As part of our ongoing work, we have been tracking the political and economic unease here and abroad, well before the onset of COVID-19 and the recession.

What the spread of COVID-19 has caused is an amplification and acceleration of the tide that was already rolling in. It's no less significant for its abruptness and shock value, but pandemics can have the effect of shaping and altering the trajectory of already identified trends.

It can be difficult to know which trends are most likely to rise above the noise over the next 12 months as the situation is still very much in flux. It can be even more confusing trying to decide which will resonate most with your brand and customers.

Settings, meal types and experiences set the tone

Before you consider the food, customer, or your budget – what experience are you offering? Let’s consider two settings that are strong enough to conquer 2020 and survive into 2021, plus one other quiet little wallflower - ready to pounce. First up are themed experiences, or “Eatertainment”. Theatrical dining experiences distract from the struggles of the day, and help to reset and refresh consumers, empowering them to continue being the hero in their own lives.

Settings to consider for 2020-21 include retro & nostalgic, disco, pop-ups, themed bars, escape rooms, and caused based experiences. Eatertainment extends to the food with presentations that are unexpected, and can include storytelling and immersion dining. Let guests lose themselves in the experience to celebrate the moment. Offer them off menu secrets items and experimental dishes to make them feel hip, cool, and “in the know.”

Now consider the opposite – ghost kitchens. The possibilities are endless – c-stores, hotels, restaurants, and grocery can benefit. With this trend, you can fold in secret menus, eatertainment, storytelling, and immersive dining.

Ready for the shocking little wallflower? Yes, it is those fabulous c-stores. Expect a c-store image upgrade with menu expansions, more automated and unmanned stores, and a possible private label disruption.

Preps and seasonings act as the party dress

Preparation also affects the foods offered and what will accompany them on the plate. Cooking methods dictated by live fire and dry heat methods are joined by the comfort of frying and sheet pan roasting. The turn towards comfort also includes bowls and scratch made everything. The underlying theme however, is “familiar on the palate.”

Seasonings and sauces have a large presence this year. The tones this year are more extreme on the palate as demonstrated by tamarind, sumac, rosemary, pandan, and lemongrass. Papalo, grains of paradise, and urfa biber are among the more unusual entrants. International spice blends were mentioned from Egypt, China, Russia, Israel, Mexico, and elsewhere. Whether it be XO sauce, Galangal, Raita, Gremolata, Tajin, or Chimichurri sauce, they are fun, flirty, and offer a strong sense of tradition, roots, and place on the plate.

Proteins and plants

Yes, the plant protein trend will continue. However, be aware that a backlash has begun. Let plants be plants is the motto going forward. Meat eaters will always be meat eaters as evidenced by the decline in faux burger sales in food service. Items mentioned for 2020 include jerky, alternative wings, and burger blends. Seafood comes more into focus with seacuterie, bycatch fish, and tinned seafood standing out.

The animal protein category maintains a backdrop of simplicity and sustainability. Plant proteins are extensive and beans continue to transition from best friend to leading lady. They are the common thread between the desire for increased protein, rise in flexitarian, and veggies taking center of plate. Since beans are a neutral palate they can move between global cuisine, and compete with grains and proteins in dishes.

Beans are common in all of the top global cuisines , including regional Mexican, South American, Eastern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and others. Plant proteins can be divided into two families. The Familiars include chickpeas, black beans, and lentils. The Experimentals include hemp, adzuki beans, and seitan. The grains list has some playful twists with farro, fonio, sorghum, teff, and heirloom rice. The global and ancient grains, and breads made from them, continue to capture media attention and consumer interest as they have strong backing from clinical health research.

Cuisines and clusters indicate restrained experimentation

Cuisine trends showcase restrained experimentation due to focus on COVID-19 and the political and economic unease. Cuisines give food a home, history, and voice. The featured regions mirror travel trends but are also tied to economics. Cuisines are global and range from African, Russian, regional Chinese, French, and Brazilian to US regional dishes. Specific dishes followed suit but were split between African, Asian, European, Middle Eastern, South American, and USA. Global comfort foods – those dishes that seem exotic to us, but mainstream in their native country, is the focus for all.

Clusters captured national and global comfort food and items seen normally during a recession or post-recovery. That the patterns are showing recent, recycled ideas is a sign we continue to slip away from confident behaviors. Regional dishes include South African Braai grilling, Japanese Shibuya toast, German Schnitzel, Cuban Ropa Viejo, Mexican Birria, and, from the US, fried chicken, Hawaiian Loco Moco, and Detroit pizza. Cluster items included hybrids, elevated and ethnic breakfast, peasant foods, purple foods, and cannabis cuisine.

