It’s a new year, and there’s no shortage of new challenges and opportunities for the restaurant industry. From minimum wage hikes and tech innovations to guests’ evolving tastes and preferences, it seems restaurants are constantly breaking new ground to stay current in an ever-competitive landscape.
We asked some of the top chefs, restaurateurs, and experts in the industry to share their predictions for restaurants in 2016. Here are the trends and transformations they expect to see in food, drinks, business, and beyond (and take a look back at last year’s predictions to see where experts got it right).
“We will see the ground-up restructuring of restaurants as we know it. There are major changes ahead for restaurants legislatively, and with technology, labor, tipping, etc., restaurants will have to rethink operations and how they take care of their customers across the board.”
— Eamon Rockey, General Manager, Betony
Laws and regulations have never been more important to the restaurant industry, changing the way businesses fundamentally operate. Kevin Boehm, Co-Founder of Boka Restaurant Group, predicts that 2016 will be an experimental year for the economic framework for restaurants. “From increased kitchen pay to tipping structures to the inevitable menu cost inflation, we will all be keeping a close eye on what works and what doesn’t,” he says.
Maureen Cushing, Director of IT at Union Square Hospitality Group, says that identifying back-of-house efficiencies will be a major priority for her team in the coming year.
“We are always looking for ways to control costs. Scheduling software is something we implemented in 2015, and integrating it with real-time data to control payroll expenses is a focus for 2016. Purchasing software is critical, but the challenge of all businesses is maintaining the recipes for accurate costs.”
— Maureen Cushing, Director of IT, Union Square Hospitality Group
Anthony Rudolf, Founder of Journee, a community for restaurant professionals, sees a future of gratitude over gratuity. “Service included is here to stay,” he says. “That’s a great thing! While guests may be resistant at first, once they understand that the perceived power of tipping was only an illusion, they will realize that leaving behind their gratitude instead of their gratuity is far more satisfying and productive to everyone. Even more so is honest feedback provided in the moment, whether positive or negative.”
Sabato Sagaria, Chief Restaurant Officer at Union Square Hospitality Group, agrees that tipping is on its way out.
“As the cost of doing business continues to rise around the country, the traditional model of tipping will further fuel the disparity between dining room teams/culinary teams and make it more of a financial hardship to enter into management,” he predicts. “As a result, more restaurants at varying price points will shift to an all-inclusive pricing model in order to fairly compensate the ENTIRE team, in turn providing more inspiration for others to follow and bring us one year closer to saying… ‘Remember when we used to tip?'”
“We’re gonna get more political! 2016 will be a huge election cycle and so many of the core policy issues facing the restaurant industry are influenced, mandated, or stymied by our elected offices (think mandatory minimum wage, tipping laws, alcohol sales and distribution). I think industry leaders and trade groups will be looking to advocate for enhancements in the dining/beverage sector.”
— Erin Fairbanks, Executive Director, Heritage Radio Network
Leaders in the industry are using their voices to raise awareness and protect their interests. Paul Kahan, Executive Chef and Owner at One Off Hospitality Group, adds that chefs play a particularly important role in fighting for change.
“I would hope that 2016 would be the decline of the celebrity chef, and the rise of the chef as a contributor to food education and advocacy,” he says. “The only way we can institute change in our country is through younger generations.”
BACK TO BASICS
“I predict that there will be renewed appreciation for restaurants that are established and that have stood the test of time. We live in a society where the ‘new’ dominates critical food writing, but sometimes the most comfortable fit is the old pair of jeans, the vinyl record, or the neighborhood restaurant we have been going to for years.”
— Kevin Boehm, Co-Founder, Boka Restaurant Group
Forget foams and fusion. The experts we heard from expressed a collective desire to return to basics — comforting foods, cozy atmospheres, and a sense of familiarity.
“Restaurants are making a shift towards simplicity in lieu of fussiness, not only in terms of their menus but also in terms of their décor, their approach to service, and their thematic inclinations,” says Anthony. “People are longing to feel nourished through good, simple cooking and genuinely warm service, and restaurants are eager to provide just that. Simplicity doesn’t mean sloppiness or rusticity — it means doing fewer things incredibly well.”
“We crave the hospitality and familiarity of small, cozy places the more digital our everyday becomes. Smaller restaurants with a sit-by-the-fireplace-and-let-me-pour-you-a-glass-of-port feel.”
Eamon, too, points to nostalgia inspiring the industry in 2016. “This will be the year of bringing in old-style restaurants, old-style concepts, old-style menu items and old-style dining. The cocktail movement was ahead of the curve here with the old-school bartenders, and now the time is for restaurants to follow.”
Similarly, Chef Kahan sees the simplest solution as the best one to ensure a restaurant’s success: enduring hospitality. “My business partner Donnie Madia champions true hospitality as our secret weapon,” he says. “With industry giants like Danny Meyer and Donnie Madia preaching this philosophy it has got to be a trend.”
“With increased rent prices, federal mandates, and a much-needed reform to living wages already taking root, we must focus on the things we have in common and come together as a community to collaborate, share, and succeed. We need to leave the comparisons and competitive assumptions at the door and become more vulnerable and charitable as peers in order to work together to find viable solutions to the challenges that are inevitably coming our way.”
