Get past issues of FoodBytes | Send to a friend | Print as a PDF

9 Food Trends to Follow in 2012

  1. Location-Based Apps

  2. Menu Descriptions

  3. Breakfast Food Trucks

  4. Streamlined Operations

  5. Pop-Up Restaurants

  6. Unique Eating Experiences

  7. High-Flavor, Healthful Ingredients

  8. Historic Inspirations

  9. Extreme Local Sourcing

Latest News

In 2011, FoodBytes put you front and center to the most pioneering trends among eateries in the U.S., such as rooftop gardens, upscale barbecue, and the emergence of retro diners with modern menus. But with the year quickly coming to an end, Datassential upholds its leading-edge reputation by looking ahead to the coming year and the industry changes it will bring. The past few years have certainly ushered in a new, more eco-friendly and experimental era in the restaurant industry. With this edition of FoodBytes, we continue keeping you ahead of the game—and an invaluable resource to your clients—by predicting the trends that will impact how and what consumers eat in 2012.

Prediction 1: Location-Based Apps

Thanks to the proliferation of location-based apps, more and more people make dining decisions based on the immediate, relevant information they provide. Through apps like Foursquare, Facebook, and Yelp, users can show their friends where they're eating through online "check-ins." The revolutionary app Foodspotting helps members share pictures of their favorite meals from specific restaurants with other members.

Restaurants have quickly jumped on this bandwagon by offering incentives to people who tally the most check-ins or "spot" a particular menu item. Operators have also grown their social media presence by promoting secret menus, discounts, and even free food to consumers who "like" their Facebook pages or follow them on Twitter. Forward-thinking independents and chains are creating restaurant-specific apps that alert subscribers to similar promotions. Technological developments like this will allow the subtle, but significant return of control to the operator in 2012.

Prediction 2: Menu Descriptions

As consumers become more particular about their food choices and more educated, Datassential predicts the continuation as well as even more detailed, thoughtful, and downright mouthwatering descriptions in 2012. In fact, operators might even extend beyond what's become the usual points of interest, such as named proteins (example: "Harris Ranch beef") and sourced ingredients (example: "Frenny Farms cilantro"). Here are a few more points that will show up on menus more in the next year:

  • Variety (example: "heirloom Borlotti beans")
  • History (example: "a recipe traced back to 1920s Louisiana")
  • Details of Preparation (example: "sweet potatoes roasted in garlic olive oil")
  • Full Ingredients (example: "Roasted Vegetable Sandwich: herb foccacia bread, fire-roasted tomatoes and bell peppers, roasted eggplant, Mediterranean feta, cilantro aioli")

Prediction 3: Breakfast Food Trucks

The food truck phenomenon hasn't slowed down since its kickoff in 2008. Successful mobile food businesses are still starting up all over the country, prompting brick-and-mortar operators to reevaluate the way they do business. However, food trucks aren't immune to the economic struggles of their more traditional peers, which is why they, too, will forge into the only currently growing daypart in food service: breakfast. As we've already seen with pm meal parts, these new breakfast creations will likely influence the offerings at brick and mortar locations.

Restaurant operators, particularly of the quick-service variety, have found that breakfast items are a reliable source of business, accounting for a great deal of growth within the industry during abysmal economic conditions. Surprisingly few trucks are taking advantage of this upward swing at the moment. Among the few is the Buttermilk Truck, which serves Red Velvet Pancake Bites and buttermilk biscuits and gravy to Los Angeles patrons. Nick's Wheely Good Breakfast in the Bay Area sells Triple Layer French Toast and sandwiches made with broccoli raab, ham, and fried eggs. Austin's Royito's Hot Sauce Company prefers tortillas, serving its breakfasts taco-style. More breakfast-centric food trucks, as well as food trucks simply offering more breakfast items, will penetrate the market in 2012.

Prediction 4: Streamlined Operations

Unfortunately for restaurant operators, 2012 looks to be another tough economic year. Those who've already grappled with profit margin pressures due to increasing costs across the industry board—commodities, energy, labor, and so forth—will likely face more of the same.

Some operators have already responded to this by streamlining menus as a way to reduce profit loss, with the fast casual category showing the most success. For instance, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers recently announced plans to open Burger Works, a fast-casual version of their restaurants with a limited menu. Other fast-casual burger joints like Five Guys and Smashburger saw growth in sales in 2010. Beyond the burger realm, establishments around the U.S. focusing on single-item comfort foods, like NYC's S'MAC (a macaroni-and-cheese joint), have formed cult followings. As well, Chef-driven fast fine restaurants like Graham Elliot's Grahmwich and Tom Colicchi's 'wichcraft tend to have smaller, focused menus with sophisticated and progressive ingredients.

