On a recent webinar, FSD’s editors explored several trends making waves in the restaurant industry that also cross over to the noncommercial world. Here’s a look at what our editorial team is currently keeping an eye on.
Meal kits make a comeback
Though consumer interest in meal kits seemed to fade in recent years, the pandemic spurred a resurgence as restaurants launched meal kits to help shore up sales and consumers cooking at home more often looked for ways to ease their food prep and cut down on kitchen fatigue. The kits have been gaining ground in noncommercial, too: Sodexo partnered with HelloFresh earlier this year to bring meal kits to college students nationwide, and the team at senior-living facility Passavant Community developed its own line of meal kits called Fresh at Home, which they use as a marketing tool to pique the interest of potential residents.
Ghost kitchens grow
Ghost kitchens, which had been gaining steam before the pandemic, have really exploded in the time since. Many established brands, such as Chili’s, have gotten into the virtual kitchen game, while others, such as Mr. Beast Burger, are newcomers. In recent months, colleges have become an epicenter of this growth—Jersey Mike’s opened its first ghost kitchen on a college campus, and Chartwells Higher Ed began rolling out its own ghost kitchens initiative. Sports brands have also used ghost kitchens as a way to connect with fans in the era of social distancing: The Detroit Pistons launched Pistons Dish this spring, while NASCAR will soon debut its virtual Refuel concept.
Though sustainability took a back seat for many operators during COVID-19, it’s coming back to the fore. The dining team at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, has reintroduced reusable takeout containers after ceasing their use during the pandemic, and as of April, one-tenth of meals at the university’s The Perch and The Eatery dining halls were being served in these containers. Reusables are taking hold at restaurants as well. Earlier this year, independent concept Zuni Cafe changed all of its to-go packaging to reusable containers, and Starbucks is in the midst of testing a reusable cup program at some Seattle locations.
Off-premise keeps evolving
Concepts that had never considered off-premise offerings before the pandemic were forced to think again amid the shutdown. Delivery and takeout were especially new endeavors for a number of fine-dining restaurants and for many eateries in the noncommercial realm. Even K-12 schools made the leap into delivery. Contract management company K-12 by Elior started a home-delivery pilot at three districts before officially launching the program over the holidays; in January, it was serving more than 25,000 students via bus route each week.
Engagement goes online
Restaurateurs and restaurant brands alike have turned to the web to engage with guests, streaming cooking demos over Zoom, YouTube and similar platforms. Noncommercial operators have also been testing their skills in front of the camera. Springfield Public Schools, for example, recently launched its Chef Tips video series, and video demos became a COVID-era staple at a number of senior-living communities. At New York University, chef Tatiana Ortiz has cooked up her own series of dorm-ready demos featuring simple ingredients and easy steps.
More tech breaks through
Chick-fil-A recently made headlines for its test of robot delivery, which had appeared on college campuses prior to the pandemic but became another avenue of contactless service during it. Other sorts of robots have been showing up in noncommercial as well, including the three salad robots now at home at Washington University in St Louis. Doubling down on contactless tech, the University of Houston launched Market Next, a fully automated c-store, last fall. Students can walk into the concept and make purchases without ever using a kiosk or interacting with a cashier.
Plant-based stays center stage
Meatless offerings continue to grow in step with consumer demand, and operators are moving beyond processed meat replacements to more innovative preparations. Buona, a Chicago-based chain, recently introduced its plant-based rendition of the regional favorite Italian beef sandwich, and at Casa Yari, also in Chicago, banana blossoms are battered and fried for a plant-forward take on fish and chips. At Bryan Health in Lincoln, Neb., customers tend to go for meat and potatoes, Executive Chef Nazim Khan says, but they’ve become big fans of the offerings at the hospital system’s plant-based station, where the housemade falafel is a best-seller.
Chicken sandwiches get hotter
2020 was certainly the year of the chicken sandwich, with an estimated 50 new or updated versions hitting quick-service and fast-casual menus during that year and the early months of 2021. With so many new entrants, global and regional preps are becoming differentiators, as are versions boasting a bit more heat. Shake Shack introduced its Korean-Style Fried Chick’n with gochujang, and the Portillo’s chain put its own spin on the trendy sandwich by adding a spicy sauce made with giardiniera, a popular condiment in the Chicago area.
Catering changes with the times
With buffets and other popular catering setups going by the wayside during COVID, a number of restaurant chains and noncommercial concepts tested new tacks to keep catering going. Many provided meal packages for picnics and celebratory occasions, and Cracker Barrel in February launched its Boxed Meals To-Go platform, a lineup of individually packaged meals for all dayparts that can serve up to 200 guests. Noncom operators have leaned on boxed meals as well, with many using bento boxes to provide a more upscale packaged meal experience.