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food-bowl-bibimbap.png NATALIIA OSETROVA/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Restaurants should take care that their food bowls — arranged bibimbap-style or otherwise — don't come out "bland and functional and sad."

Nancy Kruse and Bret Thorn look back on the food and service trends in restaurants in the 2010s and forward into the robots and virtual kitchens of the ’20s

Humans and technology worked through a turbulent decade, and there’s more to come

I had one of those slap-my-forehead-and-say-Doh! moments recently, Bret, as I worked through my post-holiday reading pile and came across numerous stories from food and restaurant experts on the import and impact of the decade just ended.

The Washington Post, for example, single-mindedly explained “Why Fast Casual Restaurants Became the Decade’s Most Important Food Trend.” Unable to isolate just one most important food trend, The New York Times settled on “8 Ways Restaurants Have Changed Since 2010” and counted among them the rise of small plates, plant-based cuisine and food halls.

nancy_kruse_0_1.pngSo, I feel that maybe we’ve been a little remiss. When we did our recent recap of the year just ended, we failed to note that it also marked the passing of a decade. To make up for this lapse, I scrolled through our past exchanges to see what they revealed of the zeitgeist in which they were written. I should point out here that the Bret-and-Nancy Show didn’t actually launch until 2013, which gives me only seven years to draw from; still, I found the look back instructive.

 It was a period in which restaurateurs embraced ambiguity.

In 2013, you and I exchanged opinions on “authenticity.” The marketing buzzword of that moment, it was being promiscuously applied to everything from ingredients and dishes to prep techniques and restaurant concepts. We shook our heads over other squishy indefinables like rustic and artisanal that were subject to similar use and abuse; and a few years later, we tried to pin down the precise meaning and appropriate application of farm to table, which was then being bandied about with abandon. The implication for restaurant marketers, I think, is that despite, or perhaps because of, the unstoppable advance of technology, consumers resist being reduced to algorithms; and they continue to place a value on old-fashioned warm-and-fuzzies.

It was also a time when the business failed to come to grips with a bedeviling issue that traces back to its earliest days. In 2016, we discussed the dramatic move to eliminate tipping and equalize pay throughout the entire operation, a trend that has pretty much fizzled despite support from influential restaurateurs like Danny Meyer in New York City and influential commentators like Pete Wells at The New York Times, who pronounced the practice to be irrational, outdated, ineffective and even prone to abuse. The takeaway here is that, unfortunately, the beat and the abuse go on.

We’ve had numerous conversations over the past seven years about the impact of digital technology on all facets of operation, including the positives and negatives of online reviews; the tyranny of Instagram, where visual style can trump culinary substance; and the potential impact of robotics on hiring and hospitality practices of all stripes. We’ve spent lots of time sifting through flash-in-the-pan fads, like cronuts, and long-legged trends, like pumpkin spice. We’ve looked at some revolutionary developments that weren’t, like meal kits, and some that were, like customization. And we’ve discussed lots of significant initials, like ACA, CBD, THC and Generations X and Z.

If pressed to name the defining element of the 20-teens on restaurants, of course I’d vote for technology. For better and for worse, it has infiltrated all aspects of the industry and, indeed, the lives of its customers. But I’d also point out that at day’s end, this remains a business fueled by old-fashioned innovation and creativity that require no digital assistance or enhancement, most especially in the area of menu R&D. No computer could possibly generate the wonderful Nashville Hot Schnitzel at Chicago’s Funkenhausen, say, or the nifty, new Vanilla Chai Pancakes with maple-chai almond butter and Superseed Crunch at First Watch or the unbridled inspiration that turns a simple potato into a sophisticated mille feuille or a memorable lo mein.

 Speaking of potatoes, Bret, I’m about to drop this hot potato of a subject into your lap with a two-part question. Part one: I’m curious as to your take on the biggest trends of the past decade, and, part two, since I think of you as a pretty fearless forecaster, would you care to take a stab at predicting the macro trends that will impact the business in the next 10 years?

