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Trend prediction lists look different this year. Menu trend expert Maeve Webster digs deeper.

Viewpoint: Is innovation in foodservice dead? Or just sleeping?

Trend prediction lists look different this year. Menu trend expert Maeve Webster digs deeper.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Food Management.

Now is the time of year that countless trend prediction lists come out. Most lists are less prediction than statement of what is currently happening, but that can be as comforting as forecasting into the next 12 to 18 months.

For anyone who has been looking at these lists one thing is probably becoming very apparent, namely those lists are lacking in any real food or flavor predictions. Rather, the lists are reiterating what most of us already know to be the case – technology is becoming more prevalent in foodservice to help eliminate touchpoints, delivery and off-premise will maintain a far greater share of occasions and so forth.

Maeve_Webster_of_Menu_Matters.jpgPhoto: Maeve Webster

Why are these prediction lists so lacking in food and beverage guesses? Though I can’t reach into the heads or hearts of those developing the lists I do have a theory. Over the last 10 months, independent restaurants have been hit hardest by the pandemic and that has effectively clogged up the industry’s true innovation engine.

Now, there are many innovative operators across all commercial and onsite segments so this is not to say innovation is not happening and will not continue to happen as we move through what will hopefully be the final months of the pandemic and into the new normal. Of course, there will be innovation and many operators are going to step up to fill the innovation gap left by the significant closures in the independent segment.

What the industry has lost, though, with the nearly 50,000 independent restaurants shut down because of lockdowns and mitigation efforts are those operators that look to offer something completely new and unfamiliar to the U.S. audience. Only independent operators, primarily in the fine dining and international cuisine areas, truly look for the “new” in ingredients, formats, preparations and cuisines to excite and engage and to create unique competitive positions. Not all of those “new” options stick and move through the full trend cycle, but the constant experimentation subtly and not so subtly shifts consumer expectations, preferences and demands.

As nature abhors a vacuum, other sources will fill the gap. Retail, for example, is already stepping up its game both in the off-the-shelf areas – particularly frozen foods – and the deli/ bakery area. Chain operators will continue to innovate, with innovative and boundary-pushing elements coupled with items and ingredients that have solid mass market appeal.

Where does this leave many onsite operators? The most critical issue is getting back up and running. For college/university and K-12, this is unlikely to happen until the middle of the year after the vaccine rollout has hit critical mass and the next school year is set to begin. Business & Industry should start to recover around Q2 as commuting picks up again. Innovation may be secondary during these periods of accelerated recovery, but it is likely to come back quickly as recovery hits full steam.

For all, though, there is an opportunity to rethink the patron experience. Why is the new role of foodservice? What can foodservice operators offer patrons that they missed or cannot have at home? How can operations, menus and service be improved in the post-pandemic age? The answer will vary for each operator, but now is the time (past time, really) to consider how to make the operation as effective and compelling as possible.

The new normal is unlikely to be the same as the old, but with every change there are opportunities to be leveraged and benefits to be gained. As independent operators, the engine of innovation for the foodservice industry, begin their road to recovery we should see innovation re-emerge with elements of both the old and the new normal.

Maeve Webster is president of Menu Matters and is a consultant and thought leader for the foodservice industry. She has spearheaded hundreds of major industry studies during her 20 years as a foodservice specialist and today runs a private consultancy working with foodservice professionals to analyze, understand and leverage food and consumer behavior trends to support strategic goals and tactical objectives. She can be reached at (802) 430-7085 and [email protected].

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