Foodies Hunger for Next Big Thing

Cupcakes and small plates are hot right now, but who knows what will be next? We're not betting on pie. Enlarge Cupcakes and small plates are hot right now, but who knows what will be next? We're not betting on pie.


Cupcakes and small plates are hot right now, but who knows what will be next? We're not betting on pie. Enlarge Cupcakes and small plates are hot right now, but who knows what will be next? We're not betting on pie.

It seem that food fads come and go in an endless parade. Remember restaurants that specialized in rotisserie chicken? Or wraps? Or salad bars?

Clark Wolf, a New York-based consultant who has worked with Las Vegas restaurants, has seen it all over the years.

“Probably the most important and memorable 20th-century fad that is the benchmark for all of this was blackened redfish,” Wolf said. “And the result was the extinction of a species.”

But even that one, he said, had an upside (as long as you’re not a redfish).

“It told people food could be regional, it could be flavorful, it could be familiar and new and different all at the same time,” he said.

Wolf said most “new” fads have, in reality, been around for a couple of centuries. Take an old idea, add some new ingredients, a twist or a TV show, he said, and “you get lines waiting for cupcakes.”

Food fads are “little bits of mass culture and quick learning. They’re only successful if they’re part of larger, deeper trends — if they’re part of things we really want to eat,” he said.

That’s certainly clear in the case of current food fads — cupcakes and upscale food trucks. Cupcakes are part of our tendency to want small sweets, “individual portions we can control,” he said.

Jean Hertzman, associate professor with the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, sees the related small-plates concept, and restaurants offering a variety of portion sizes, sticking around for a while.

“It lets people have so many more options when they’re eating out,” she said.

Food trucks, Wolf said, “are a combination of a bunch of really wonderful trends, really embracing our Mexican neighborhoods and embracing that some food from taco trucks is some of the best food in town.” The trucks have moved beyond simple street fare, he said, because “we want homey and comfy, but we know more.”

Wolf said different times — especially trying times — inspire different food fads.

“After the ’87 stock-market crash, we wanted roast chicken and mashed potatoes,” he said. “After 9/11, we wanted sushi, because it made us feel strong, and tomatoes and mozzarella, because it was familiar and straightforward.

“Now we want something for $6, and we want it to be good. We don’t care if it’s a banh mi or a skewer or a curry. There are so many things that we like and know to choose from that work well on the back of a truck.” Technological advances, he said, have made preparation and serving of more foods possible.

And if you think food fads come and go at a don’t-blink-you’ll-miss-it rate, you’re not alone.

“The pace is definitely much more rapid,” Hertzman said, “because people are so much more into food and food-related topics,” which she said is much to the credit, or fault, of TV.

“It’s not just the Food Network anymore,” she said. “Everybody’s got shows.”

Plus, she said, the fads are a factor of increasing diversity, of “basic demographics.”

“A lot more people are familiar with foods from around the world, and they’re always looking for the next big thing,” she said.

So does that mean those whose business is based on the current big thing should worry?

“Honestly, I don’t,” said Ric Guerrero, owner of Slidin’ Thru, which was the first upscale food truck in Las Vegas, “because there’s definitely a need for food trucks in this town.”

Guerrero said food trucks have uncovered a business niche that was underserved — office workers who don’t have access to a company cafeteria and lack the time or inclination to bring their own or go out.

“It’s so convenient when they have a food truck parked out front and the employees can go grab a quick lunch,” he said. “Lunchtime office business will never go away.”

Still, Guerrero knows the market isn’t unlimited and thinks it may be nearing saturation, with more than 20 trucks on the road locally “and every day I hear of a new one coming out.”

“Only the strong will survive — those who play it smart and know what they’re doing.”

Pamela Jenkins, owner of The Cupcakery, the first dedicated cupcake company in Las Vegas, agreed.

“I feel really confident just because I know that we make a really good product,” she said.

But she also has been diversifying her business — like Guerrero, who added a grilled-cheese truck to his slider business and opened a brick-and-mortar location. Jenkins’ company has been catering and branching out into birthday and wedding cakes and cookies.

“I think some of the cupcake shops in the country will go under, because the market is certainly getting saturated,” she said. “I’ve seen so many open, but I’ve seen a lot close, too.”

Then again, she’s seen a lot of businesses survive as their relevant fads have come and gone.

“Nothing Bundt Cakes was certainly a trend when it opened,” she said. Founded in 1997, that company not only survived the end of the Bundt-cake era but the recession as well, and has expanded.

“They’ve lasted because of really good product,” Jenkins said.

But back to what everyone is wondering: What’s next?

Despite a lot of hype earlier this year that pies would be the new cupcake, Wolf said he doesn’t see that happening.

“I think that’s more of a journalistic wish,” he said. “Let’s face it, pies are messy.”

Hertzman said that in addition to small plates, it will be restaurants like those owned by Mario Batali and Rick Moonen that stress sustainability and farm-to-table practices.

Wolf predicts a colder future.

“There’s an extraordinary return to ice cream — everywhere,” he said. “For a couple of years in New York, you couldn’t find an ice-cream shop. Suddenly, Baskin-Robbins is next to three gelato stores that are next to very new American farm-to-table ice-cream stores.

“It’s such an American tradition.”