This proven success is why Datassential foresees a continued pull back in menu size across the industry. According to Datassential MenuTrends 2011, entrée menus have three fewer entries compared to just least year. Operators worried about profits will look to eliminate poor sellers as a way to stay fresh and floating through turbulent financial waters. Plus, a smaller, specialized menu suggests a stronger product, which is appealing to consumers already wary about money.

Prediction 5: Pop-Up Restaurants

Datassential expects to see continued growth of pop-up restaurants, which allow operators to capitalize on the novelty of a new restaurant without as much financial risk. These short-term eateries offer up-and-coming chefs the opportunity to demonstrate their skills and restaurant concepts to potential investors, and established chefs to try their hands at new types of cuisine. Pop-ups have proved quite popular with the American public, a group increasingly on the lookout for more innovative foods and dining experiences. These are just some of the many that have surfaced over the last couple of years.

Chef Pop-Up Location Example of Menu
Ludo Lefebvre LudoBites Los Angeles (various restaurants) "Foie Gras Feast" at Animal
Anthony Myint Mission Street Food San Francisco's Lung Shan Restaurant Pan-Asian Tapas
An Nguyen Xuan Bep Brooklyn's Simple Cafe Bun Bo Hue (Vietnamese spicy beef noodle soup)
Will Gilson Eat Boston (various restaurants) "Guacaholics Anonymous" at Fenway Cantina
Bill Telepan Telepan Tribeca New York City's Pécan Lamb Tartare

Because these ventures are so sought after (tickets to such events often sell out well in advance) and generate a lot of money without a lot of commitment for the chef, pop-up restaurants will keep, well, popping up in 2012. And given their successful track records, it's possible chains will try to test out similarly unique concepts in their own restaurants, such as hiring guest chefs, exploring an unfamiliar type of cuisine, or branching out into a different service category.

Prediction 6: Unique Eating Experiences

Thanks to savvy social networking efforts and novel menu creations, mobile food operators have opened the public to unconventional ways of dining and thinking about food. Nowadays, consumers want to experiment with new foods and with the overall dining experience. This has inspired a host of unique food events across the country. There are food truck festivals, where dozens of food trucks and carts assemble in one open space to the delight of foodie fans. Underground markets, in which vendors can sell hot foods and produce without the regulations and high fees of a regular market, have operated not-so-quietly in cities like San Francisco and Atlanta.

Underground restaurants are also still going big, with hush-hush dinner parties happening in places all over the U.S. The Gourmet Ghetto, which started as a weekly dinner party in an Oakland basement apartment, has turned in a worldwide "Dinnerparty Network." There are still many dining clubs that operate more exclusively. Look for more of these and other atypical food events, as well as increased experimentation within them, in 2012.

Prediction 7: High-Flavor, Healthful Ingredients

As health becomes a top priority among the public, restaurant operators have responded with menu items characterized by traditional diet-friendly labels like "low fat" and "low sodium." However, foods that focus on specific health benefits are generally poor sellers. Instead, operators will meet consumer demand for more healthful menu options in 2012 by focusing on high-flavor ingredients that increase the healthful perception or reality of the item. This approach, which also includes the use (or avoidance) of particular proteins and preparation methods, has already been adopted at some establishments by way of the Meatless Monday campaign. Even famed chef Mario Batali is on board, announcing Meatless Monday meals at fourteen of his restaurants.

More people are beginning to recognize the health benefits of reducing meat intake at least one day a week and are intrigued by the focus on other, perhaps unfamiliar proteins and flavors. But meatless dishes are just one example; including "powerfoods" like quinoa and kale or specifying one type of cooking oil over another on menus also suggests high-flavor and good nutrition. Other options include adding dishes with more descriptors like homemade, fresh, and all natural to give dishes a healthier perception.

Prediction 8: Historic Inspirations

In the past, operators focused on regional fare as a way to add interest to cuisines, particularly ethnic cuisines that have now gone mainstream. Authenticity was a major aspect of this trend, as was the use of local, fresh ingredients. Historic inspiration has been the next logical step in this movement, with menus and even entire restaurants created based on foods from specific time periods in history. There are multiple examples of historic inspiration within the industry today, with many chefs creating prix-fixe menus for a special night or offering certain historic dishes in honor of a holiday.

