Jonathan’s Chicago Food Tour: 5 Foodservice Trends

Fresh back from a food tour of Chicago, and having done some serious eating, I’ve got an extra-large portion of tasty insights and mouth-watering inspiration to share.

While the eating out landscape hasn’t changed dramatically since I was last there in 2014, big, bold flavours and meaty comforting dishes are the order of the day, the rate of change is still in stark contrast to that of the UK market and casual dining industry, which is a lot more cautious when it comes to change.

Topped potato products

While we’re still getting our head around serving topped chips in the UK, US operators have taken the concept and run with it. Topped chips and other potato products are everywhere and you can get them served with anything you can think of, all at once. You fancy cheese, bacon, sweetcorn, tomatoes and jalapenos, served on your choice of potato? No problem. One place was even serving pulled pork and cheese sauce on top of crisps, straight out of the bag. How’s that for an easy to serve and ‘freshly’ made hand-held dish?

Sides

In Chicago they tend to focus on the component parts of a meal. If you order a steak, burger, or ribs, that’s what you get, sides aren’t included. This works for the operator in a number of ways;

One, the customer feels empowered because they get to customise their meal to suit their tastes.

Two, because a typical side is often twice the size of what you might get over here, customers share, often choosing multiple dishes.

Three, the customers are immediately in a position to be up-sold to, looking at the part of the menu that offers added value dishes, such as topped fries, so are likely to spend more.

Four, sharing encourages experimentation.

What other reason is there for choosing sweet potato mash topped with meringue for a side with wings and ribs? To be fair, it’s pretty good, it just doesn’t sound it.

One item concept restaurants

The Burger restaurant is the pioneer in this area, and in recent years we’ve seen a small number of operators having success selling things like burgers and lobsters, or hotdogs and champagne. This trend is commonplace in Chicago. Desperate to achieve cut-through in a crowded marketplace, all the new restaurants and casual dining locations I saw focused on positioning themselves as a specialist, delivering a very simple, clear concept. I saw places that just served meat balls, in lots of different ways, chicken wings, gluten free dishes, and dishes under 600 calories. There is still a lot of choice on the menu but they’re not blinding customers with options. Doing one thing really well gives these guys credibility with their customers and delivers some significant operational advantages. For example, supplier relationships should be easier to manage and service can be streamlined.

Freshness, authenticity and craft over provenance

Food - especially casual dining food - that is custom built using ‘fresh’ ingredients, in front of you, even if it’s just topping a pizza or making a wrap with pre-prepared ingredients, is hugely popular. Consumers are also after craft products and authenticity, which is why the ‘specialist’ operators, who are seen as experts, do so well. Craft beer is huge and it’s not uncommon for restaurants to smoke their own meat on site. Because of the sheer size of the US, the notion of using local ingredients is practically impossible to deliver so provenance isn’t necessarily something consumers are looking for.

DIY service

While I was there I also took in the National Restaurant Association Exhibition. Amazingly, in a country famed for its fantastic service and skill in up-selling to customers, there was a lot of talk about self-service and the role tablets will play in that. For me, great service is all part of the eating out experience, especially in the US. I like the idea that the tablet might be able to tell me that my steak is cooking and will be ready in 3 minutes, but not that much! However, there is a place for everything. Vending for hot meals was also talked about a lot. It’s an interesting area which could have a big impact on workplace catering, certainly in places like hospitals and factories, where shift work occurs, and it’s worth keeping an eye on.

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