The changing restaurant landscape doesn’t just impact restaurant owners looking for their next concept. It also influences the cuisines consumers become more familiar with and expect from any chef’s menu.

by Mike Kostyo

What restaurants are consumers looking for? It takes some analysis. Italian cuisine is America’s favorite cuisine, with over 80% of consumers saying they love or like it. To satisfy that amore, there are nearly 17,600 Italian restaurants in America, according to our Firefly operator database. That number doesn’t include all of the other types of restaurants that have an Italian dish or two on the menu.

 

But Italian restaurants aren’t opening as often as they did in the past. If you look at all of the restaurants that have been open for more than a decade in the U.S., 3.7% of them are Italian restaurants. But when you look at just the restaurants that have opened in the past 3 years, only 2% are Italian restaurants. That slow down is partly because we just don’t need as many Italian restaurants to open—we’re reaching a saturation point—but it’s also because newer concepts, trending cuisines, and different ideas are starting to take their place as consumer preferences ebb and flow.

 

The changing restaurant landscape doesn’t just impact restaurant owners looking for their next concept. It also influences the cuisines consumers become more familiar with and expect from any chef’s menu. Korean concepts are opening faster today, which means the average consumer sees and has an opportunity to try more Korean foods. That opens up the market for Korean dishes and ingredients overall (hence the growth of kimchi and bulgogi on menus across the country).

 

So what are the three fastest-growing restaurant types in the U.S.? And what’s slowing down? Take a look at the latest data:

 

The fastest-growing concepts are:

 

  • Coffee & Tea Cafes: Not only are coffee shops the fastest-growing concepts in the U.S. by far, but they also already account for a huge proportion of the total restaurant concepts in the country. That insane growth and prevalence combined is what’s driving the constant innovation in this category and why coffee and tea trends move so quickly: cold brew gives way to nitro cold brew which gives way to CBD and flavored nitro cold brews, all in just a few years.
  • Hawaiian Concepts: Hawaiian concepts have exploded across the country almost singlehandedly due to one dish: poke. The future of these poke-driven fast casuals, however, will mirror the better burger and build-your-own pizza fast casual booms of the past, with a few brands coming out on top and others shuttering units. Poke is here to stay, though: our Haiku machine-learning engine predicts it will grow another 47% on menus overall in the next 4 years.
  • Ethiopian Concepts: While still a small proportion of total U.S. restaurant concepts, the number of new Ethiopian concepts has picked up in the past 3 years. Now, instead of only being concentrated in particular cities like Washington, D.C., many smaller cities and towns are home to an Ethiopian concept or two.
  • Brew Pubs/Gastro Pubs/Wine Bars: These alcohol-driven concepts account for three of the top seven fastest-growing restaurant types in the U.S. The growth of craft beers, distilleries, and cocktail culture in the U.S. means we need more places to drink those trendy beverages. That means there’s a lot more competition in the alcohol space overall, but also that consumers are exposed to more cocktails and alcohol types.
  • Scandinavian Concepts: While many of the fastest-growing concepts in the U.S. come from Asia and South America (Indian, Korean, Argentinian, Vietnamese, and Brazilian are all on the list), Scandinavian concepts have been opening faster due to the influence of the New Nordic movement and its even more recent resurgence with the re-opening of noma and consumer interest in fermented and foraged foods.

 

These concepts are slowing down:

 

  • Bars & Grills: All of those hip brew pubs and gastro pubs are taking the place of traditional bars and grills, which are opening far less often today, particularly casual bar & grill chains.
  • British Concepts: British concepts have never been a huge part of the U.S. dining landscape, but new openings have slowed down even more in the past three years. Sorry fish and chips.
  • Swiss/Fondue Concepts: When was the last time you saw a new fondue restaurant open up in your neighborhood? These concepts used to represent fine dining for many consumers, but today fine dining has evolved to include more global, chef-driven options and high-end prix fixe menus.

 

This isn’t a value judgment on any of these cuisines (my beloved Polish cuisine is slowing down in the U.S.) and there are pitfalls and opportunities on both ends of the spectrum. While concepts that are opening faster mean that more consumers become familiar with them and you can leverage them on your menu more often, there is also more competition in the marketplace (there are a lot of poke bowls and cool coffee drinks out there). On the other hand, restaurant concepts that are slowing down across the U.S. can be ripe for a refresh. With the rise of experiential “eatertainment options,” could a new take on fondue resonate with consumers?

 

Whether it’s fondue or injera, understanding the larger restaurant landscape and how it’s constantly evolving, changing, and impacting what consumers want and experience should be a factor when making menu and culinary decisions.

 

Now, somebody go reinvent the Polish buffet. For me, at least.

Mike Kostyo is the resident Trendologist at Datassential