15 hotel F&B trends for 2011

UNITED STATES Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co. creates high-profile restaurants around the world. The company offers 15 F&B trends to watch in 2011, along with some foodie buzzwords to know.

1. Old Italian is newly respectable.

All those old Italian chestnuts, from meatballs to eggplant parmesan, are getting new focus. The Meatball Shop in New York (five kinds, four gravies) has endless lines and will generate lookalike startups in 2011. Disney opened a Meatball and Beer Bar (also four kinds). Totonno’s in Georgia is trying to franchise a meatball shop. Fancy sandwich shops are nostalgically menuing them, along with eggplant parm, as hero sandwiches with social aspirations.

Meatball Mondays and all-you-can-eat spaghetti nights are on the rise. The Negroni is being rediscovered by bartenders, and while it won’t be the drink of 2011, it bears examining. Also growing: Consumer recognition of ancient and regional Italian grapes: bonarda, aglianico, vermentino, negroarmaro.

Artisan pizza boutiques are spreading everywhere, many adding mozzarella bars to their menus, making the stuff in-house and serving it still warm. Unfamiliar but authentic regional Italian ingredients are jazzing up old favorites: lardo, mostarda (mustard fruit), burrata, salsa verde (not the Mexican kind), speck (smoked prosciutto), tongue, oxtail, pigs’ feet, head cheese, guanciale (pork cheeks), tripe. Look for more inventive pesto recipes, too.

Olive Garden, Carraba, Macaroni Grill and their competitors aren’t playing in this ball field, which will widen the gap between Italian for the masses and Italian for the classes who appear not to have been humbled by the Great Recession and possess serious risk money to try these unfamiliar items

2. Good news at the top.

With financial sector employees not feeling the rest of the country’s economic pain, business will return to upscale restaurants—especially contemporary ones. Average spend may not rebound fully, and lunches will still be weak, but at least seats will be filled at dinner—and not necessarily with coupon-bearing bargain hunters who are something of a plague among recession-battered mid-priced casual restaurants.

3. Stealth competitors creeping up.

The restaurant industry is being blind-sided by new forms of non-restaurant competition. Drug stores and convenience stores are ramping up their food departments with newly conceived fresh “grab-and-go” departments. Look for Walgreen’s to copy big displays of branded items from its Duane Reade chain in New York, with other drug chains already loading up their front-of-store reach-in refrigerators with packaged salads, sandwiches and sweets. Convenience stores are doing the same as both try taking a bite out of supermarket expenditures and out of restaurant revenue.

4. Bricks-and-mortar vs. meals-on-wheels.

Food trucks, trawling for customers across the country, are driving restaurant owners nuts. They have big competitive advantages: low investment, no rent, no air conditioning, no utilities hookups, no real estate taxes, no dining rooms or waitstaff, no reservationists—and marketing costs reduced to Twitter and an iPhone. In a replay of bricks-and-mortar vs. e-businesses, established restaurateurs are pushing for local laws restricting these caravans, probably a no-win game; recent regulations in Los Angeles, for instance, will slow them down but not stop the spread.

Food truck “rodeos,” where a dozen or more vendors turn an empty field or parking lot into a food fair on wheels, are catching on as well. Look for more restaurant operators and big-name chefs to supplement their businesses by chasing after customers with their own trucks.

5. Korean food and the nothing-is-sacred taco.

Big irony: We have long been predicting Korean dishes as the next big cuisine, but they haven’t gained much traction outside of Korean neighborhoods—except in food trucks, where they have been mashed together with Mexican tacos. Kogi, the seminal Los Angeles food truck that launched a thousand wheels, features Latino tacos filled with Korean ingredients, now being copycatted profusely.

This will lend legitimacy to Korean flavors, and bulgogi, bibimbap and kimchee will enter America’s gastronomic lexicon. In Philadelphia, the world-food restaurant Meritage has been serving Korean short rib tacos at the bar, and Wednesday nights this summer featured Korean fried chicken for two, so word is getting around. Publicity surrounding the Momofuko chain also will give Korean a push.

But the wrapper will become more important than its contents: Look for an outburst of outrageously creative multi-cultural tacos, soft and hard, from fast food to haute cuisineries. Watch for American chefs on reconnaissance patrols to LA and New York Koreatowns. And wait for a big breakout: A “big deal” Korean restaurant that is marketed to non-Koreans.

