While 2020 proved that we can never really predict the future, it also showed us that nothing can stop menu innovation.
Chicken sandwiches, meat substitutes, and revolutions in take-out and delivery dominated the foodservice industry this past year, but what’s the next big thing?
To answer this question, we turned to Dot Foods Corporate Chef Tim Gump, who has been in the food industry for over 40 years. From his insights, here’s what we came up with for Dot Foods' 2021 food predictions.
Restaurants have proven this year that when they have to, they can do a lot with a little. Chefs reduced their menus and offered more limited time offers (LTOs) to cut down on SKUs and adjust to staffing limitations and ingredient availability. Taking a more agile approach to menu R&D will continue helping restaurants save costs while still serving a lot of flavor.
While some restaurants plan to continue with scaled-back menus post pandemic, Chef Tim is hearing a different story: “The chefs I’ve talked with are tired of saying ‘no’ to their customers. Many are looking to return their menus to their pre-COVID size. However, pared-down menus and more LTOs could improve bottom line while giving diners both their usuals and innovative creations.”
Exciting Comfort Food
Consumers are starting to get tired of ordering pizza and cooking the same dishes over and over. Comfort food won’t be disappearing, but 79 percent of consumers are craving something new according to Datassentials. Expect to find different ingredients and new takes on comfort food in the coming year.
Churros are being sought out more and more as a go-to comfort food. This fried Spanish delicacy can come in all sizes and flavors to serve as a dessert, appetizer, side, and whatever else chefs can imagine.
Through global ingredients, umami is getting introduced to more and more comfort foods. Miso, for example, pairs well with caramel and peanut butter to create stand-out desserts. Marinating fried chicken in fish sauce and vinegar is another way to add depth to a classic.
Mushrooms will also bring umami to next year’s menus. From portabella meat substitutes to cremini-filled ravioli, chefs will use different varieties of mushroom to craft hearty, plant-forward dishes.
Oil and Butter Varieties
We’ve come a long way from vegetable oil and lard. Now, pantries and kitchens are stuffed with varieties of oil to diversify flavors and improve nutrition. Grapeseed and sunflower oils are both celebrated for their health benefits. Coconut oil has the versatility to replace butter in baked goods or be used in sauteed vegetables. Sesame and peanut oils have strong flavors that often add an extra punch to Asian dishes.
Oil isn’t the only fat getting a remix. More butter variations are expected to gain traction. Almond and other non-dairy butters attract environmentally-conscious consumers. Cultured butter, which uses fermentation to get its signature tang, is receiving greater attention. But flavored butters are the trendiest spreads. Butter flavored with sumac, chimichurri, pink salt, and all sorts of herbs and spices will make dinner rolls more exciting in 2021.
A growing number of consumers are ordering plant-based meat—not just to improve their health, but to help the environment. However, completely axing animal products off the menu will alienate a large population. “Blending plant-based and animal-based ingredients will appeal to the most customers,” explains Chef Tim. “Think ground beef and meat substitutes, dairy and plant-based milk. We’ll see both worlds colliding in menus and even in individual dishes and products.”
The chickpea is shaping up to be the star of sustainable cuisine. Chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) are showing up in everything: from riffs on Mediterranean staples like falafel and hummus to salads and food bowls. Chickpea flour can also be used for healthier fries and vegan desserts. But sustainability isn’t just about the food. As restaurants think more about their off-premises business, they will likely turn to compostable and eco-friendly to-go containers.
Snack Time, Any Time
While more people are turning to snacking to cope with stress and boredom, they aren’t always going for chips and candy. 77 percent of adults agree that there’s a time and place for indulgent snacks and for healthy snacks. Restaurants should consider offering nutritional small plates to satisfy healthy snack cravings.
Extra snack time might disappear once we ease out of the pandemic. However, “healthy indulgence” might give way to overindulgence. “Several months after 9/11, diners found joy in monster milkshakes, deep-fried everything, rainbow-colored desserts, and shareable appetizers,” says Chef Tim. “I think we’ll see something similar after the pandemic.”
Once the U.S. gets closer to widespread distribution of vaccines, chefs should start thinking of how to up the ante on their current snack, dessert, and appetizer offerings to help consumers celebrate.
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