2013 restaurant trends: robots, chef delivery, ‘next Chipotle’

Restaurant experts throw in their forecasts for the top food trends of 2013.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Food and restaurant analysts are already placing their bets for next year’s top restaurant trends, including automatons in the kitchen, mini dishes, pricier drinks and something called “bar snackification.”

Step one, though, is going casual.

Categories including pizza, fish, Greek and Asian are all going the Panera route, delivering faster service than high-end restaurants but better ingredients and a more premium vibe than fast-food.

Customizable sushi joints, easy Indian wraps and other options allow Americans to sample ethnic foods and new takes on once-boring standbys with minimal fuss and intimidation.


“Consumers are trading down like crazy … leaping from full-service restaurants directly to fast-casual formats,” according to New York food and restaurant consulting company Baum+Whiteman. “Everyone wants to be the next Chipotle.”

That includes Chipotle itself, apparently. The company is expanding its Asian concept ShopHouse out of Washington, D.C., and into Southern California next year.

And “old fogey chains” are trying to catch up to the likes of Smashburger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, according to B+W. Hence the fast-casual offshoots Burger Works from Red Robin, Jr’s Burger Grill from Johnny Rockets, IHOP Express and Denny’s Cafe.

Fast food, meanwhile, is adjusting up, offering gourmet options such as burgers gilded with pineapple, fancier sauces and more customization for consumers, according to B+W.

QUIZ: How well do you know fast food?

Other strong winds are also gusting in the food space.

Eateries across the board continue to worship at the altar of fancy language, adorning their menus with terms such as “hand-battered,” “artisan,” “premium,” “natural” and “organic” – while opening themselves up to more legal battles over what such expressions actually entail, according to B+W.

And as Americans become increasingly a culture of grazers, snacking around the clock at the booming numbers of street food stands and food trucks, so-called munchies are popping up everywhere.

Restaurants and convenience stores will debut a wider array of portable food with flexible portions, including sweet mini dippers, sausage bites, rolled sandwiches and tiny cinnamon buns.

Tapas, mezze and upscale bar bites in full-service restaurants are matched by flavorful novelties in limited-service restaurants, from Spicy Chicken McBites at McDonald’s and Chicken Littles at KFC to mini corn dogs at Jack in the Box and cheesecake bites at Sonic,” according to predictions from research group Technomic.

Also coming of age in the era of grab-and-go dining? Robots, such as the ordering kiosks at some McDonald’s, vending machines that dispense fresh pizza, the cupcake-dispensing “ATM” at Sprinkles in Beverly Hills and JambaGo machines that churn out Jamba Juice smoothies, Slurpee-style, according to B+W.

In the sit-down dining arena, boosting interaction is key to getting patrons more invested in the dining process, according to Andrew Freeman & Co.

Eateries will start opening up, eliminating walls and other barriers between the front and back of the house, opening up kitchens and ditching hostess desks, even sending chefs out to tables to deliver food, according to the San Francisco-based hospitality and restaurant consulting firm’s sixth annual forecast

More establishments will set up dining counters, where customers can watch and converse with chefs while they eat. And owners of fine dining spots are launching fast casual concepts -- see Hi Lo BBQ from the team behind the more upscale Hog & Rocks and Maverick restaurants in San Francisco.

A few, such as Barbacco Casa in San Francisco, are offering gourmet meals for patrons to take home and prepare themselves.

Baum+Whiteman points out a similar craze, which it calls “bar snackification.” In the spirit of taking things less seriously, attention is refocusing away from formal white-tablecloth dining to the sexier bar space.

That’s where many new flavors will be debuting, according to the consultants. Ambitious bartenders are using farmers market ingredients and exotic elements such as yuzu bitters and cardamom to create artisan cocktails, such as “sangria variations no one’s heard of in Spain,” according to B+W.

Unfortunately, that also means bar inflation will soar, with many drinks passing $15 a pop, $12 wines-by-the-glass being poured from $10 bottles and local craft beers being poured into 12-ounce glasses instead of the standard 16-ounce servings.

But the beverage obsession won’t stop there. Between the ban on large sugary drinks in New York and growing interest in products that are deemed fresh and healthful, “consumers are abandoning colas in droves,” according to B+W.

That has McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks -- which B+W refers to as “the three big gorillas” -- scrambling for new drink options.

Starbucks this year alone has launched fruit-flavored energy drinks called Refreshers, launched bars serving cold-pressed Evolution Fresh juices, opened Tazo Tea outlets and spent $620 million buying mall tea purveyor Teavana.

Other chains are jumping in too, including Taco Bell with its mimosa-like Mountain Dew and Tropicana concoction Mtn Dew A.M. And homemade sodas, hard ciders, fruit-topped drinks and local brews will also contribute to the beverage evolution, according to Technomic.

Other restaurant trends surging down the pipeline?

  • Gluten-free menus, which will give rise to more dishes such as polenta and bulgur using healthful-seeming grains such as quinoa, amaranth, millet and buckwheat.
  • Better noise control (sound-absorbing artwork, anyone?)
  • Standalone shops -- such as Chobani yogurt bars and a Smithfield Foods pork restaurant -- from companies that traditionally supply foods directly to supermarkets.


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