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From CBD to carrot dogs: The year in food trends

From CBD to carrot dogs: The year in food trends

NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn and menu trends analyst Nancy Kruse look back on 2018

Well, another year has passed, and with it came a growing number of predictions for what’s to come in 2019. To your credit, Nancy, you have managed to stay above the fray, reporting on the trends as they happen, not polishing your crystal ball and gazing into the future, because you know perfectly well that crystal balls don’t work and that trend predictions are frequently wrong.

But those predictions are part of my job, and so I do my best and make them every year. My speculations for 2019 have been made, logged, noted and published in various formats in Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. I’ll review them quickly here so that they can shame me at the end of 2019 if I get them wrong:

West African cuisines: Some high-profile chefs are exploring the richly spiced stews and varied starches of the region, as are non-commercial operators. So are many independent Southern chefs who are discovering, or being reminded, that much of their culinary heritage comes from West Africa.

Lager: Clean and crisp beers never went out of style. Mainstream American lagers remain most of what we drink — more than 85 percent by volume and more than 76 percent in dollar terms. Now a growing number of craft-beer makers are revisiting this style, which is arguably the most difficult beer to brew well because its simplicity makes flaws all that much more noticeable.

Cold brew backlash: Cold brew coffee’s not going away, but some aficionados are calling foul on the method, by which ground beans are soaked in cold water for many hours to extract a rich, low-acid beverage. Detractors say hot extraction allows for the distinctive flavors of good coffee to come through better.

Oat milk: It’s the trendiest of the milk substitutes, and PepsiCo’s about to launch its own, under the Quaker brand, in January.

Better spirit-free cocktails: Mixologists are better at their jobs, using fresher juice and making their own tinctures, while a growing number of restaurant workers, and others, are going public with their substance abuse and resulting sobriety. Just because you don’t drink alcohol doesn’t mean you don’t want a complex and tasty beverage, and it doesn’t mean a smart restaurateur can’t charge you for one.

HU Kitchen

“Better-for-you” desserts: Personally, I think the benefit of a dessert is that it makes you happy. Expecting it to be nutritionally beneficial seems like a waste of sugar and an exercise in self-delusion, but nonetheless I’m seeing a growing array of things like sweetened hummus and taro pudding with berries. Hey, whatever helps you sleep at night.

Khachapuri: Because every list of predictions needs a long shot, I threw my weight in support of this photogenic egg-topped cheesy bread from the Republic of Georgia.

Now let’s look back at my 2018 predictions and see how I did, shall we?

Slower growing animals: I said we’d see more slower growing animals, such as chicken that take more than six-to-eight weeks to reach maturity, along with heritage breeds of hog that take longer to grow, older lamb with bigger chops and more flavor, and even mature dairy cows that some chefs were using for gamier, somewhat chewier steaks.

There was quite a bit of chatter about this in 2017, including a commitment to slower-growing birds on the part of Perdue, the United States’ fourth-largest chicken producer.

I’m not saying that prediction was wrong, but I do think it was premature. Yes, producers, especially chicken farmers, are looking at ways to raise animals more gently, and often more slowly, but these things take time. Slower-growing animals might be more flavorful, if less tender, and maybe the animals live better lives, but they also use more resources. Maybe that’s why talk about these approaches diminished in 2018. Or maybe, more broadly, it’s because changing our farming systems takes time, is a lot of work and can be kind of boring to talk about.

‘Trash fish’ at chain restaurants: Concern about the welfare of our waterways has become mainstream, and with that I thought a growing appreciation of seafood varieties that are less charismatic than shrimp, salmon and tuna would make it to chains. They did make it to one chain, Slapfish, based in Huntington Beach, Calif., which was founded on the idea that different fish — whatever’s fresh and sustainable — could be used in its signature tacos, burritos and fish and chips. The chain has expanded to 13 locations in six states, with more to come. I was hoping for a larger breakthrough, but getting a consistent supply of inconsistent fish that can be executed by chain restaurant workers proved to be a bit too high of an expectation. Apparent shenanigans on the part of Sea to Table, a supposed proponent of sustainable fishing, reported by The Associated Press, helped to take the wind out of the sails of this cause, but here again I don’t think I was wrong, just premature.