6. Popsicles go global and artisan.

In 2008, Baum & Whiteman urged clients to investigate paletas—chunky, fruit-filled Mexican ice pops with flavors such as mango- chile or jicama-orange. Three years later, these niche items are becoming trendy. Gourmet ice pops are popping up filled with all sorts of exotica—mostly small-batch products riding the wave of “fresh” and “locally made.” In New York, La Newyorkina sells flavors like tamarind and passionfruit, and People’s Pops (so seasonal-artisanal that it shuts down after summer) creates treats-on-a-stick like roasted red plum, blackberry-black tea, and pear-ginger. In Raleigh and surrounding towns, Locopops hawks pomegranate-tangerine, Mexican chocolate and orange-mango-ancho.

The point is not about the ice pop trend, which may be co-opted by larger manufacturers, but about the flavors. Keep an eye out for ingredient combos like these in new wave cocktails, house-made sodas (another small trend), house-made salad dressings, even sauces for savory main courses (orange-mango-ancho ribs, anyone?).

7. Making customers unwelcome.

Economically gun-shy consumers increasingly will face an unwelcome mat rolled out by restaurateurs trying to save a buck here and there. Look for more restaurants putting no credit card signs in their windows, eliminating reservations, upping the price of wines-by-the-glass while these wines appear nowhere on the list, no tablecloths and trying to ration the time people can occupy a table. These tactics might generate an operator’s total profit in lean times but they do nothing for hearts and minds of customers.

8. Pushback from the ?war on the waistlines.?

Michelle Obama assembled 500 chefs on the White House lawn this past summer, many themselves large-waisted, to help school kids get better food. The restaurant industry responded by cranking up the fat and calories. Denny’s stuffed its grilled cheese sandwich with fried mozzarella sticks. Friendly’s wrapped its hamburgers with a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches, one on top, the other on the bottom. Burger King’s Whopper Bar in New York opened with an undertaker’s delight containing four Whopper patties, pepperoni, mozzarella and two sauces in a pizza-size bun—cut so that, in theory, it can be shared.

Once again, gross is good, so look for chains to concoct more calorie bombs in 2011, even while attempting to show that they’re greening their businesses (without any system of verification). People will gobble them up because they are feeling lousy about losing their jobs and their houses, and gobs of fat are neurotically comforting.

Watch for restaurant “snacks” to swell up: burritos almost as big as your head, one-pound meatballs, whoopee pies looking like Frisbees, maybe even monster donuts, all with calorie-count labels that we predict will largely be ignored. People buying multiple snacks during the day will actually skip a traditional meal, knocking their nutritional intake seriously offkilter.

Ever more books will tell us how to farm, shop and eat ethically and responsibly, while indefatigable Jamie Oliver finds that changing America’s eating habits is a tough row to hoe. Have Mrs. Obama’s initiatives been in vain? Is the world not listening to the highly publicized advocates of better eating? Take heart: Journalists are listening. Chipotle’s president did a photo op with Jamie Oliver honking at all the additives in processed food. Walmart and Target will soon buy more “local” produce. Increasing numbers of thin-waisted upper-crusters will pay US$2 for a holy tomato at burgeoning farmers markets, or a buck for an organic egg; and upscale hotel chefs will tend heirloom vegetable gardens and beehives on their rooftops to feed their fancy clientele.

9. Breakfast all the time.

Morning food business grew fast when the economy went to hell, and then leveled off. But so many chains will jump into the business that Baum & Whiteman predicts excess serving capacity before 2011 is over.

Soft slow-cooked eggs are appearing all over upscale restaurant menus. They are comforting; they turn fancy dishes into homey offerings; and their oozing yolks are cheap substitutes for a sauce. Look for runny eggs on pasta, on pizza, on braised meats, glamorizing a bowl of tripe, on truffled toast as stand-alone first courses, breaded and fried poached eggs on salads.

10. Grits.

Grits will leap from morning food to an all-purpose starch, part of another trendlet: down-home Southern cooking. Shrimp and grits could well be the dish-of-the-year.

11. Free-from foods grow.

Gluten-free menus will grow this coming year even though a minuscule portion of the population suffers from celiac disease. But allergy sufferers aren’t the issue: Consumers are increasingly convinced that anything added to food is objectionable—and phases like gluten- and lactose-free somehow sound healthful and reassuring, and perhaps organic—even though this is irrational. It is part of a “free-from” push that originated in England, applied to food products contained no “nasties.”

Years ago, restaurant menus sprouted little hearts to denote healthy food, with no lasting impact, but this appears to have legs. Justifiably aggressive language from critics of school lunches could spill over first into supermarkets and then foodservice.

Sodium in fast food is in the cross-hairs and could well become a bad food poster boy in dinnerhouses, too. Chain menus, already riddled with disclaimers, will resemble scholarly papers with footnotes about being gluten-free and lactose-free, and disclaiming use of MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, bisphenol-A, rBGH (bovine growth hormone), GMO (genetically modified), along with more newly discovered allergens.