Desserts replace experimentation with nostalgia

Desserts are more trend forward compared to other categories. The desserts themselves were a mix of centered, calming personalities with a comfort petticoat and more unfamiliar global comfort players. Comfort desserts return but are riding the line between historical/ regional and global classics.

French pastries return but are joined by Middle Eastern Booza and Indian Kulfi. Asian sweets – Japanese red bean buns, Mexican Conchas, and Brick Toast, joined the playground. Ice cream is really taking center stage with Italian Stracciatella, Booza from the Middle east, and India’s kulfi. Naked cakes and regional pies are canvases for creativity while herbs, salt, vegetables, and alcohol act as their party dress. Desserts are predicted to be more traditional and historic but with trend forward flavors.

Three trends reversing course due to COVID-19 influence 

Faux meat reversal 

Proteins will be more approachable and less extreme but there are some outliers with links to sustainability, history, or both.  As for the trend reversal, within the protein trend, the interest in faux meat will be one of the trends which COVID-19 will upend.  It is clear from research that faux plant-based meats are consumed by meat eaters, not vegetarians, with curiosity being their driver.  As sales numbers on these products continue to slide, COVID-19 will push meat eaters back to animal protein at an accelerated pace, while vegetarians will celebrate plants being plants.   

Plant protein will learn to stand on her own while maintaining her individual personality.  Dairy is another category which has been maligned lately, but now has a set of conditions which may allow her to shine.  Dairy has the winning combination of health attributes and comfort, but she needs to stand up for herself.  A newer, more promising direction, which supports the current mood, is to hybridize the categories – an alliance between animal and vegetable protein, with vegetables maintaining their natural integrity and voice. 

Sustainability spending reversal 

For the third reversal, expect sustainability sales to de-escalate due to cost, not desire.  There is blurring between sustainability and health, making them more interlinked than they were in past years.  The usual suspects will show up and include food waste and conscious indulgence.  Reduced consumerism, composting, and embracing the ugly (produce) will remain despite COVID-19 because they don’t present a cost barrier.  When consumers experience financial difficulties or uncertainty, sustainability is one of the first things they will step away from, even if temporarily.  They will be looking for no cost sustainability solutions to satisfy their drive.  Trust issues decrease spending behaviors, while fear of uncertainty is underlying their stricter savings behavior.  Sustainability spending will bounce back, however its return will be linked directly to economic health and consumer confidence.

Sober curious reversal 

The settings for beverage establish the tone for the experience.  The settings forecasted seem split between alcohol and non-alcohol-based venues, which is in line with earlier predictions supporting the sober curious.  However, COVID-19 will reverse this trend, and a rise in alcohol consumption is anticipated.  When times are difficult, consumers drink. 

Overall, alcohol consumption is expected to rise - and the balance of which type of alcohol is consumed will shift between categories.  Hard seltzer is expected to hold her ground during COVID-19, but wine and beer will move forward, while complex cocktails will lose ground. Single spirits and simple cocktails (think gin & tonic) should remain steady.  Boomers, Gen X, and older Millennials will be the first to cause this pattern change.  Younger Millennials and Gen Z are more likely than the other gens to hold onto their sober curious stance.   

Spirits will be focused on global classics but will be taking a more reserved role this year.  When consumers are feeling positive, cocktails lead beverage.  When they are not feeling confident, cocktails take a back seat to beer and wine.  Cocktail styles will showcase regional and historic classics, but no experimentation here.  Regarding beer, the same pattern of regional darlings will emerge, with no clear leader.  The classic cocktails are a throwback to simpler times and nostalgia.  Global ciders from the US, UK, and Spain are anticipated, as are single varietals such as apple, pear, berry, and cherry.  Hybrids will infiltrate here too.  Hard sodas will grow up a bit to be fruit forward, spiced and nitro infused.   

All insights are taken from Culinary Tides, Inc.’s 2020 report “Shifting Sands: Trends Shaping the Food Industry in 2020/21” Suzy Badaracco is the firm’s president.  The report is a cross-analysis of 214 prediction lists for 2020 put forth by 162 industry experts. In all, more than 1,700 individual predictions were evaluated for their potential during the coming year, however only well supported predictions are included in the final report. All trends in the report are anticipated to remain in focus throughout 2020 and into the first quarter of 2021.

This story was featured in the September edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue.