Ryan Tanaka
Korean Latkes at Leona.

Restaurant Innovations for the New Year

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With ever-changing consumer desires, restaurant operators can find ways to adapt and thrive in an increasingly competitive environment.
By Alex Dixon January 2017 Menu Innovations

Trends come and go in the restaurant industry. From kale salad to truffle oil, ingredients and practices ebb and flow with consumer desires, dying out or becoming ubiquitous on menus across the country.

But for those restaurants that capitalize on a trend early, innovating in a new or unique sector can pay off well, especially in a climate where many establishments are facing declining sales and increasing competition.

“Full-service restaurants are doing so much innovative stuff,” says Mike Kostyo, senior publications manager at market research firm Datassential. “Some of them are adding retail outlets, some look like mini food halls with a bar on a lower level and a restaurant in the front; they’re playing with service and bringing in guest chefs. … When the competition for consumer dollars is just extreme right now, what are you going to do to get them to give you their dollar?”

According to industry tracker TDn2K–which tracks performance through chain restaurants–overall restaurant sales were in a slowdown in 2016, with the casual-dining subsegment struggling the most.

“The overarching concern is what’s really happening with traffic,” says Victor Fernandez, executive director of insights at TDn2K. “When you think about from the recession until now, it’s all been negative traffic growth every year.”

There have been restaurants, from chain brands to independents, that have been able to defy this trend and perform well with customer traffic and sales, whether as a result of sourcing practices and menu items, employee and management retention, or technological innovations.

“Some brands are winning in this environment. There are some brands, probably through innovation, that are able to reach a wider and stronger market,” Fernandez says. “But the norm right now is that most of the brands in full-service are seeing declining sales, and when it comes to traffic, the numbers that are positive become even smaller.”

Here’s a look at what some of the defining trends are today, and how restaurants are innovating in these sectors.

Edible Ethics

Consumers have never cared more about where their food is coming from, and the path that it’s following to get to their plates.

“That’s probably one of the bigger [trends] driving change in food culture today is this desire and shift in understanding that was once a very fringe kind of thing,’” says Melissa Abbott, vice president of culinary insights at food market researcher The Hartman Group. “And that is absolutely shifting now.”

Within what The Hartman Group defines as a macro-trend of edible ethics, meaning it has been a driving trend over the last several years, there are micro-trends, shifting from year to year and becoming more specific.

One of these concepts increasing in popularity with both operators and consumers has been the idea of upcycling, or creating goods of higher value from products that would otherwise go to waste. Upcycling can apply to everything from the design of the dining space to using so-called “ugly” produce, often deemed imperfect and destined for the landfill.

“We’re seeing consumers get excited about this idea of becoming waste warriors, so that is something we’re going to continue to see,” Abbott says. “You could be a baby boomer, you could be a gen Xer, you don’t necessarily have to be a millennial, but it’s this idea of having more respect for the production of food and what it takes to grow food in the soil, and then that extends into our own personal health systems.”

At 21 Greenpoint in Brooklyn, New York, Chef Sean Telo offers “21 Sunday,” a day-long service every Sunday that features an evolving roster of dishes that use typically discarded ingredients from the week, such as eggplant tops. For Telo and the culinary team at 21 Greenpoint, the goal is to minimize food waste as much as possible, and guests pay $21 for a six-course meal.Telo’s dinner menu also features an “ugly vegetable snack,” complete with cultured butter and vegetable tops.

“We’re always pushing to keep costs down,” says Chef John Mooney, of Bell, Book & Candle in New York City and Bidwell in Washington, D.C. “We do like to use superior quality, but we also try to minimize waste, so we don’t throw away anything. Just passing that onto sourcing is just an important part of what we already do.”

Mooney describes New York City’s waste management as “poor” so the restaurant does what it can to reduce what goes out onto the street.

In D.C., Bidwell is in an area that is being rejuvenated so Mooney and his staff try to minimize discarded waste. Not only does Mooney use a pig down to the bone and use secondary techniques like canning, pickling, and jams to use all aspects of produce, but he also serves as a direct source of the goods his kitchen uses. Growing an aeroponic rooftop garden at Bidwell, Mooney provides many herbs and produce, including cilantro, dill, four varieties of nasturtium, tomatillos, Japanese eggplant, bibb lettuce, and fennel.

“I’ve always been motivated in sourcing to the point where I evolved into becoming the source of most of the things I have or use,” he says. “I had farms, I dealt directly with farms, and then eventually I converted everything to aeroponic because the labor model is much better, the production is greater, and the use of resources is less than the labor. All of those things speak my language.”

Mooney says the entire restaurant staff participates in the practices, including maintaining the garden. “We don’t manipulate things,” he says. “We try to leave things closest to their natural form and as close to home as possible.”

Eric Medsker
Peruvian cuisine, like the food at Llama Inn, is on the rise.