Naan: This Indian flatbread was the fastest-growing bread on menus in 2017, and in 2018 it debuted at unlikely places like 15-unit Silver Diner, based in Rockville, Md., and Tupelo Honey Café, a 14-unit casual-dining chain based in Ashville, N.C. While this was hardly the Year of Naan, it was a year of growing acceptance of Indian flavors into the mainstream. I call it a win.

Cannabidiol: This now seems like a no-brainer. This non-psychoactive chemical in cannabis is praised pretty widely for its perceived beneficial properties such as reducing anxiety and pain while boosting energy. The science for that is premature, but CBD oil has become a not-uncommon ingredient in cocktails, where if nothing else it adds a sense of naughtiness despite the fact that growing hemp, the cousin of marijuana from which CBD can be derived, will likely become legal nationwide in 2019 even if the legalization of marijuana and its high-inducing component, THC, remains a state-by-state issue. I definitely got this right.

In-house distilling: And I definitely got this wrong. Late last year The Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach, Va., brought Tarnished Truth Distilling onsite, which it said made it the first hotel in the country to integrate a distillery.

“Where one in-house distillery opens, more are likely to follow,” I said.

But they didn’t. Distilling is hard, regulations are strict, and while craft distilleries continue to open and spread, hotels and restaurants have stayed out of that.

Georgian Wines: The former Soviet republic of Georgia has been growing wine for thousands of years, and a lot of it is all-natural. With a compelling story and an on-trend production process, I saw a potential boom in the wines of this little Transcaucasian country, and indeed the more than 50 percent growth in U.S. imports of Georgian wine in 2017 seems to have continued apace. Articles in recent months in Wine Enthusiast and Food & Wine, bode well for its continued growing popularity.

So, I struck out on a couple of predictions, and I wouldn’t say I scored any home runs, except maybe for CBD, but hey, that’s life in the world of prognostication.

How about you, Nancy? What food caught your eye in 2018? 

Nancy Kruse responds:

I like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens as much as the next person, Bret, but my absolute most favorite things are the marvelous menu creations that came onstream in 2018. Santa worked overtime in the research and development department this past year, and his sack is just brimming with innovative items.

Courtesy of Starbucks

I don’t cover the beverage category per se; you and other NRN specialists do that supremely well. I do, however, imbibe my fair share, and keep track of interesting beverage ingredients and promotions. The Juniper Latte appearing through January 31 at Starbucks is a great case in point. Made with juniper syrup and topped with pine-citrus sugar, it is totally imbued with seasonal spirit. What’s more, it makes a sly wink to the neo-Scandinavian chefs, who like to roam the northern forests gathering pine cones and needles and scraping lichen off trees to throw into their drinks and dishes. I get the same flavor with a mere tap of my app.

Juniper Latte nicely creates a sense of time and place, and so does the Rum & Coke Chicken and Ribs at Bahama Breeze, which harkens back to Havana in its glamourous heyday. Speaking of place, the Maple Bourbon Shake from Krystal was part of the Atlanta-based chain’s Southern-inspired menu strategy, and I think the bourbon flavoring honored the region nicely.

Going way outside the box and the barrel, Baskin-Robbins’ Mothers Day Wine and Ice Cream Pairings promotion was just genius. I mean, what harried mom wouldn’t prefer Grüner Veltliner with Pralines ’n’ Cream to another box of chocolates? On a related note, I raise my glass to both Dunkin’ and IHOP for venturing into the beer business, the former with Dunkin’ Coffee Porter and the latter with IHOPS Pumpkin Pancake Stout. Both are fun and unexpected brand extensions.

