Food Trucks: Top Food Trends Forecast for 2011

By Marlene Parrish | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The most aggressive food trend in 2011 is the tendency to predict food trends at the drop of a fork. Dozens of food websites, food marketers, restaurant associations, celebrities, bloggers and blowhards have posted their pet predictions for 2011. How can you tell what’s media noise and what’s legit?

We’ve vetted many lists to see which overlap, agree with and support the evidence in the field, using the format used by Kara Nielsen, a trendologist at The Center for Culinary Development (CCD), a San Francisco-based food and beverage development company. Ms. Nielsen tracks trends by identifying the source of a suspected trend, then plotting five stages of growth as the trend finds it legs and gains strength from its “aha” moment to mainstream maturation. She also suggests that the rate and success of trend adoption depends on how well it fulfills a consumer need, whether for economic, convenience, health or flavor reasons.

Let’s follow a food product — say, chipotle chile peppers, using the CCD system. In Stage One, the peppers spilled over from Latin cuisine and turned up in fine dining and global cuisine restaurants. In Stage Two, they appeared in gourmet food magazine recipes and on the Food Network. (Foods and products often stall out at this stage. Think seviche.) In Stage Three, chipotle peppers were added to menus in chain restaurants and were sold in cans in specialty stores. By the time chipotle peppers appeared in recipes and features in women’s magazines such as Woman’s Day, they were mature trends, definitely Stage Four. Stage Five is mainstream, and chipotle peppers now can be found in quick-service restaurants and on grocery store condiment shelves. The chipotle pepper trend, from novelty to maturity, took about 13 years to build.

How last century. Today, trends are moving faster because of consumer exposure from multiple sources, including food television, the Internet, increased travel and intense marketing. And because those are equal-opportunity circumstances, the generation gap has largely disappeared.

WHAT’S UP FOR 2011?

• Locally sourced food and focus on sustainability. Both are back again and appear to be here to stay, with hyper-local in the spotlight. Chefs are raising and butchering their own meat; restaurants are planting roof-top gardens; foragers are hitting urban and suburban fields, woods and even city sidewalks, poking around for free edibles, such as dandelion greens, black walnuts and low-hanging fruit. (If anybody offers you trail mix, inspect it closely.) Farm-branded ingredients are increasingly featured on menus; plan to be invited to yet another farm-to-fork dinner, at a long communal table in a remote field.

• Nutritionists and dietitians rule. Will they take off their hairnets and enjoy their prime time? They are working overtime upping the ante of diet-conscious restaurant menus with health-related themes such as food-allergy- and gluten-free, and lower-sodium, -calorie and -fat items. The spotlight here is on children’s nutrition, with school lunches and smart lunchrooms joining the fight against childhood obesity. Today’s kids get special attention on restaurant menus, with balanced dishes edging out pizza and fries. With the passing of the new federal food safety bill, expect more stringent health inspections.

• Mobile food trucks. Portable “restaurants” are the hot operational trend this year. Taking cues from successes in Portland, Seattle, New York and Los Angeles, chefs in other cities are outfitting mobile camper-like trucks and hitting the potholes. These meals-on-wheels operations allow chefs to pay no rent, no real estate taxes, take no reservations and have no hassles with dining room and wait staff. Stationary restaurants are getting in on the act, too, grabbing more business by sending out satellite trucks.

• Pop goes the bistro. And how to tell if you the consumer are one of the ultimate insiders? Grab your pals for a night at a pop-up, underground or one-night-only restaurant or cafe. These limited-edition eateries are a good way for chefs to get it on without a long-term real estate commitment, or to preview their new restaurant while it’s under construction. Pop-ups are here today, probably gone tomorrow, forgotten by next summer.

• Social media rules. Consumers use home computers and smart-phone apps to Twitter, text and Google sites to locate the best restaurant coupons and pinpoint nearby eatery addresses with GPS directions. They rely on Yelp, Urbanspoon and OpenTable for reviews and reservations. Restaurants will be pressured to improve their websites and lure customers with specials and deals. Oh, you still use the telephone and read the newspapers? How quaint.

• Pie wins the dessert smackdown. The cupcake craze has matured, and while the little cakelettes continue to be commercial darlings, this year’s dessert spotlight is on pie. Adaptable variations abound. Pies can be sweet, savory, layered or thick-crusted, and filling flavors are endless. Hand pies can be eaten en route, and wedding pies are edging out cakes at some ceremonies. Watch for a new cable show, “The Pie Boss.” But two other sweets will be vying for your attention. Whoopie pies are everywhere, though they are probably due to become commonplace by next year. And old-fashioned macaroons have lost an “o” (as well as all that coconut) to become the precious French macaron, a cream-filled confection “sandwich” that also is destined to become mainstream next year.

• Three men walk into a bar. A very hip bar. The first orders a micro-distilled spirit in his pre-Prohibition cocktail. The second orders a locally produced wine. The third orders a bacon-infused fruity vodka cocktail-of-the-future. The mixologist wheels over a cart laden with house-made bitters, hand-squeezed juices and one-of-a-kind elixirs and proceeds to muddle, stir, shake and pour the consummate cocktail. Trendophiles can keep an eye out for beer sommeliers, artisan liquors and locally produced beers and wine. Alcohol is big and consumers will continue to be cuckoo for cocktails.

• Pass the parsnips, please. Sub-cuisines are increasing, spurred on by celebrity endorsements. Look for more vegetarians, endorsed by Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger; lots more vegans, following the example of Alec Baldwin and Bill Clinton; and Meatless Mondays, as touted by Mario Batali. “Side” dishes are the new “center of the plate,” edging out meat, even though the semantics are a tad confusing. Omnivores who are increasingly going meatless are labeled vegivores.

• How ’bout them scene stealers? Snagging the top of the 2011 “What’s In” list are quinoa and black forbidden rice, sweet potato fries, street food-inspired dishes, ethnic-inspired breakfast items, smaller portions for smaller prices and the sous vide method of cooking. The popularity of Korean and Vietnamese cuisines are on the rise, but lots of luck trying to give the boot to the supremacy of Italian food, especially with the explosion of popularity of Italian cured meats and artisan pizza boutiques.

• Yes, we can. The beat goes on for home-canned foods both for cost-savings and health, while the economy slowly slogs its way back to prosperity. Many men laid off in the past two years’ job crunch are using their down-time well, by joining the aproned ranks of home cooks.

If the guys can put in a backyard garden, make a nutritious kids’ lunch, simmer a pot of beans and Twitter the supper menu to a working spouse while brewing some moonshine in the bathtub, don’t call them unemployed. Call them Trendsetters.

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