Optimal Self

Similar to the concept of “life hacking,” consumers seeking to improve their health and wellness through the products they consume has become a growing trend that Hartman identifies as the Optimal Self.

“Obviously health and wellness is a very important trend and will continue to be in American food culture for the unforeseen future, but now what we’re seeing is that it’s gone from this [idealism] to more modern pragmatism,” Abbott says. “We’re seeing health and wellness culture [going] mainstream, and there’s a convergence between Eastern and Western wellness ideas. So there is the incorporation of technological solutions and also age-old ways of wellness modalities like using essential oils and grandma’s remedies.”

This has manifested itself in restaurants through the use of certain food products like coconut oils, said to enhance cognitive ability, and beverages like kombucha, which are said to improve gut health with probiotics.

“We’re seeing consumers getting really excited around this idea of brain cognition and the health of the microbiome, or gut, and they are seeking higher quality, grass-fed products and products that help promote good cognition regardless of what age they are,” Abbott says. 

Bulletproof Coffee, a café based in Santa Monica, California, that wholesales its products to restaurants, pioneered a style of coffee beverage that is said to have cognitive benefits and that is showing up in various iterations on menus across the country, Abbott says. The company takes its low-toxin coffee and blends it with grass-fed butter and a proprietary ingredient called “Brain Octane,” which is distilled from coconut oil and intended to provide energy to the brain without breaking down glucose from sugars or carbohydrates.

“It’s really important to be aware of what these very progressive consumers are interested in. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have everything grass-fed and organic; that’s not the point of it,” Abbott says. “The point of it is, where can you make subtle changes and create offerings that reflect some of these ideals? You can’t hit every touchpoint, but if you hit the ones that are most salient with that progressive consumer, those things are eventually going to make their way into the mainstream. You’re really going to be able to show a level of transparency and awareness that’s going to speak to this modern consumer in a way that just following fads won’t allow you to do.”

Gabi Porter
The Ugly Vegetable Snack at 21 Greenpoint.

Ingredients and Cuisines

With a multicultural upbringing, Chef Nyesha Arrington was introduced to Korean cuisine at an early age by her Korean grandmother. That has inspired her cuisine at the restaurant Leona in Venice Beach, California, where she creates a Korean latke, made with kimchi and ground Korean red chili, or gochugaru.

Application of cuisines such as Korean to other dishes where it is not necessarily authentic, like kimchi burgers, has becoming increasingly popular across menus, says Maeve Webster, president at menu-development company Menu Matters. And as impactful as Korean cuisine has been over the last several years, Webster says there are other emerging ethnic cuisines poised to increase in popularity here.

“Peruvian has definitely created a certain strength of base now,” she says. “It combines a lot of elements that are very familiar both from Asia and from Central and South America, things like ceviches.”

At Llama Inn in Brooklyn, New York, Chef Erik Ramirez has taken Peruvian cuisine and adopted it into a modern-dining setting, creating his own twist on dishes like roast chicken, skewers, and lomo saltado, a stir-fried beef dish influenced by Chinese immigrants that includes onion, tomatoes, aji amarillo peppers, and french fries. 

For skewers, Ramirez marinates beef hearts, pork belly, and head-on shrimp in herbs and chilies before grilling it over a wood fire and serving the skewers tableside on a wooden board. In a twist on the popular ceviche, Ramirez thin-slices marinated fish in the style of Peruvian tiradito­—similar to carpaccio or sashimi—and serves it with creamy persimmon fruit, ginger, and poppy seeds.

Another cuisine on the rise is Nordic, largely because it fits into the growing demand for health-and-wellness products, Webster says. “I think it’s the Mediterranean cuisine of Northern Europe,” she says. “It’s essentially healthy, it’s primarily fish-based, and it’s locally sourced.”

At Kachka in Portland, Oregon, a cuisine that many Americans haven’t encountered—Russian—is updated into a modern setting with quirky menu descriptions for diners. Taranka is described “sorta like fish jerky (and) the best thing ever with beer,” and the short rib borscht is “nothing like the stuff in the jar at the store. In Kachka’s beef cheek ‘burnt ends,’ American barbecue meets Georgian flavors with kidney beans, walnuts, cherry tomatoes, and marigold.

While some cuisines can be poised to rise to ubiquity across restaurant menus, others are beholden to a variety of factors, even including the politics of the country where the cuisine originated. Webster says that Filipino cuisine shows promise as a cuisine on the rise, but if negative relations continue between the Philippines and the U.S., it could halt that growth.

“If there’s a lot of negative press about the area, people start losing interest in the food because I think the foods people like to eat are reflective of places they’re intrigued by,” Webster says. “And I think we’ve seen that with Middle Eastern cuisine. It was poised to do very well and it sort of stagnated a bit.”