Bret Thorn responds

Well Nancy, technology certainly has transformed the human experience over the past decade, more specifically smartphones and other handheld digital devices that have literally put the world at our fingertips.

From a restaurant perspective, that has accelerated the democratization of restaurant criticism as people can express their delight or outrage in real time. It has also enabled the on-demand culture that has resulted in more meal delivery. As you mentioned, Instagram has further emphasized the importance of visual appeal, and really the more specific quality of being photogenic. A brown stew, a dish of consommé or a pristine white bowl of Vichyssoise can be visually appealing in real life, but they don’t reproduce well on the ’gram.

Bret_Thorn_0_1.pngIn theory, this should have resulted in the dumbing down of food, and in some cases it has. The beauty of a bowl of food, especially if it’s arranged bibimbap-style with each ingredient segregated in its own little section over grains or greens or whatever, has helped spur the spread of that kind of food, particularly in the fast-casual segment. And it’s been aided by the demand for customizability that you also mentioned: Take one ingredient out, swap it for something else, and you still have a pretty dish.

The problem is that most of those bowls taste like they were developed by a committee. If any ingredient can be swapped out for any other, the result is that nothing tastes like anything.

It’s all bland and functional and sad.

But that bowl culture, as widespread as it is, is the exception in the modern American dining scene. The past decade has seen an explosion of creativity in professional kitchens, where chefs are exploring all the possibilities of flavor and texture that were unheard of not too long ago.

Ten years ago chefs were rarely making their own pickles, let alone fermenting their own miso or culturing their own butter. Their customers’ palates have expanded and now many of them are willing to try nearly anything — well, as long as it comes in a familiar form like pizza or a burger, and doesn’t have a face, or smell too weird. But even with all those caveats, the change in how Americans approach food has been revolutionary. 

Foodservice segments have blurred in ways that I don’t think we could have imagined a decade ago, with grocery stores serving restaurant-quality meals, limited-service restaurants going upscale and fine dining — well, what even is fine dining anymore? Great, fussed-over food rarely comes with three-hour dining experiences on white tablecloths. They can happen on concrete tables for customers sitting on benches. Some of the most exclusive dining experiences happen at pop-ups now, and restaurants that are ostensibly fine dining have late-night ramen parties and serve sliders at their bar. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

So what, you ask, will the future of foodservice look like? Obviously I don’t know, but here are a few guesses for what I think we’ll see in the next decade:

The manufactured plant-based proteins that are proliferating like crazy these days ultimately will be seen as a transitional technology. They will be replaced by “cultured meat” grown from animal cells in labs. Companies such as Just and Memphis Meats are already preparing to bring them to market.

The restaurant segments we think of now — quick service, fast-casual, casual dining, fine dining etc. — will largely be replaced by new ones. There will be “ghost” or “virtual” kitchens where meals are prepared for delivery or pickup. Most probably won’t have seating at all, and many will be delivery-only, without consumer-facing venues.

Then there will be experiential restaurants that won’t just serve food and drinks but also will have musical performances or other live shows, or fun interactive retail options, or whatever the next virtual reality-type activity is, or maybe retro video games or mechanical bull riding or something else that’s compelling enough to get their customers to put down their phones, put on their shoes and get out of the house.

And there will be high-end special-occasion restaurants that will retain some of the trappings of current fine-dining, such as talented chefs, beverage experts and good lighting, but mostly without dress codes or other pretensions. They might very well be structured in a way that tipping isn’t necessary.

And finally, the technological innovations will shift from digital to mechanical, as robots take over the tedious jobs that humans do now. Flippy the burger flipper and Sally the salad maker — robots that have been novelties up to this point — will be replaced by better machines that actually get the job done, freeing up humans to do jobs that require creativity, personality and other things that machines can’t do yet.

It will be an interesting future, and one that successful restaurateurs will enjoy embracing.

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]

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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