A year ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Johnny Roberts predicted one of the big restaurant trends for 2020 would be finding new and more efficient ways of doing delivery. He couldn’t have foreseen what would cause restaurants to embrace that trend fully — along with increasing their efficiency in providing takeout — as a matter of survival amid COVID-19 shutdowns and government mitigation protocols.
Those will be among the big food trends continuing into 2021, says Roberts, who follows the industry in his work for both the Isaac’s regional restaurant chain and Lancaster Local Provisions, a company that delivers curated market and gift boxes of locally sourced produce, meat and artisanal goods.
“The way to describe the trends of 2021, it’ll be not what we’re eating, but how and where,” Roberts says. “There was a big, big, big pandemic pivot. If you notice, the biggest trend (in 2020) was everyone trying to get more technology ... and more diversity in packaging.
“Those trends aren’t going to end,” Roberts says. “Curbside (pickup) isn’t going to go away. People discovered a lot of ways to save time, and ways to interact less with (other) people. ... That’s where restaurants are heading, in case (of) another pandemic surge or another pandemic, itself, comes down the pike.
“So, that’s the major trend that everyone’s talking about: Delivery. How to do it, how to package (food), how to get that restaurant feeling, or experience, at home, and safely,” says Roberts, business and market development director at Isaac’s.
Increased outdoor dining, including heated spaces, is another trend restaurants will continue to embrace in 2021, Roberts predicts — “creating spaces that they can roll over to outdoor dining (since) people feel safer out there.”
Because there were hiccups in the food supply chain during the early months of the pandemic, Roberts says the use of more locally sourced food became, by necessity, a trend for restaurants, as well, and will continue in 2021.
“If you see any innovation in food (in 2021), it’s going to be local,” Roberts says. “I think you’re going to see restaurants trying to be creative in ... what they can do with what they already have.”
Many restaurants will be putting more money into technology this year, he says — adding delivery apps, and embracing new online platforms that streamline takeout, delivery and curbside pickup.
The New York Times agrees. In a recent story on 2021 food trends, Kim Severson predicts 2021 will see eateries “mix technology like apps that track diner preferences and arrival time with touches of hospitality to polish the curbside experience and improve the quality of the food.”
A further increase in plant-based food offerings, in general, should continue throughout 2021, Roberts adds.
Other trend predictions
Many food service and hospitality companies and organizations — from Whole Foods to the Specialty Food Association to af&co/carbonate, a San Francisco-based marketing and consulting firm — also offer yearly prognostications on trends in restaurants, supermarkets and other parts of the food industry.
Here are a few trends many of the reports agree are on the horizon for 2021.
Restaurants locally and across the country have embraced the concept of creating meal kits that people can finish assembling or cooking at home.
“The family-style meal kits that restaurants have been experimenting with, you probably won’t see that going away (for 2021),” Roberts says. “They’re finessing that to make them better.”
Lancaster Local Provisions, for which Roberts serves as “community connector,” delivers such recipe boxes as all the fixings to make soup, bloody marys, a pancake brunch, an apple cider and sausage dinner and macaroni and cheese.
The New York Times trend story agrees, saying, “the pandemic sent everyone back to the kitchen, and meal kits once again seemed like a good idea — so good that chefs got into the game.”
Powdered and liquid sweeteners made with monk fruit, as a low-calorie sugar alternative, wound up on several trend reports this year, including af&co/carbonate’s predictions for “ingredients on the rise” for 2021. Also on that list are banana blossom and hearts of palm as vegetarian substitutes for seafood.
Mike Kostyo, resident trendologist for food industry market research firm Datassential, foresees fermented honey also being used as a natural sweetener.
The Specialty Food Association foresees the popularity of interesting new ingredients to enhance home cooking that has become the norm for so many people sheltering in place.
The association predicts the popularity of such ingredients as sea buckthorn, a reddish-orange berry from Europe and Asia that has a sweet-tart taste; fonio, a nutritious millet from Senegal; Cambodian chili pastes; and herbs and spices from West Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Other hot ingredients for the year, according to Kostyo, include chicory root, sudachi (a Japanese citrus fruit) and honeysuckle as a new floral flavor.
Calming elements, health boosters
After the 2020 most of us have had, several trend reports predict consumers will be embracing products that are calming rather than caffeinated and sleep-inducing rather than energy-boosting.
“The era of the energy drink is over,” says Severson of the New York Times. “All the stress and anxiety of 2020 has created a new market for food and drinks that claim to promote relaxation and sleep.”
Af&co predicts there will be an increase in products containing CBD, and adaptogens (stress-resisting compounds from roots and herbs).
Food trends forecaster Elizabeth Moskow predicts the rise of copaiba, an oil derived from the resin of a South American tree that’s seen as a remedy for inflammation, chronic pain and anxiety, in food and beverages this year.