— Anthony Rudolf, Founder, Journee
Additionally, Sarah predicts more collaborations between chefs and food crafters, such as restaurants serving artisan pastries made by industry friends. These partnerships are great for “making fun things available on the menu and to carry out to mark special times of the year,” she says.
Thomas McNaughton, Executive Chef and Partner at San Francisco’s Ne Timeas Restaurant Group, envisions community engagement extending beyond chefs and food makers. In 2016, he predicts the rise of what he calls roaming restaurants: “Established brick-and-mortar restaurants taking on traveling concepts to work with local food and seasons in different areas.”
“I predict that in 2016, we will see more chef collaborations, as well as more chefs opening restaurants focused on their heritage, but with modern and innovative touches. We’ve already begun to see a few here in San Francisco.”
— Michael Mina, Chef/Founder, Michael Mina Group
HEALTH & SUSTAINABILITY
“I think there will be less pork fat used in cooking and more of an emphasis on health, which has already begun to take shape. Regionalism with a focus on sustainably sourced foods will continue to take the center stage.”
— John Besh, Chef and Founder, Besh Restaurant Group
Diners are more conscious than ever about the quality of their food and where it comes from. As a result, tastes have changed and healthy foods are here to stay. “Vegetables will move from an interesting supporting character to the dynamic lead,” Kevin predicts. “Eating healthier is no longer a trend, its the norm, and this is just the evolution of that movement.”
Access to fresh, healthy, great-tasting ingredients is absolutely essential, so we will also see chefs and restaurants starting to grow ingredients themselves. Restaurant teams are creating farms and gardens to supply food for their concepts.
“Although the labeling of farm-to-table is being more loosely defined, I think more restaurants are going to establish their own direct growing operations, whether that is a farm, rooftop garden, etc.”
— Thomas McNaughton, Chef/Partner, Ne Timeas Restaurant Group
“Mobile solutions make dining easier and more efficient for consumers. Software and apps will continue to flourish, providing guests with more opportunities than ever to research, reserve, order, deliver, pay, communicate, comment, and everything in between. The ones that can seamlessly satisfy the most functionality on a single platform will emerge as leaders.”
— Sabato Sagaria, Chief Restaurant Officer, Union Square Hospitality Group
No surprise here: more and more technology solutions are being developed specifically for the hospitality industry, covering every aspect of the dining experience.
Table service restaurants need a solution for the liability shift of EMV last October, says Maureen, and mobile payments are on the rise. Still, many guests still want to pay at the table. “From a hardware prospective, everything out there is very clunky. I am excited to see the industry drive the change. We need a secure solution that enhances the guest experience.”
Chef Mina agrees, pointing to new solutions in transportation: “We will continue to see the use of technology rise, one example being the increased use of the LUXE Valet application over the traditional valet stand.”
“2016 will be the year the American craft cider movement breaks out of the Redd’s Apple Ale mode with companies like Virtue Cider and Vander Mill in Michigan producing austere, super food-friendly ciders.”
– Paul Kahan, Executive Chef/Owner, One Off Hospitality Group
Erin gave another vote for the cider trend, saying, “Hard cider will move out of the fall and into the summer, giving rosé a run for its money as the go-to warm weather beverage of choice for tastemakers and those in the know.”
And it’s not just cider that will be celebrated by small producers. Sarah predicts the growing popularity of cocktails made with estate spirits and, as a result, a shorter supply chain and more transparency in the beverage industry.
“More and more distillers are making spirits from ingredients they grown themselves, like Richland Rum’s South Carolina estate rum (from their own sugar cane plantation) and Mad River Calvados apple brandy (from their own heirloom apple orchards) in Vermont,” she says.
…AND MANY MORE
The predictions above were ones we heard from multiple experts, but there were plenty more valuable insights in the mix. Here are a few to look out for:
Further Expansion in the Fine Casual. “With rising costs of labor, restaurateurs are looking for new business opportunities where they can serve great food, more efficiently, to more people, with lower overhead,” says Sabato. “2015 brought us Fuku, Superiority Burger, and Beefsteak to name a few on the east coast. The continued expansion in food halls will also help chefs find new venues to reach audiences outside the four walls of their flagship restaurants and further develop the fine casual landscape.”
Data. This year, says Maureen, data will be an instrumental tool for conducting trials and making business decisions across the board. “The industry has been sitting on a lot of data for years,” she says. “We will see companies focusing on how to use the data to make key decisions and achieve key target metrics. With increased competition and focusing on margins, it is more critical than ever to know your guest and use analytics to create efficiencies and operating leverage.”
Prix Fixe. “I think that casual restaurants will tackle the idea of a set menu,” says Chef McNaughton. “This is truly the chef’s dream: to streamline the experience for guests, as well as the ordering.”
Return to Refinement. Eamon believes guests are again seeking dining experiences that feel special and unique. “For many years the rock star chef and food took center stage, and the refined elements of dining went away,” he says. ” Look for those to slowly be added back in to the experience — comfortable seating, refined service, linen, fine glassware and china. There will be a pendulum swing allowing for both: great food and a refined experience.”