Restaurant Location Event Historic Inspiration
Smallbar Chicago, IL "A Bite Through Time" American cuisine from the 1960s to the 2000s
City Tavern Philadelphia, PA Presidents' Day First Lady Martha Washington's cake recipe
Pensiero Ristorante Evanston, IL "Apicius" Roman recipes from 4th or 5th century AD
Bastas Trattoria Portland, OR "Historic Dinner Series" The Renaissance and the Jewish diaspora
America Eats Tavern Washington DC Pop-Up Restaurant American classics

2012 will see more chefs devoting entire restaurants to historical inspirations. These places will focus on formats, preparations, and ingredients from the past—either domestically or internationally. Chicago's Grant Achatz is one step ahead of the game with Next, his restaurant that produces a different historical menu every three months. On the West Coast, Comstock Saloon celebrates San Francisco's Barbary Coast era with hangtown frys and the like. Establishments like these are on the horizon in the coming year.

Prediction 9: Extreme Local Sourcing

The popularity and growth of local sourcing has led operators to look for the next level of this trend. Datassential anticipates that three new versions of local sourcing are likely to emerge in 2012. The first is foraging, which is hunting for edible ingredients grown in the wild, such as mushrooms. At an industry trade show in May 2011, the chef-forager for Bon Appetit Management taught the audience a few vocabulary words related to foraging, such as micro-processing (producing small batches of seasonal goods) and mycology clubs (people who find and collect wild mushrooms), as a way to attract locally-minded patrons.

Invasivore dining, the second trend, centers on ingredients that are invasive within the environment. This allows consumers to not only experiment with unique proteins and produce, but to aid in the elimination of these destructive species as well. A sushi chef in at Miya's in New Haven, Connecticut turned invasive Asian shore crabs into a popular sushi roll. The third trend is global local dining, which involves the growth of free trade into other categories besides coffee. Bon Appetit Management is at the forefront of this growth, using fair-trade-certified chocolate in their cafe and catering services. Another innovative company is New England's Maine Root, which produces and sells fair-trade sodas to local restaurants. With the steady increase of eco-minded consumers, operators will adopt these extreme methods of local sourcing in 2012 as a way to stand out in an increasingly green industry.


With every passing year, restaurant operators find new and exciting ways to expand upon successful trends, such as "locavore" becoming "invasivore," and an appreciation for the comfort foods of our past morphing into an embrace of foods from specific moments in time. There's no doubt that 2012 will introduce and expand upon many groundbreaking ideas and concepts to consumers—a group that is clearly hungry for such experimentation. You can trust in that future, just as you can trust that Datassential will be there every step of the way, following what's hot today and predicting what's in store for the industry and what's on the wish lists of your clients—tomorrow and in the years to come.



With more than 6,000 menus, only Datassential MenuTrends can provide truly accurate information. Trends start at independent restaurants, and we feature more than 3,500 of them. Add to that 2,500 different chains – from national accounts to smaller regional players – and you have the most reliable resource for tracking the latest food and flavor trends.

Get your free sample report: click here

Start your free trial: click here


Datassential's HOW OPERATORS BUY report enables you to maximize your sales potential through DSR's, online ordering, and alternative channels.

If you sell to independents, small chains, or non-commercial operators, take a look at this report.

Key topics include:

  • Breadth of distributors used
  • The role of DSRs and brokers
  • Brand seeking behavior
  • Online ordering vs. DSR's
  • Product trial motivators
  • Whose recommendation matters
  • Price monitoring

Click here for an overview

For more information on the How Operators Buy report, contact Maeve Webster at or 312-655-0596.


The industry's best research comes from Datassential.

  • Online panel of 25k+ operators
  • Over 500k operators
  • Millions of consumers
  • More than 6,000 US menus

Call us for:

  • New product testing
  • Brand measurement
  • Brand / product positioning
  • Category entry
  • Market needs analysis
  • Market sizing
  • Price optimization
  • MenuTrends
  • Sensory

We're here for you:

You're receiving this newsletter because you've subscribed to our newsletter.

Not interested anymore? Unsubscribe instantly.

Datassential Los Angeles (HQ)
10850 Wilshire Boulevard
Suite 1000
Los Angeles, California 90024