard, while others have indoor and outdoor fireplaces. The concept’s menu includes several burrata dishes made with local cream as well as pizzas with upscale ingredients such as truffle cream, rosemary-roasted potatoes and free-range eggs.

Noncommercial application: The house burger offered at Cultivate, a full-service eatery on the University of Washington campus, caught the attention of the surrounding community as well as the student body. The burger has been rated by the Zagat guide and is considered one of the best burgers in Seattle. A blend of chuck, brisket and sirloin, the patty is topped with peppashire pub cheese and a smoky mojo slather and is served on a pretzel bun.

7. Personalized hiring


What: Finding ways to single out employees and create individualized advancement plans could help grow staff loyalty and engagement—a commodity in today’s stiff labor market. Sometimes, all it takes is asking the right question. One example: “What do you want to do?” That’s one of the first questions Chicago’s DineAmic Group asks potential candidates. If a candidate wants to open a restaurant, Ken McGarrie, the group’s former director of operations, asks what the name of the concept will be. “We need dreamers,” McGarrie said. “We need people who understand that this is a passion.”

Restaurant concept to watch: At Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group in New Orleans, personality quizzes help management plot a career pathway for staff. The tests are used to identify associates’ strengths and weaknesses and help show a clear road to advancement. One of the group’s workers showed she was management material in her assessment and performance, so the team has created a special training program to help her move up.

Noncommercial application: Lead with the positive, says Victoria Vega, VP of operations for corporate dining at contract management company Unidine. The company hosts “stay interviews,” a one-on-one interview between a manager and a valued employee with the goal of finding out why the worker would want to continue in their position, or leave it, as well as “skip-level interviews” with district managers and hourlies. Starting these discussions with positive topics such as personal and professional motivations and fulfillment creates more productive meetings, Vega says. “It’s not a dumping ground of complaining—it’s a collaborative, solution-driving discussion.”


8. Mocktails


What: The mocktail has come a long way since the days of the Shirley Temple. Today, bartenders are building virgin drinks more like craft cocktails, with a focus on balanced flavors and quality ingredients. While they don’t represent massive profits for restaurants, aiming to impress customers with booze-free options does provide returns.

Restaurant concept to watch: At Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts’ 12-unit Italian restaurant North Italia, Mat Snapp, beverage director, trains bartenders on two or three cocktails that lend themselves easily to virgin iterations, even when the menu changes.

North Italia’s regular Spiced Strawberry Mule (vodka, clove-infused liqueur, lime juice, smashed strawberry and ginger beer) is made virgin by swapping the liqueur for spicy chai concentrate from the coffee bar. In the nonalcoholic version of its IGT—made with an Italian liqueur, lemon zest, basil and Mediterranean tonic—a few drops of peach bitters stand in for fruity, bittersweet booze. And the Campari in the Molto Fresco is replaced with a splash of cranberry juice and lemon juice.

Noncommercial application: “Adding a little juice to a club soda isn’t really an experience,” says Andrew Wilson, senior director of Microsoft’s Eventions catering team in Redmond, Wash. “To impress guests, you need to provide a show: a carefully crafted drink with muddled ingredients, infused syrups and the artistry of that delicate balance.” Eventions’ mocktails are reworked versions of the classics that don’t skimp on finishing touches. For example, the Modern Margarita features muddled lime, lemon and orange mixed with organic agave syrup and a splash of seltzer water on top. The Cilantro Cucumber Cooler is garnished with a large sprig of the herb. Wilson recommends FSDs play up mocktails with ingredients such as blueberries as an example of health-minded consumption.

9. Eatertainment

punch bowl social

What: These larger than life restaurant concepts typically combine a sit-down meal with, as the name suggests, entertainment. Popular operations pair games, concerts, movies and kitschy themes with food, as well as open kitchens where patrons can view the hustle and bustle of behind-the-scenes cooking.

Restaurant concept to watch: Punch Bowl Social, a hipster diner combining high-craft food and retro gaming, was recently named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies for 2018. It was selected by the magazine’s editors as one of the10 most innovative companies in the Gaming sector for “modernizing the gaming center with scratch cooking and a late-night club vibe.”

At Punch Bowl Social, guests are invited to play games such as pingpong, pinball, bowling, shuffleboard and skee ball. The menu was developed by Southern celebrity chef Hugh Acheson.

Noncommercial application: Not quite the same as bowling or pingpong, but entertaining nonetheless, the College of New Jersey in Ewing Township, N.J., hosted a dining event aimed to show the connection between science and food. The college’s science school partnered with dining services for the event, which featured a “biologically diverse” menu from the evolutionary tree of life. Ten stations showcased foods from the three branches of the tree, which are bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes (animals, fungi and plants, respectively). Menu items included cumin-roasted lamb, cheddar insect larvae and a Reuben sandwich made with jackfruit.

Attendees received handouts and talked to biology students to learn about the science behind the meals they were eating.

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