In the food industry, everyone is looking for the next big idea. (Who doesn’t wish they came up with avocado toast?) In the past, making trend predictions might have felt like throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what stuck. Now, we can use data to anticipate upcoming trends, before they happen.
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When examining trends, it’s common to focus on what’s happening right now. This forces you to be reactive, instead of enabling you to proactively take advantage of future trends. Understanding the Menu Adoption Cycle provides a foundation for extrapolating and anticipating the future growth of specific trends.
Avocado toast, sumac, turmeric, fried pickles, shishito peppers—you probably knew them as trends in 2019, but were they already on your radar 10 years ago?
Society teaches us to spot trends by examining what’s happening today. What’s the latest fashion craze? What’s the coolest new gadget? What foods and flavors are growing in popularity? Are people avoiding eating out amid a pandemic? But rather than just looking at what’s already happening today, imagine if you could predict the food trends that will define the landscape for the next several years. How helpful would it be to have a new product pipeline that always keeps you several steps ahead of the competition, especially during a major disruptive event?
The good news is that this capability exists, used by several food companies to build key market advantages. But while the tools are already available today, keep in mind that an organization-wide commitment is required to get the most out of them.
Having an understanding of what separates fads from trends, the history of specific trends, and the underlying needs driving those food trends is enormously helpful in predicting their future course.
Fads are typically media-driven, catalyzed by retail, experience hyper-growth, and have a limited true need. Trends are restaurant-driven, democratize-able, experience organic growth, and represent a greater underlying need.
Food trends follow a common life cycle, a predictable journey spanning four distinct stages. We call it the Menu Adoption Cycle, or MAC for short, and it’s proven to be a remarkably accurate tool for predicting the next big thing.
Because trends start at restaurants. At least 70% of U.S. consumers indicate that their food preferences are driven primarily by what they encounter on restaurant menus—more so than what they find on grocery store shelves or in a recipe book. Despite the fact that most meals are consumed at home, trends are generally catalyzed by consumers’ away-from-home experiences.
Over the past decade, the MAC has enabled us to predict hundreds of food trends early in their life cycle. Here are a few examples:
|Chef Casual||Artisinal Toast||Matcha||Modern Vegetarian||Poke||Avocado Toast|
|Tzatziki||Food Halls||Panzanella||Pulses||Turmeric||Gose Beer|
|Non-Alc. Craft Bevs.||Nut Butters||Piri Piri||Aleppo Peppers||Activated Charcoal||Gochujang|
|Habanero||Bao Buns||Cold Brew Coffee||Freekah||Ghost Pepper||Furikake|
A trend’s life cycle is defined by where that trend shows up—starting at fine dining restaurants and then eventually finding its way to mainstream supermarket shelves and beyond. Knowing where a trend is along the Menu Adoption Cycle is the first step to predicting its future.
Trends start here. Inception-stage trends exemplify originality in flavor, preparation, and presentation. At this stage, they are difficult to find on many menus.
Adoption-stage trends grow their base via lower price points and simpler prep methods. Still differentiated, these trends often feature premium and/or authentic ingredients.
Proliferation-stage trends are adjusted for mainstream appeal. Often combined with popular applications (on a burger, pasta, etc.), these trends have become familiar to many.
Ubiquity-stage trends have reached maturity and can be found across all sectors of the food industry. Though often diluted by this point, their roots are still recognizable.
Here’s a look at the food industry segments and venues where trends typically appear as they move through each stage of the MAC.
You can also think about the MAC in terms of specific restaurants and stores. Certain places cater to earlier stage trends, while others tend to favor those that are already well-established in the mainstream.
Applying the MAC is both a science and an art—that is, it requires a combination of reliable, objective data and an informed, human perspective. While formulas do play a crucial role in assigning each trend to its appropriate MAC stage, there’s no universal formula that does the job entirely; human intelligence is a critical part of the equation.
Statistical menu data provides the science; quantitative information about what restaurants offer on their menu is the foundation of the MAC. This starts with penetration analysis—the percentage of restaurants that offer a specific food, flavor, or ingredient—which is tabulated by key restaurant types that represent different stages of the cycle.
Consider the four trends below, all of which have grown significantly on menus over the past four years. Each, however, is at a different stage of its life cycle.
Black garlic, although up dramatically, is still found predominantly in fine dining restaurants. It is a clear example of an inception trend. Kale, meanwhile, has trickled from Fine Dining to Fast Casual and progressive QSR chains. It easily transforms from comfort food to LSR chains’ proof of healthy menu options moving it from adoption to proliferation.
Mac & Cheese conjures up memories of childhood, and continues to grow on menus where it morphs from comfort food to upscale with creative inclusions. It is firmly established and familiar to consumers, a dish that is less risky but can be made unique.
|4-year Growth||Fine Dining||Casual Dining||Midscale||Fast Casual||QSR|
|Mac & Cheese||UBIQUITY||13%||30%||38%||33%||22%||21%|
A case study
Kale’s ascendancy began in 2009, kicking off at fine dining in the INCEPTION stage. Casual dining and Fast casual jumped in a few years later, and by 2013 all segments began to contribute to its rapid growth, pushing kale into the PROLIFERATION stage.
