Twists on the familiar: While customers are uneasy about taking risks in this economy, they do embrace novel flavors incorporated into comfort foods. “We might consider a taco a comfort food, or at least a certain generation of Americans do, so a Korean taco would be a twist on that familiar item,” Chapman said, pointing to Los Angeles-based Kogi’s Korean tacos as an example. Other examples include chef Michael Mina’s lobster corn dogs at his Bourbon Steak andMichael Mina restaurants in San Francisco, with the deep-fried lobster mousse carrying the familiar corn dog’s cornmeal batter and a mustard dipping sauce. “It’s probably valid to say the ‘better burgers’ also stem from comfort food with a twist,” Chapman added.
Rustic fare made in-house: As commodity costs rise, labor costs are holding steady, allowing restaurants to offer simple, fresh ingredients prepared in-house. Technomic cited cheaper cuts of meat, beans, grains and produce that require more back-of-the-house prep but produce home-style food. The seasonal fried green tomato sandwich at Gott’s Roadside in San Francisco and Napa and St. Helena, Calif., and menu offerings at upper-scale restaurants like chef Linton Hopkin’s Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta are examples of this, Chapman said.
Further steps in local sourcing: Growers, manufacturers, distributors and operators continue to work toward a more transparent, safe and efficient supply chain, Technomic said. “The next step is more a food-chain process than necessarily what is being served in the restaurants,” Chapman said. Restaurants like Burgerville USA of Vancouver, Wash., which get their ingredients from local and regional sources, are driving that process, she said.
Acceleration of social networking: Consumers increasingly trust friends and peers more than professional marketers, Technomic said. “Consumers are reviewing restaurants on Foursquare, Facebook and Twitter. Even broader, they are posting reviews [on such sites as Yelp and OpenTable] and posting pictures on Flickr,” Chapman said. “It seems to drive restaurant popularity so quickly.” Certain operators and chefs are good at getting into the conversation, she added, citing Chicago’s Rick Bayless as an example. “People who follow him on Twitter say to themselves, ‘Hey, I’m friends with Rick Bayless,’” Chapman explained.
Reporter: Anna Sheludko