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2012 Restaurant Trends with Room to Grow

When I think about great food ideas that have real potential to become trends, I ask an important question: It might work in New York, but how well will it translate to other markets? With that in mind, here are 10 ideas from the Big Apple that have the potential to grow even bigger in 2012.
1. The Sandwich Shop: This will continue to go mainstream. As successful venues like ’wichcraft and Tiny’s Giant continue to thrive and expand, the public will continue to crave more than just a basic hoagie roll, cold cuts and shredded iceberg. Customers are going to look for more artesan-inspired concepts with unique breads, proteins and flavor combinations.
2. Food Trucks: This sector will continue to grow, but at a slower pace. New York, Miami and San Francisco are just a few markets where this concept has taken hold. These traveling gastronomic bastions provide value, fast service and great ethnic flavors. However, the operators are realizing that this is not the quick money they thought food trucks would be. Unless the owner is working it personally or a central commissary is doing production for multiple trucks reality can take hold. It can be hard work with slim profit margins. Governmental agencies are also continuing to crack down on permits and other required items, making their success even harder.
3. Mixology: Handcrafted, creative drinks will continue to find a place in restaurants across the country. But mixologists and operators are starting to figure out that guests don’t want to wait 15 minutes for a cocktail. There is a specific time and place for that kind of detail such as Pegu Club and Little Branch. Most operators will realize, perhaps the hard way, that there is a balance between execution and profit. Their cocktails also have to make sense with the market and concept.
4. Wine Lists: The dining public is creating and dictating the sweet spot for contemporary wine programs. Lists will continue to become more concept-focused and tailored to the cuisine being served. Lists with 80 to 120 selections are growing more common. Most wine professionals I work with tell me $50 to $80 seems to be the threshold. This is especially true in cities where many companies have put caps on wine spending when their employees entertain.
5. The Meatball: Yep, you got it. Along with other throwback, red sauce Italian-American dishes like the chicken Parmesan hero. One only has to look at the success of Torrisi Italian Specialties in Soho and their new spin-off ‘Parm’ just next door, with lines out the door every day. The Meatball Shop on New York’s lower East Side regularly has one-hour waits. Of course, execution is everything and their products are not just run-of-the mill. Torrisi prepares many of its products sous vide to bring incredible tenderness and flavor to what could otherwise be a very basic item; also, the restaurant’s packaging is brilliant.
6. Vegan/Vegetarian/Organic: In major markets these niches are becoming more popular. Joy Pierson, owner and chef of Candle 79 and Candle Café in New York City, says 90 percent of her guests are not strict vegans. Yet, her guests come back several times a week because they want to eat healthier. The popularity of her venues and her celebrity, high-end crowd reinforce this. Whole Foods and Fresh Market have raised awareness of healthier alternatives among the general public. This will drive demand for dining options when those spenders want to eat out. The popularity of Joy’s new Candle 79 Cookbook has also helped spread the word.
7. Fried Pizza: I don’t mean zeppole with marinara sauce. I am referring to something really new, presented by Forcella on The Bowery in New York City. Forcella serves fantastic brick-oven pizzas. But the place also has a section of smaller, fried pizzas. These are flash-fried, then topped as ordered and finished in their brick oven. The texture is unique, light and tasty. Pick-up times are super fast, and on paper the profits look great. Somebody needs to jump on this one.
8. Improved Service: Hard to believe with high unemployment that poor service is still an issue in restaurants. I don’t think it is from a lack of trying. The biggest issue I see is that training costs time and money. In a bad economy this is the first expense an operator cuts. As natural employee turnover occurs new staff is not properly trained. The typical “just trail them for three days” mentality prevails. In the long run this actually costs the operator in profit. Increased employee turnover and lower guest satisfaction result. As diners watch their spending they will continue to put their dining dollars where the food and service are excellent.
9. Social media: Facebook and Twitter will continue to be important. But operators need to figure out what their guests want to hear. Only a very small percentage want to hear “The chef just picked basil out back from our garden.” The general public wants to hear about a new menu item or a special offer. Keep it simple and save the detail for e-newsletters.
10. Execution and better-quality ingredients: As a consultant I continue to see great-looking venues with enthusiastic staff selling bad food. Operators go out of their way to do the research, hire designers to create smart-looking operations but just don’t get to food right. A brick oven pizza in Wilmington, NC, or Reston, VA is not the same as one in New York, L.A. or San Francisco. As the economy rebounds and casual travel increases the public in smaller markets will continue to expand their knowledge (and palates) and demand it. Come on guys, put it on the plate!

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