Pour it on: Bars to star next year

Pour it on: Bars to star next year

• More drink trends

Food magazines, food-driven websites and foodie bloggers alike have begun to issue their 2013 dining trends forecasts. Let’s look at two that were compiled specifically with restaurant operators in mind.

We’ll start with a sampling from what New York City-based restaurant consultants Baum & Whiteman see as the 17 hottest food and dining trends that will have an impact next year.

Bars are where the flavor action is.  If you’re looking for the flavors of the future, keep an eye on the artisan cocktail movement. And if you don’t have someone on staff who can create and reproduce clever cocktails, you might want to hire one. “Restaurants and hotel chains, straining to step away from bottled and powdered shortcuts, are playing catch-up…but training hundreds of bartenders can be a killer,” Baum & Whiteman say.

The good news here for operators: There’s price inflation at the bar but not much price resistance to it from customers. A shortcut that gets you in on this lucrative action is to hire what the report dubs “itinerant cocktail consultants” to get your restaurant’s bar program up to speed.

Everyone wants to be Chipotle…even Chipotle. Baum & Whiteman see consumers trading down now, eating less frequently at casual dining spots and other full-service restaurants and heading to fast-casual operations instead.

In part, that’s because customers now have more choices. Fast-casual service systems are now being applied to other cuisines besides Mexican, including pizza, fish and chicken, Greek food, noodles, Asian food (Chipotle-owned ShopHouse kitchen is opening two new units, one in L.A., the other its second in Washington, DC) and more.

The winning formula in fast casual? “Interactive service with food made in front of you; customizable upscale options; bolder flavors; distinctive contemporary décor; more youthful appeal than dinner houses but more mature than fast-food plasticity;Â…prices about half again as much as food; and consumers tolerating slower service in exchange for better quality.”

Coming next to fast casual: drive-through windows.

Bundling gets bigger. Meal bundles, fixtures on fast food menus, are on their way to becoming staples at casual dining chains, too. Why do these chains roll out the two-for-$25 or four-courses-for-$15 deals on a quarterly basis? “Their objective is to fill seats at any cost, and to stem the tide of people trading down,” Baum & Whiteman surmise.

But customers aren’t trading down in the bar, says San Francisco consultant Andrew Freeman.

“Forget fine dining and blow out the bar, enhancing the menu with casual food for appetites of all sizes,” Freeman counsels. “Offer one menu of sophisticated, approachable and shareable food including enticing bar snacks and heartier options.”

Other full-service restaurant trends include:

One-bite wonders: Take advantage of increased customer acceptance of pay-per-the-piece “pre-appetizer” courses priced at less than $5 each, Freeman says. They’re check-builders deluxe.

Space, not waste: Cash in on the pop-up restaurant craze by using any extra space in the building or even on your roof. Freeman suggests creating a reservation-only, distinctly unique pop-up experience within your current restaurant. “Do something new and different you’ve always wanted to,” Freeman says. “Guests relish the free-wheeling freedom and exclusivity. Make room!”