“Driftwell, from Pepsico, is water enhanced with magnesium and L-theanine, an amino acid that some studies show can relax the mind without drowsiness,” Severson says in the Times story. “Look for relaxing snacks, like Goodnight, a nighttime chocolate nibble with ingredients to help you sleep, and Nightfood, a bedtime ice cream with sleep-inducing minerals, digestive enzymes and less sugar.”
Also hot, trendspotters predict, will be foods that have a variety of immune-boosting and other health claims attached to them. The Kroger grocery chain says these include products containing elderberry and probiotic kefir (a fermented milk).
Whole Foods adds broths and sauerkraut to this list.
Healthline.com says more manufactured food and beverages featuring echinacea, astragalus (a Chinese herb), turmeric and ginger will be available in 2021.
Carob, mushrooms, chickpeas
Trend reports from such companies as Whole Foods and the Kroger grocery chain see products featuring mushrooms booming in 2021.
“The versatile vegetable is rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and can easily elevate everyday recipes with its warm umami flavor,” Kroger’s trend report says. You’ll see the fungi in “blended plant-based proteins, condiments, spices, seasonings and more” in 2021.
Remember the 1980s, when carob was everywhere as a chocolate substitute? Well, trendspotters say it will be back this year, in the form of flour, molasses and baked goods.
And several prognosticators say garbanzo beans, or as they’re more commonly known, chickpeas, will find their way into many more food products, dishes and snack foods this year.
Food waste is still a big problem, and the food industry keeps making progress in dealing with it. One solution: using the parts of produce that might normally be thrown out, such as peels and ends of vegetables; okara, the soy pulp left over from making tofu; and “ugly,” less-than-perfect fruit. Whole Foods carries a variety of upcycled products such as Pulp Chips and okara flour.
Af&co/carbonate says coffee brewed with cascara (the coffee bean husk) and chocolate products using the whole cocoa fruit will be trending.
Fruit and vegetable jerky
Dehydrating isn’t only for meat anymore. A few trend reports, such as that from Whole Foods, predict jerky from produce, such as such as bananas, pineapples, mushrooms and mangoes, will be popular this year.
Food producers are also developing interesting produce to entice customers, including Driscoll’s rosé strawberries and Del Monte’s PinkGlow pineapple, Kostyo, of Dataessential says.
“Hard” beverages — drinks spiked with alcohol — are on many trend lists this year. These include hard seltzer, tea, coffee and kombucha (fermented tea).
VinePair thinks 2021 will be the year hard seltzer will be available in more bars, and be developed as a draft product.
Af&co/carbonate foresees the continuation of the trend of restaurants offering their signature cocktails to go — both mixed for you or in kits to be mixed at home.
With more people eating in heated outdoor spaces because of the pandemic, Af&co/carbonate says, hot cocktails such as hot toddies, Irish coffee and hot buttered rum will be popular in 2021.
One of the trends Whole Foods touts for 2021 is the increased popularity of breakfast. With more people working from home, they’re embracing breakfast as a meal they can enjoy on weekdays, not just weekends. Food companies are producing bite-sized foods from the breakfast category, such as egg and pancake bites.
Roberts agrees. The success of the full breakfast menu rolled out by Wendy’s restaurant in the spring of 2020 has inspired other restaurants to follow suit, he says.
In its annual report, af&co always predicts an international cuisine of the year and a food of the year.
This year, its cuisine is Chinese-American
“Chinese-American restaurants had delivery down way before it became popular,” the af&co report says. “Their cuisine is a taste of comfort for people of all ages and nationalities. ... It is dependably delicious, but for many of us, not something readily made at home.”
As for the food of the year? Af&co predicts it’ll be quesabirria, a sort of meaty, cheesy Mexican taco that’s served with a consomme of juices from cooking the meat.
The New York Times calls Basque burnt cheesecake from Spain, “a crustless cheesecake, baked in a very hot oven so the top caramelizes but the inside remains soft and jiggly,” its “flavor of the year.”
And for Kyosto, a trending dish is carne guisada — a Mexican beef stew the recipe for which is being expanded to use chicken, pork and seafood.
Issues and causes
Finally, several trendspotters say important issues and causes will be entwined with food service in 2021, from an increased awareness toward diversity in hiring to support of food banks to cause-based food events from such groups as Bakers Against Racism.
Locally, in October, a group of local Bakers Against Racism held a bake sale to raise money for the Domestic Violence Services Fund at Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County.
Roberts says many of the trends being predicted for this year — from meal kits to unusual new ingredients and specialty foods to restaurants streamlining takeout and delivery options — support another central 2021 trend: cooking and eating at home.
“People are seeing how much fun it is to be with their family,” Roberts says. “So we may see the return of family dinner night,” with the help of restaurants and other parts of the food industry.
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