Whether I’m talking to the head chef of London’s newest restaurant opening or scrolling through the latest industry articles on LinkedIn, it seems as though every day a new food trend is developing. From paleo diets to food waste restaurants, 2016 saw a real proliferation of new approaches to cooking and eating that have transformed the restaurant scene. This growth is only set to continue in 2017. At the beginning of the year, countless publications began forecasting the biggest food trends of 2017, which encompassed everything from broad concepts such as sustainability to niche cooking styles such as fermented foods. But with so many trends on the horizon, how can restaurants effectively stay ahead of the curve and attract the more fashion-forward diner?
Victoria Stewart is the former Food Editor of the London Evening Standard, a publication which she still writes for as a freelance food and travel journalist, along with Foodism, The Times, The Independent and Berry Brothers & Rudd among others. She also runs the popular blog, London Street Foodie, which is dedicated to celebrating and reviewing the best of the capital’s street food. Having had her finger on the pulse of the UK’s dining industry for over a decade, Victoria is perfectly placed to advise restaurants on how they can stay abreast of the biggest food trends for 2017.
Jana from Nutritionicity.com champions the development of healthy, great-tasting food, demonstrating that “deliciousness and nutritiousness can coexist”. Aside from running her popular blog, Jana is a recipe developer, food photographer and stylist, so she has plenty of experience working in the eating out sphere, giving her significant insight into the steps industry figures are taking to appeal to the latest consumer trends, particularly within the healthy eating movement.
Maxine Ali is also a key figure in the food and drink industry, particularly in London. A prolific food journalist and photographer, she has reviewed some of the finest restaurants in London and been named “top healthy foodie Instagrammer” on Well To Do London and “Instagram breakfast inspiration” by Women’s Health.
I spoke with Victoria, Maxine and Jana to find out how restaurants can successfully stay ahead of this year’s food and dining trends to give customers what they really want, before they even know they want it.
The first step: read
We all know that no business can cater to trends that they are not aware of, but nonetheless it can be easy to rely on word-of-mouth rather than actively seeking information to help anticipate new developments. Whilst this method is an important element of business practice, it does present limitations. Waiting for colleagues or associates to tell you about the latest trends means you will always be slightly behind the times, restricting your abilities to reactive measures rather than proactive procedures. To stay one step ahead of the newest food and drink trends, restaurant owners must return to the traditional research method: reading.
Victoria champions this point, saying: “Make time to read! Seek out lists, articles, essays and commentary and get up to speed on what's happening in the industry. Get on Twitter and Instagram (which also link back to all of these things) to hear up-to-the-minute news.” This is exactly what the foodies visiting your restaurant are doing, so it’s essential that you do the same. Follow the biggest food bloggers on social media, subscribe to trade journals and consumer magazines and read forums – all of these steps will expose you not only to industry reports that directly predict the latest developments, but also the kinds of discussions that can help you make your own assumptions.
Connect with the people who make the industry
If you’re really looking to gain a sense on the movements taking place in your sector, the best way to gauge developments is by talking to industry executives. Whilst I spent several years analysing data for blue-chip brands, the best insight I have ever gained has been through speaking face-to-face with the people who make this business what it is. From restaurant owners to chefs, mixologists to waiters, there are countless individuals who can give you fascinating perspectives on the trends they have seen developing, as well as sharing advice on how to satisfy consumers’ cravings.
Victoria agrees, urging:
“Get out and hear the kind of people who set the trends or who do the thinking that eventually sets the trends. I don't necessarily mean networking - which is an awful word, and can put some off - I just mean go and see talks or panel discussions on topics relevant to your field, ask questions at the end, and follow the hosts and experts on Twitter and Instagram or sign up to their newsletter(s) to stay on top of their work.”
Talk to your customers
Of course, it’s all very well finding out what’s working for other establishments and which trends are taking off worldwide, but there remains much to be said for self-reflexion in determining which future trends could succeed in your own business. To do this, it is essential to talk to your customers – the people who make your restaurant a success.
As Yael Grauer explains, “Although scanning social networks and sending out surveys can be insightful, talking to people one-on-one is invaluable. Discussing concerns with prospects can be equally enlightening.” Have your general manager or even a chef visit tables to discuss what customers enjoyed the most about their experience, and ask for suggestions. This will tell you which trends would be successful with your own demographic, because, after all, not everyone wants to drink fermented tea with their brunch!
Keep on customising
Whether it be low-sugar drinks or premiumised dishes, many of the key trends developing in the dining out scene revolve around one key factor – customisation. Guests want to be able to choose exactly what they want, how they want it. Numerous factors play in here, from dietary requirements to ethical issues, but the issue is now unavoidable – restaurants must be flexible to diners’ every desire. Offering customisation options is one sure-fire way of keeping up with trends, because it shows you what they are looking for when eating out.
Jana explains the importance of flexibility in menus, particularly as customers become increasingly expectant that their specific needs will be catered to:
"With the uprise in various dietary restrictions (gluten-free, plant-based, low carb, et. al.) the most successful restaurants will be those who can "flex" their menu the greatest. I have noticed that the larger a party gets (three or more people) the smaller the list becomes of potential dining establishments. Kitchens with flexible replacement options and chefs whose recipes can be altered without sacrifice will be the long term winners. When we find a restaurant that meets these capabilities, it becomes an instant favourite."
However, it is important to maintain your brand identity, without over-facing customers. As acclaimed food journalist and photographer Maxine Ali notes:
“Right now, the food and drinks industry is more versatile, adventurous and welcoming than ever. As such, it opens a favourable avenue for restaurants to be creative and innovative with flavours and fusions whilst honing in on where their talents best lie. Small menus featuring big flavours are a sure-fire way to see customers flock to the scene. If a dish can stand on its own, it needs nothing more to drive it to the height of popularity."
Finally, the one of the biggest and perhaps the most enjoyable way to stay ahead of food fashions is simply to get out and try the trends for yourself as they emerge. Victoria comments, “This is how so many people get their ideas.” The only way to truly stay abreast of the developments in the food industry is to literally get a taste for them, whether it be eating at different restaurants or trying street food whilst travelling in new locations.
Victoria explains why this step is so integral:
“Every supermarket has a food buyer who needs to go out and research in order to eventually put stuff on shelves later that year or the following year. Do the same. Get out to places like New York or Tokyo or Bristol, and check out what's happening there. London is also a hive of activity so, even better, travel around London and look at or try out new menus, food products, and so on, and see where the trends are forming.”