Let’s reflect on the days when the portobello mushroom emerged onto the scene, supplanting the button mushroom on menus. Do you remember how long it took the portobello to move through the trend cycle? To gain familiarity with consumers? It slowly and deliberately shifted beyond fine dining about 15 years ago. It didn’t hit ubiquity for a good five years more. Now, reflect on Sriracha. Or quinoa. Or kale. They moved through the cycle at a steady clip, going from relative unknowns to virtual pantry staples in about two years. That rapid cycling through trends is the norm now, setting a snowball pace of menu innovation.
The challenge lies in making sure that the trend cycle is not a hamster wheel. Perhaps it’s better to treat it like a pace car, making sure your menu is keeping up with the ever-changing flavor preferences of your diners. Choosing which trends to explore needs to take into account brand strategy. Of course, it also needs to be tempered by the reality of SKU management.
“Companies need to make sure they’re thinking strategically,” says Kara Nielsen, sales and engagement manager, USA, for Innova Market Insights, as well as a long-time restaurant trends expert, based in Oakland, Calif. “Some just think in terms of limited-time offers, but it’s helpful to have strategies on how you want to fit into the trend cycle—starting with where your brand fits in the trends landscape. You need an aligned strategic mission.”
A higher-level view also helps the menu-innovation process at the chain level. It’s not about adding Sriracha or kale or quinoa onto your menu. Their rocket-speed journeys through the trend cycles signal broader trends. Sriracha’s success is about modern heat. Kale’s correlates with health and wellness. Quinoa’s larger driver is the interest in ancient grains and nutrient density. And all of that springs from the well of consumer desire—specifically, Millennials’ desire. The emphasis that Millennials place on certain values drives modern trends. So, flavor innovation today is a requirement, but the challenge combines back-of-house practicality and intuitive brand fit.