Bret Thorn

Despite the extraordinary hoopla surrounding the vegetable protein/meat substitute category, you and I know that Americans are not about to step away from the bacon — or the duck for that matter. The latter was the latest over-the-top, extremely limited-time offer from Arby’s. One of the things that I admire about the chain’s culinary commitment is that they take no half measures. The premium duck breast was seared and served with smoked cherry sauce and crispy fried onions. They don’t just have The Meats, Bret, but they also know how to cook them.

I also applaud Jack in the Box for the Blue Cheese & Bacon Ribeye, which spiffs up its original All-American Ribeye Burger and taps into the trend for premium beef. On the subject of trends, Captain D’s Catfish Craze program featured Nashville Hot Catfish, and star chef David Chang’s Bāng Bar in New York City had the food-eratti in an uproar with his Mortadella Mini Bāng, a spiffed-up bologna breakfast sandwich. The next step is for someone to put it all together with a Nashville Hot Boloney Sandwich for which I’ll be first in line.

Chefs have been working wonders with vegetables, and I was especially taken this year, as you know, by creative use of the humble carrot. One of my favorite recent examples is the fun Carrot Dog promotion from the peerless dining-services team at University of Connecticut. It consisted of braised carrots in a grilled bun that came in three varieties: BBQ, Hunter and Classic Chicago complete with requisite sport peppers. How much fun is that?

Corn has been trending, too, and I was equally dazzled by the Elote Mexican Street Corn Hash, a summer special at First Watch, which was served appropriately with sides of corn tortillas and fresh limes.

Courtesy of KFC

Summertime also unleashed a plethora of pickles, which popped up in Sonic Drive-In’s electric-green Pickle Juice Snow Cone Slush and KFC’s Pickle Fried Chicken, in which the chain’s Extra Crispy Chicken was coated in pickle sauce and buttermilk. Special props to Lucky Pickle Dumpling Co. in New York City for the Pickle Soft Serve. The permanent menu offering addresses both the sweet-sour flavor craze and the soft serve revival while sending Instagrammers into high gear.

As much of the industry shifts from traditional hospitality to a diner-participation experience, a couple of concepts strike me as being scarily in tune with the times. Here in Atlanta, we have Bad Axe Throwing, a Canadian transplant. You heard me right, Bret, — axe throwing. And the concept is quadrupling its space so that it can serve beer and wine — and “possibly” food. Fingers crossed they offer lots and lots of the latter and very little of the former.

Less threatening for humans but pretty dire to the target fish is Zauo, which is right in your backyard in New York City. This one’s an import from Japan in which diners use fishing poles and stand over open tanks to catch their dinner, which is then cooked and served. Early reports suggest that some diners are actually kind of put off by coming eye to eye with their evening’s entrée, watching its little gills gasp their last. Maybe they could call in the axe-throwers to make shorter work of it.

Finally, I’ve been utterly smitten with the imaginative restaurant monikers popping up all over the map. There’s Hello, Sailor near Charlotte, N.C., which updates a classic fish camp, garners stellar reviews and automatically makes me smile. Entrées include Carolina Shrimp Calabash and Hake with avocado slaw. An allusion to movie dialogue, Here’s Looking at You is located appropriately in Los Angeles and boasts a bar whose toast-worthy libations include Bettencourt, a cocktail concocted of bourbon and sweet potato liqueur with a toasted marshmallow on top. Sounds like a quaffable Thanksgiving side dish, not something Rick and Ilsa would have sipped at his place in Casablanca. Better Luck Tomorrow has opened shop in Houston. A thinly veiled apology for a lackluster experience today or a less thinly veiled invitation to return? You can ponder that over brunch bites like the Spaghetti Sandwich on Parmesan-crusted Texas toast.

As you well know, I could just go on and on. Instead, though, I’m going to curl up in front of my KFC 11 Herbs & Spices Firelog with a toast to you, Bret, and to all the talented menu makers who unfailingly make my days merry and bright.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News.
E-mail her at [email protected] 

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