2018, change looks good on you! And lucky it does, because the new year is going to be all about change, according to Andrew Freeman, CEO of restaurant and hospitality consulting firm, af&co—so much so that the company’s 2018 Hospitality Trend Report is entitled “Change is the New Black.” While we’ll be seeing some food and restaurant trends that feel familiar (you may recognize a few from our 2017 article about trends that will stick around), these will be gaining traction, and taking some twists and turns!


Take this first trend, chicken, which af&co has declared the “Dish of the Year.” Surprising? “Everybody has challenged it,” explains Freeman. “In some respects chicken had become that standard item, that item everybody has to have. [But] it’s been a stressful year, and I think chicken is a comfort food. [It’s] that sense of a great roast chicken with mashed potatoes.”

Kara Nielsen, VP of Trends and Marketing for CCD Innovation, a food and beverage trends agency, agrees that chicken will be big:  “[We’re going to see] real growth of niche chicken restaurants—a variety of chicken sandwiches, or chicken three different ways, or natural chicken.” CCD Innovation released their 2018 Food Trends That Matter report, listing the “Chicken Conundrum” as one of the trends that is currently taking off.


chicken eggs on straw


Nielsen elaborates on the other side of this conundrum: “At the same time, there are chefs and chicken producers who are more interested in more flavorful chicken grown in a more humane way.” Nielsen highlights Bell & Evans as one of these producers who is focused on raising slow-growth chickens, in order to have a more flavorful product without taking shortcuts.  Transparency encompasses this idea of full-disclosure regarding food production, and slow-growth practices are a story consumers want to hear.

As Whole Foods describes in their own 2018 trend report with their “Transparency 2.0” trend, consumers want more from product labeling; they want the truth behind their food. They want to know if the products they are buying are GMO-free, Fair Trade, humanely raised, responsibly produced, etc. Where and how chickens are raised is just one piece of the puzzle—consumers are looking to be utterly informed about their food.

Veggies in the Spotlight

“The influence of vegetables in general [is] like never before. They’re taking center stage on the plates,” Freeman expounds. We’ll be seeing vegetarian entrees worth getting excited about, and the af&co report lists “rotisserie cauliflower, jackfruit tacos, and hominy ceviche” as some of the dishes we might find on restaurant menus.

We’ll be seeing more and more completely veggie-centric restaurants, as well. These are restaurants like Bad Hunter in Chicago’s West Loop, with dishes like Rutabaga Gnocchi or Roasted Sunchokes, or like Clever Rabbit in Wicker Park, which highlights vegetables in its drinks, too (another Carrot Margarita, please!).

Vegan Meat

The Impossible Burger is already here, and we’ll be seeing it show up on more menus. Freeman points to examples like the fast-casual burger chain in the Bay Area, Gott’s, offering the Impossible Burger as a patty option. Kuma’s Corner, a Chicago metal-themed burger bar which topped the Daily Meal’s 2014 list of best burgers in America, has also recently added the Impossible Burger to its menu.

“The Impossible Burger is becoming cultural on menus, [but] there will be other competitors,” explains Freeman. He noted, too, the rise of vegan-themed butcher shops and delicatessens, like The Butcher’s Son in Berkeley, which offers vegan fried chicken and vegan roast beef. “I think we’re going to see vegan porterhouse steaks, vegan bologna, [etc]” Freeman predicts.


biodynamic farming, green sprouts in farm field


This trend encapsulates both the movement toward utilizing wasted ingredients as well as the progression of biodynamics. Freeman describes the shift of social consciousness: “First recycling, then carbon footprint, then it went to full animal utilization, now full utilization of everything!” Whole Foods labels this trend “root-to-stem,” where foods like beet-green pesto showcase an underutilized part of the fruit or vegetable. For af&co, it’s more about highlighting wasted ingredients, like LA and Portland ice cream company Salt & Straw using surplus popcorn to create a new flavor, or San Francisco’s Project Juice dedicating a month to “ugly” produce to make their juice.

Biodynamics is another way food producers will be aligning with the trend of eco-consciousness. Nielsen explains, “Biodynamics is a type of growing practice, beyond organic—it’s a holistic practice that takes into consideration the whole environment of the agriculture of where you’re growing.” It involves use of crop rotation, cover crops, and natural compost to build a nutrient-rich soil. Nielsen notes that we’re seeing this with companies like The Republic of Tea, local Oakland company Back to the Roots, and South Carolina baby-food company White Leaf Provisions. More and more food producers are embracing this ecologically mindful way of growing foods.


peach melba mocktail non-alcoholic cocktail

Chowhound’s Peach Melba Cooler

The mocktail selection at restaurants and bars is ever-growing. Freeman describes “sections of menu being devoted to non-drinkers,” with house sodas, tonics, tinctures, and shrubs all contributing to the creation of complex, alcohol-free beverages. DC-area’s Hula Girl Bar and Grill offers their “Shrub of the Day,” for those who want to sip on one of their daily non-alcoholic sweetened vinegar syrups, served with soda water.

We’re seeing Seedlip’s non-alcoholic spirits making rounds on social media, providing consumers with an herbal cocktail base in place of the usual liquor. An herbaceous yet alcohol-free gin and tonic? We’d try it!

Sparkling beverages are also gaining momentum, as denoted in Whole Foods’ trend report—there will be a growing variety of sparkling drinks derived from plants, based in coffee, and incorporating new and interesting flavors. Any of these are ready to mingle with the other aforementioned non-alcoholic “potions,” to help grow the mocktail section of 2018’s restaurant menus.

Emerging Regional Cuisines

cauliflower tacos with crema

Chowhound’s Cauliflower Tacos

Mexican and Mexican-American cuisine is “really coming into view” according to Nielsen, who highlights Chef Val Contu of San Francisco’s Californios as an example of an innovator of Mexican flavors. We’ll be seeing inspired use of Mexican or Latin ingredients and forms, expanding our notion of what Mexican food is, according to Nielsen.

Besides Mexican cuisine, af&co’s report also highlights Israeli cuisine, Jewish delis, and contemporary Chinese cuisine. Israeli foods exhibit ingredients like sumac and harissa (and have you tried halva?), and Chinese is evolving with trends from China itself to create “a new kind of Sichuan food.” Touting some pride in his heritage, Freeman is especially excited about “Jewish delis having their day.”

CCD Innovation’s report lists “Asian Treats & Sweets” as a trend we are currently living. Treats like black sesame ice cream, sweet dumplings, and mochi can be found on more and more menus. With regards to pandan-sweetened items, Nielsen adds that “more restaurants are putting these pandan desserts on the menu,” including at new Vietnamese café, Ca Phe Da, in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

Change is definitely on the menu for 2018, and frankly, we can’t wait. Here’s to tasting every unexpected bite or sip, whether it’s veggie-forward, Fair Trade, bubbly, biodynamically-grown, or surprisingly-chicken-y!

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