Last week we had the opportunity to check out the 76th annual Western Foodservice and Hospitality Expo up at the Anaheim Convention Center. While there, we were able to chat with WFHE Industry Vice President Ron Mathews at the Food Trends Experience Pavilion to talk about emerging food industry trends and the convention itself:
So is having the convention at the Anaheim Convention Center working out?
Actually it’s worked out really, really well. We picked Anaheim because Orange County has a good strong number of CRA members and a good number of strong headquarters for some multi-unit chains, some big ones and some small ones. So the easy access is fantastic. Plus, the food businesses and restaurant businesses in Orange County is very strong, a lot of great restaurants – and not just the fast casuals, which are great, but a lot of nice restaurants in the area. It’s a community for the restaurant business. So we like this. It’s our first year here, and we definitely did very well and will consider coming back.
So, being that we’re here at the Food Trends Pavilion, are there any food trends in particular that you’re really excited about this year?
Well, I’ll tell you that the background for the Food Trends Experience came from all the surveys with the customers. Each time they said they’re looking to find what’s new, what’s exciting, what are the trends? Food and trends always connected, it’s very interesting. We always look for trends, but food trends in general. The things we’re seeing come across this year you’ll see out here – there’s healthy trends, there’s gluten-free items, there’s salt-free items, there’s low-cal. There’s something I saw down there before called a soylato – a soy-based gelato. I mean, it’s a very interesting concept and idea. I think people are looking to find out where their food’s coming from at times, so there’s local sourcing. Carbon footprint has an impact: a lot of the young chefs are actually looking to source these things as their unique position in the market.
Have you noticed that businesses are aiming to meet those trend expectations?
Yeah, I think on the menus what you’re seeing is going from having that “Lighter Side” menu section having three items to having six or nine or ten. I think in the next five years you’ll probably see a portion of the menu, a third or half, that’s going to reflect healthier items along with the trends.
Another thing is all the healthy aspects of food that are trending right now, which are huge and they’ve been doing that for a few years – it’s going to continue. It’s not going to go backwards. It will be a continued trend for the next five years. If it’s gluten-free today, sodium content might jump up a little bit more or a lot more in the next three years. If it’s fat content now, caloric content are going to be big in the next couple of years. But it’s going to stay, and that’s what the Food Trends Experience is here to deliver to restaurateurs and chefs.
Aside from healthy trends, I noticed there are a lot of Asian inspired products in the Food Trends Experience. Is that something that’s ramping up?
It actually is. All different types of Asian cooking are being fused with all types of cooking in the U.S. They’re fusing Italian foods, Mediterranean foods, with Asian foods.
What you’re finding is the tastes, the spices, the flavoring are where it’s coming together. In the past, if you had an Italian restaurant, you may not be looking for those flavors that have an Asian-based background. Nowadays, everybody’s combining the two because it’s giving them something special on their menu and it’s kind of being demanded by consumers: “I don’t need the same old thing, I can eat that at home.” So where years ago comfort food was very big, the comfort food piece isn’t going away but sophisticated flavors without the sophisticated price tag is pretty important right now to maintain the business success that these guys want.
Do you see any trends that are helping restaurant owners or retailers reach out to people who are less willing to spend?
Yeah, I think people are getting smart, and I think restaurateurs are getting smart too and are pricing their items to address the market in a challenged economy. Smaller cost meals, price-fixed meals, smaller portions with more flavors or tastes coming out for a nice price – and I’m not going to say a bargain price, but I’m going to say a value price. I think value is so huge. You’ve got to think about the kids’ meals in the quick service industry went from kids’ meals to value meals. Shifting just a little bit, the dollar menu became the value menu, because you can only sustain the dollar menu for so long because it’s a money loser. The restaurant industry doesn’t make tons of margin on these items, so eventually it’s got to come back. But I don’t think it’s a big swing. I think they’re going to go into “how much more value can we produce,” just to boost that price up just a little bit, not a lot.
Do you see any upcoming trends in children’s food?
One hundred percent, I think specifically here in California. Having low caloric, low fat, low sodium options – not completely, but just lower than we’d traditionally get – is enormous. Just the other day on the news, they were saying that they feel there’s been a reduction in the average weight of childhood obesity here in the state of California based on some of those things they’ve put into the school systems in the last few years, they’re seeing results. So, absolutely.
The other thing is that they’re expanding child options: it’s not just less fries, it’s fruit. Now fruits are becoming more common as an option instead of fries, and that’s smart. But it’s not just school systems, either: it’s gone to quick service restaurants like McDonald’s, and it’s gone to fast casual places, too.
There had originally been pushback between government versus restaurants over whether those options are a good idea, is that something we’ll see more of after all?
The restaurant industry is always being tested and pushed for responsibility around how people eat, and you know what: people have responsibility for whatever they’re going to put in their mouth. However, as a society, that’s what our government is all about is trying to do our best to make sure that they maintain a healthy lifestyle. I think that the restaurant community has given that a lot more support than at times it gets credit for. They really want to give the best thing they possibly can, not only in product but also in a health regard, because they do drive 50 percent of the spend in the entire country. They do care quite a bit. It’s not as challenging, but I don’t think it’s going to go away, it’s only going to increase.
Is there anything you see that isn’t quite big yet, that’s just emerging but is going to be big on the horizon?
The move to whole grains and whole wheat in a lot of items, not just the bread we put sandwiches on, you’re going to see the whole grain aspect everywhere. You’re starting to see that on restaurant menus now, so I think that’s actually going to be pretty strong and I think that’s going to grow quite a bit. It’s small, it’s subtle, because you don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it unless you’re a whole wheat eater, but now you’re going to start seeing it a whole lot more so I think it’s going to slowly but surely take over a lot more space on that menu as a component of dishes.
Missed out on this year’s Western Foodservice and Hospitality Expo? You can catch up with the 2013 Western Foodservice and Hospitality Expo next year, August 18-20, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.