2012 Hot Restaurant Trends

The National Restaurant Association annual conference is always a good time to spot food trends.  Even though the show was in Chicago recently, I wasn’t able to make it there myself.  So I was eagerly reading what other trend trackers found, including Bret Thorn from Nation’s Restaurant News, Jason Stemm from The Buzz Bin, and Tricia Smith from SmartBrief. Here’s a snapshot of what they thought were the hottest trends:

Digital tools. Eateries are getting more social with the introductions of restaurant apps to help engage customers, spark social discovery, simplify point of sale and manage reservations.


Better-for-you.  Nutrition was top of mind, especially healthier kids’ menus.  The NRA’s new Kids LiveWell initiative was heavily promoted.  It’s a program that encourages restaurants to offer meals for kids that include more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy, and less saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Wendy’s touted its new vegetable sides, including baked sweet potatoes.  Kefir, green-tea based sodas and super fruit juices were other better-for-you options on display.

5938289368_2e75fdc459_bKids LiveWell by restaurantdotorg on flickr

Miniature or single-serving desserts. As operators sought ways to make their desserts unique and customizable, but also healthier, they sought out single-serving items and miniature portions.  Ginger, pomegranate-berry or English butter toffee were popular flavors.

2973607480_3d26033bc7_bcourtesy of Glorious Treats on flickr

Indulgent desserts. There was a dessert dichotomy going on — with the trend of healthier desserts (such as multi-grain, low-sugar cookies) along with some of the richest desserts around, including sheet cakes, premium ice cream and mega cookies.

2523448766_3a985b62c1_bcourtesy of ginnerobot on flickr

Customizable coffee. Single-serving, pour-over coffee was on display at the booths of many coffee suppliers. Some had machines that kept the water temperature consistent, taking out the guesswork and eliminating the need for trained baristas.

Southeast Asian flavors. From coconut milk to sweet chile sauce, Southeast Asian touches were in demand at the show this year.

Sustainability. Many restaurant operators were asking about the origins of items, from coffee to seafood to vegetables, as they attempted to respond to consumer demand for sustainably grown and processed foods.

Molecular for the masses. High-tech flourishes were available for one and all to use. Fruit juice with lecithin, stored in nitrogen-charged canisters like whipped cream, were squirted out as light foam. Caviar-like pearls of balsamic vinegar or hot sauce that burst in your mouth — made through a process that the molecular gastronomers of a decade ago called “spherification” — were available frozen.

3038617619_04c3070881_bbruschetta with goat cheese and beer “caviar” by rei-san on flickr

Convenience solutions. Soft-serve ice cream was available in frozen “pucks,” or individual servings similar to K-Cups, that allow for no-waste portion control. Thaw-and-serve items — bread, pastry, pot pie and proteins from pork to textured soy — were available for restaurateurs seeking convenient ways to bring high-quality food to their customers without developing new areas of expertise

Hypoallergenic food. The organic pavilion was full of foods for customers with allergies or food sensitivities, including an array of products that are gluten-free (which has become a mainstream trend).  Domino’s Pizza recently got into gluten-free with a new pizza crust, although it stirred up a big controversy since the gluten-free crust is made beside the regular stuff so there’s a risk of cross-contamination. Domino’s had to issue a disclaimer that the crust was not safe for people with celiac.

Food trucks keep on rolling. Not having a solid brand and choosing the wrong location are two of the most common mistakes made by food-truck operators, Roaming Hunger’s Ross Resnick said during a session for prospective food-truck owners. Often, these are mistakes that food-truck operators have to make before they learn the best way of doing business. But Los Angeles company Mobi Munch is looking to change that. Mobi Munch offers custom-designed trucks, point-of-sale systems and proven consulting for burgeoning food-truck owners.  The company also offers brand-building services and rents trucks, allowing restauranteurs to get into the game more quickly.

Wine, any way you want it. Wine is shaking any reputation it once had for being complicated and inaccessible. Additional products are opening up the world of wine to consumers looking for the perfect drink for a multitude of occasions. The Skinny Vine from Treasury Wine Estates is geared toward women who are watching their waistline, with fewer calories per glass.  For those looking to indulge in wine during an activity in which glasses and a corkscrew might be cumbersome, Copa Di Vino’s ready-to-drink wine pairs portability with the experience of drinking out of a wine glass. “It allows wine to be consumed as easily as beer, pop and the rest of the beverage world,” said company owner and founder James Martin. Six varieties of wine are available in either a glass or plastic wine glass that is sealed with foil and able to be resealed with a plastic lid.


Skinnygirl Bethenny Fankel recently introduced Skinnygirl Wine (building off her Skinnygirl Margarita success), although some are questioning if the 100-calorie a glass wine is all that different from regular wine. I’d prefer a small glass of the real thing. Yet, as you probably know, I don’t like the whole Skinnygirl phenomenon and using “skinny” as an ideal.

Did anyone go to this year’s National Restaurant Association conference? What did you think were the big trends?

Enjoy this?

share it



Copyright 2021 Nutrition Unplugged
Design by cre8d