The LTO Factor
Limited time offers (LTOs) have the unique ability to inject growth through cyclical appearances on menus that in turn start impacting growth across the calendar.
Popular for its naturally healthy halo, kale’s rapid growth is in part due to its cyclical popularity as an LTO during January. Eventually, kale’s annual push began to bleed into other months, and by 2015, kale’s LTO usage peaked and has since become a mainstay on menus around the year.
It’s critical to understand external influences that can either stop a trend in its tracks or supercharge it to the next stage.
Are there sourcing constraints?
While Venison and Yuzu are both increasing rapidly on menus, there simply may not be enough of either to go around if their popularity continues to grow.
Is there adequate supply to satisfy key players?
Later stages of the MAC rely on large chains to propel the trend forward. Is there enough potential supply to satisfy a McDonald’s or a Walmart? As operators like Chipotle move to GMO-free foods, will there be enough supply to satisfy its needs?
Can it be offered in an easily relatable format?
Certain trends, by virtue of what they are, will be inherently challenged to make it out of the inception stage. Bone Marrow is a great example; although up dramatically over the past few years in Fine Dining restaurants and Gastropubs, many consumers will dismiss it as being just “too weird.” Cannabis cuisine is limited to areas where marijuana is legalized, and only then to restaurants who comply with additional regulations.
Mocktails, on the other hand, make another heavily-regulated item available to everyone.
On the flip side, there are also key trend enablers that can help accelerate a trend’s growth.
Can it find new life late in the cycle?
Have you noticed America’s renewed love affair with bacon? Although already ubiquitous for decades, bacon somehow has become quite cool again. But take a look at what’s driving this—the trend-worthy part isn’t so much traditional applications such as bacon on a burger; it’s all of the new uses, such as bacon sundaes, bacon cookies, or bacon jam, as well as emerging ultra-premium cuts of bacon that go beyond standard grocery store fare. An old trend can be reinvigorated when applied in new ways.
Is it versatile across day parts & applications?
The explosion of Sriracha over the past decade was made possible by not only people’s love of its flavor but more specifically their love of its flavor on an astonishingly broad cross-section of foods.
Sriracha is right at home with everything from sandwiches to breakfast dishes, and it’s this versatility that has helped transform it from a niche condiment to one of the fastest-growing flavor profiles over the past 10 years.
Historically, trends took around 12 years to move through the Menu Adoption Cycle. In recent years, however, that horizon has compressed significantly—we believe the cycle time will be trimmed in half to 6 years.
More than ever, speed matters. Food companies used to be able to wait for trends to mature before making their move, but today that’s no longer a smart course of action. As trends continue to accelerate, speed has emerged as a potent competitive advantage.
Organizations that adopt trends earlier are far better able to capitalize, while those that wait too long risk not only having those trends pass them by, but also allowing their brands to be perceived as tired and old.
A few reasons why trends are moving faster than ever include:
We know that trends tend to follow predictable patterns, but the problem is most of the data is purely historical.
How has a trend fared in the last year? How about in the last 4? Can we guarantee that the growth over the last 4 years and in the most recent year is a predictor of performance for the next 4 years?
You can estimate where a trend will go based on where it has been, but predicting the movement of trends has never been qualified or validated—until AI.
Datassential uses AI to predict whether or not growth will continue. For example, AI analysis using Datassential’s Haiku and MenuTrends data suggests continued growth of kale over the next 4 years in such a way that we may see kale’s move from PROLIFERATION into UBIQUITY by the mid-2020s.
Historical trend data provides the foundation for trend identification and strategy building. Predictive data provides the detail to anticipate a trend’s movement. Instead of waiting for a specific trend to make a jump into a new MAC stage, anticipate the move and be ready to act at the critical point of a trend’s evolution.
Applying the Menu Adoption Cycle requires a well-calibrated analytic framework, starting with a high-quality restaurant menu database. Ensuring your data meets the following 5 criteria will improve the overall quality of your predictions.
15+ years of historic data
Trend prediction requires historic perspective and, in particular, the ability to track each trend’s prior movement on menus. Is It just a flash in the pan or a true trend? Historic data is essential to make that determination.
Restaurants should remain constant each period. Changing the composition of the database will cause unwanted shifts in the data that make it impossible to determine if the trend is actually up or down.
The menus in the database should mirror the national restaurant census. This means having a proper balance across segments, menu types, and geographic regions, as well as chains vs. independent restaurants.
Was the kid’s menu captured for each restaurant in the database? How about the separate bar or dessert menus? Proper penetration tracking requires a complete menu for every location.
For U.S. restaurants, you’ll need a data set of at least 4,000 distinct menus. If the database is properly balanced and maintained, this size produces reliable readability by segment and major census region.