Look for more gluten-replacing starches on menus: quinoa (could be a big winner in 2011), chickpeas and grits.

12. Wife-swapping? but with restaurants.

The recession created lots of empty restaurants and lots of chefs with no kitchens. So we now have popup restaurants—restaurants, like food trucks, with no location at all. Impromptu food places will pop up all over. Chefs, often multi-starred, get to strut their stuff, serving food they would never dare put on a permanent menu, then go off to the next gig. They are unburdened by long-term leases and ongoing overhead. Customers first found these popups via Twitter and word of mouth, but now popups are treated in the press alongside major restaurant openings.

Next up: Kitchen-swapping. Big name chefs will trade kitchens for a night or two which, like wife-swapping, keeps life lively for diners as well as chefs. Some chefs now have permanent one-night stands, taking over humble dives or diners once every week. Often with only one or two dozen seats, snagging a place at these popups will become something of a status symbol and a culinary adventure.

Coming next: Rotating bartenders spreading the news about their exotic cocktails. And popups run by food and booze companies to show off their wares.

13. A sandwich by any other name?

Last year it was gussied up hot dogs and gourmet hamburgers. Next year it will be sandwiches over the moon, but they will be called something else. There are cemitas coming to where you live—Mexican sandwiches with high flavor profiles and juiciness. Get a cemita with head cheese and you are halfway to banh mi—Vietnamese sandwiches taking over the world with their pate and pickled vegetable fillings now mutating into other glorious flavor combinations (liver paté, head cheese, jalapeños, pickled carrot and daikon shreds, barbeque pork, sweet mayo, jalapeños and lots of cilantro in a warm banguette). There’s an Asianesque meatball version making the rounds, too.

Be on the lookout for baos¸ which traditionally are yeasty steamed buns with savory fillings, but are now being formed as fluffy flatbreads to wrap around banh mi-like ingredients. Tartines have grown from a slice of bread with a simple spread to fancified open-face sandwiches with US$15 price tags.

Also look for more regional American and ethnic sandwiches. Perhaps the most outrageous is a two-unit  sub shop that inserts an oddball, taste-jangling ingredient into every item: Eggplant parm with fontina, yellow squash, pickled jalapenos and barbeque potato chips; or braised lamb with peanut butter, mint jelly and pappadam. Prochetta is a filling to watch. Traditional Cuban sandwiches started taking off but then crashed.

Seeing success with far-out ingredients, several big-name chefs are toying with their own very upscale sandwich shops.

14. Past their sell-by date.

Gourmet hamburgers will peak; too many players in a crowded field. Slapping bacon onto everything will be so-last-year. The novelty of increasingly expensive pork belly will wear off. Cupcakes will peak.

15. Going collaborative.

Two trends are at work here: The tendency of younger people to work collaboratively, meaning they make joint decisions about almost everything; and the linkup of various restaurant websites and apps.

Group couponing and location-based here’s-where-I-am sites are grabbing hold of what used to be restaurant-generated promotions, pushing recession-battered restaurants to provide deep discounts. Groupon, Village Vines and Open Table all now are access points for reservations and for bargain hunters, and many will try to replicate the Zagat-Foursquare-Tastespotting on linkup smartphones, so you find recommendations, deals and even photos of food you and your friends might like, all more or less in one place.

This could create irresistible pressure on restaurateurs who do not have their own mass to push back. Conventional reservations and marketing programs will be bypassed—so will old-media critics without new platforms—and many restaurants will lose control of how they market themselves and how they price their food, providing a stream of profits for electronic middlemen.

Purely speculative: What would happen if six friends made their own reservations at a restaurant … and demanded a discount similar to what was commanded by Groupon? Frightening!

Buzzwords for 2011

Coconut water, awash in a mythology of good health; bourbon, for people who actually like booze; cucumbers, lavender and hibiscus, especially in cocktails; upscale food courts; umami along with stealth use of miso; sangria with new twists; peppadew; fancy poutine, a Canadian calorie bomb, could have a U.S. trend life of a year; macarons, not macaroons; whoopee pie; Korean spicing and condiments; pesto variations; newfangled machines vending fresh fruit and vegetables; designer donuts imitating froufrou cupcakes; meatballs; burrata; tacos with global and wacky fillings; convenience store cuisine; artisan ice pops; “free-from” food labels; popup restaurants; fregola, a pasta from Sardinia; Greek yogurt; ever-larger “snacks” and multiple snacks replacing meals; meatless Mondays; reinvented grits and down-home Southern cooking; and isn’t anyone tired yet of black kale?