As a way to predict how food trends will take hold, Datassential has adopted a framework known as the menu adoption cycle, where an item moves from inception to adoption to proliferation and eventually ubiquity. An ingredient or cuisine often pops up on a fine-dining or ethnic restaurant menu in the inception phase. If popular, the item moves to an adoption phase where it begins to show up in gastropubs and casual independent restaurants. Proliferation-stage trends are adjusted for mainstream appeal and combined with popular applications, such as on a burger or in pasta, and ubiquitous trends can be found all across the food industry. 

“One of the things that can propel an item through a menu cycle is if there are a lot of applications you can use it for,” Kostyo says. “So if it’s a flavor or a spice blend, that’s obviously something that you can use in a sauce or on a meat and in a lot of different areas.”

Quinoa, which emerged as a trend in 2006, has grown by nearly 400 percent in menu adoption over the past four years, while bone marrow, although still remaining in an inception phase, has grown by 94 percent.

Looking forward, Kostyo says some unexpected ingredients show potential to move through the cycle, including insects. “There may be a limit to how far that’s going to go on the menu adoption cycle just because, for some consumers, that’s a little out there for them,” he says. “But who knows? There are already some retail products out there. There are some chefs and restaurants that are putting insects on the menu, so it could make it to adoption and it’s already gone a little bit further than when we first started seeing it show up.”

At Chef José Andrés’ Oyamel in Washington, D.C., grasshoppers are served in the Oaxacan style known as Chapulines: sautéed with shallots and tequila, then served with guacamole on a handmade corn tortilla.

Other ingredients in Datassential’s adoption phase include gochujang, yuzu, freekeh, za’atar, togarashi, and aji peppers. 

“If an item is specific and particular, it doesn’t have quite as good of a chance to move through the menu cycle,” Kostyo says. “Whereas, if you can see it in a wide variety of menu types, it’s going to make it through the adoption cycle a little bit easier.”

Eric Medsker
At Llama Inn in Brooklyn, New York, Chef Erik Ramirez has taken Peruvian cuisine and adopted it into a modern-dining setting

Breakfast

Attempting to bring more customers in and increase sales throughout the day, more full-service restaurant operators are adopting breakfast service or adding breakfast items onto their menus for other dayparts. According to Datassential, the number of restaurants adding breakfast has steadily increased for the past five years and is at an all-time high since the firm began tracking the daypart.

“It’s certainly restaurants adding breakfast in the morning, but it’s also all throughout the day,” Kostyo says. “It’s either breakfast dishes going on dinner menus, because now people see chicken and waffles and they’re more comfortable with breakfast dishes at dinner, and it’s late-night menus.”

At the Iron Rooster in Annapolis, Maryland, breakfast is served all day, with many recognizable favorites and some restaurant twists, including a homemade poptart. Items include warm monkey bread with rum raisin sauce, candied pecans and fresh sliced bananas, and the angry pig omelette with ham, pork belly, bacon, sausage, pepper jack cheese, sliced jalapeños, and chipotle hollandaise. But the restaurant doesn’t just stop at breakfast, it also offers lunch and supper, offering a mix of Southern food, salads, and burgers.

Bonjwing Lee
To Chef Gavin Kaysen, it’s a constant battle to retain employees and create a good work environment, but one worth fighting.

Employee Retention and Training

Creating an environment where employees want to work and stay can be challenging, but one that can pay off with a better guest experience and increased traffic. To Chef Gavin Kaysen, it’s a constant battle to retain employees and create a good work environment, but one worth fighting.

The James Beard Award–winning chef and owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis offers his employees full benefits, including a healthcare package, dental insurance, and life insurance. All of the cooks who work at the restaurant also work four days per week and then have three days off, which he says allows them to take time and read about food, catch up on family time, and come back to work re-energized.

“The cooks then are much more awake; they’re more alert; they’re hungry to get back to work,” he says. “It’s not always that full-time grind where you’re on your sixth or seventh straight day—and as a result, the guests can feel that. They can sense that and they can taste that, and I think that’s important.”

Kaysen also works to ensure his employees are motivated, and if they decide that Spoon and Stable isn’t for them or they want to move to another restaurant, he tries to pinpoint why and see if it’s anything he could change. “I just want to talk them through it; I want to understand why they’re resigning,” he says. “I want to understand if it’s something they realized while they were here, and if there is an opportunity to find different ways to have that employee be part of the family.”

In one instance, Kaysen had a cook who wasn’t cut out for being on the line all the time and tried to resign. When Kaysen asked the cook about his real passion, the employee said it was charcuterie and making bread. So, Kaysen launched a charcuterie and bread program at the restaurant with that employee at the helm.

“It’s not always about getting someone into your program and saying, ‘this is the only way that you fit into the mold and if you can’t fit into the mold, you’re out,’” Chef Kaysen says. “I think there are other opportunities for us to explore with the team.”