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National Restaurant Association releases its 2023 culinary forecast

Chicken sandwiches are still trending, but some more surprising menu items are on the move, according to the "What's Hot" report.
charcuterie board
Charcuterie boards are still going strong, says the report. / Photo courtesy of the National Restaurant Association

Fried chicken sandwiches are still a top trend, according to the 500 chefs surveyed for the 2023 “What’s Hot” Culinary Forecast released this week by the National Restaurant Association.

The crowd favorite took the No. 2 spot in the Association's list of Top 10 overall trends and was No. 1 in the lunch category, but with a qualifier—these are “Chicken Sandwiches 3.0,” enhanced with spicy and sweet-heat fusion flavors.

Other trends high on the list are not that surprising either. In the appetizer category, charcuterie boards are still going strong, as are oat milk and other nut and seed milks in the nonalcoholic beverage category and Southeast Asian as the top global trend. And comfort fare and zero waste remain priorities.

But a number of the leading trends are more reflective of the current economic landscape and changes in consumer preferences. Leading in the dinner category are less-expensive meat cuts, such as chicken thighs, beef chuck and pork shoulder. Restaurants have been hammered by supply shortages and high food prices, and chefs are obviously looking for ways to cut protein costs.

Breakfast value meals, which came in first in the breakfast category, are traffic builders for the morning daypart, but they’re also targeted directly at consumers’ wallets.

Spritzes, tops in the beverage alcohol category, also tap into the consumer trend toward low- and no-alcohol cocktails. Coming out of the pandemic, more drinkers are moving toward sober socialization and lower-proof options, and restaurants and bars are creatively meeting the demand.

One of the more unexpected Top 10 trends falls into the dessert category, where alternative sweeteners like coconut sugar and maple sugar were called out by the chefs. The National Restaurant Association points to the abundance of alternative sweeteners on the expo floor of the 2022 IFT First event held by the Institute of Food Technologists as the impetus for this trend.

The What’s Hot roundup also forecasted trends in areas other than culinary. Experiences/local culture and community came in as the top trend overall.

“Despite the booming popularity of off-premises restaurant meals and snacks in recent years, pent-up demand for in-restaurant experiences—socialization, celebration, and culinary exploration—is strong, with 70% of respondents noting customer desire to gather on-premises,” stated the report.  

And inflation continues to impact the industry.

“Inflation is shifting consumer spending habits, and while there is a heightened appetite for restaurant experiences and connection, diners are laser focused on finding value,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the Association. “The challenge is how to fuse consumer desires for the new and trendy with their expectations for price paid.”

The National Restaurant Association partnered with the American Culinary Federation and Technomic to conduct its annual What’s Hot survey. The complete forecast can be downloaded from the Association’s site.

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