2014 predictions: Will the Paleo diet be the next gluten-free?

Restaurant consultant group Baum + Whiteman LLC has released its 2014 trend forecast, which is anchored by a return to luxury/upscale menus, driven by the continued economic recovery.

In fact, included in the forecast's "buzzwords for 2014" are "tasting menus up to $1,000;" "haute chicken priced like steak;" "upscale food halls;" "bespoke spices;" and "theatrical/sci-fi effects infiltrating the dining ambiance."

On a more modest level, Baum + Whiteman expects Hipster Asian, Jewish Fusion, Filipino dishes, Mexican sandwiches and Mideast cooking "beyond Spain and Greece" to emerge in the New Year.

Better-for-you dining, including the acceleration of the Paleo diet, will continue to grow. The Paleo diet focuses on food from the Stone Age, such as meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits and nuts.

Additionally, the group expects Kale to continue to be in the spotlight, and cauliflower to make its way on stage. Chefs will come up with new uses for pretzels, and beverages will continue to provide a palette for unique creations, according to the forecast.

Other Baum + Whiteman's predictions for '14 include:

1. Department stores jumping into the restaurant space. The consultant group said restaurants began disappearing from department stores about 30 years ago, and are now making a comeback, in large part to keep customers in stores longer. Tommy Bahama's in New York City is one such department store, with a menu that includes coffee-crusted ribeye with marrow butter, fish tacos and Asian Slaw. Urban Outfitters in Connecticut includes a café that sells scallops and duck. Even bike shops are adding juiceries, the report said. And on a QSR level, Checkers Drive-In is expanding its Walmart presence.

2. The proliferation of tasting-only menus. This trend is being fueled by the bull market and is ideal for restaurant operators, the report said, as the menus "guarantee a specific average check and controlled inventory."

Tasting-menu dining is currently popular in higher-end concepts. Ramschackle Roberta's, in Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, sells a multicourse artisan pizza-centered dinner for $180. But Baum + Whiteman expects these menus to trickle down into lower price-point concepts.

3. High-class chicken. A number of concepts have emerged that focus on upscale chicken dishes, including Rotisserie Georgette in Manhattan, Poulet Vert in San Francisco and Cragie on Main in Boston. Baum + Whiteman expects the premium-ization of chicken in the QSR space, as well. For example, McDonald's Mighty Wings was a high-end launch for the brand. Wendy's introduced its flatbread platform with grilled chicken, and added chicken to its top-end pretzel bun line.

4. Food halls replace food courts. Food halls feature local concepts and combine on-premise manufacturing, consumption, carryout and retail. Cleveland has its West Side Market, Orlando, Fla., has its East End Market, Columbus, Ohio, has its North Market, and Chicago has its French Market.

Baum + Whiteman said, "You're seeing upper crust consumers, nicely recovered from the recession, driving the agenda, not just in malls but in museums, stadiums and public attractions."

5. Non-conventional fish. Will 2014 be the year of the fluke? These fish, along with anchovies, trout, herring, bluefish and mackerel will move into the spotlight.

6. Beverage barrage. Beverages have been on trend for the past few years, thanks in large part to McDonald's, Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts' coffee wars. Now tea is taking its place in the spotlight, as Starbucks' Teavana concept gets off the ground in New York. QSRs such as Bojangles and Popeyes have also honed in efforts on proprietary iced tea blends.

In addition to tea, Baum + Whiteman expects more experimentation with sodas, and pressed juices to find a solid position.

The group also predicts bar culture to move into the mainstream. Expect small-batch, carbonated cocktails created by mixologists. Also, more beer brewers will jump into the hard cider market, and gin and tonic bars will pop up. The local food movement will spread into the rye and bourbon industries, and wine and beer will have a greater presence in the limited-service segment.

7. Beyond butter. Bread and butter will make way for bread and rosemary hummus, or bread and roasted garlic butter. How about bread and smoked ricotta or tomato jam?

8. Going green. Healthy food will move from "niche to mainstream," the forecast predicts. Gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian and Paleo menus will be available at many mainstream chains.

9. Single-item restaurants. Consumers will be able to grab meatballs at the meatball pop-up concept, or waffles at the waffle concept. There will be more single-item brands available, selling everything from oatmeal to Nutella products, and connolis or biscuits. It's these single-item concepts that tend to infiltrate the mainstream industry eventually.

"If these catch on, they are usually gobbled up by big chains," the forecast said. "Wise operators prowl around farmers' markets, night markets and truck rodeos to see what's selling. Wiser ones fly to Europe and Singapore for ideas."

10. "Eatertainment." Some restaurants are enhancing the dining experience well beyond food. For example, Ultraviolet, in Shanghai, seats diners in a room that shifts moods with each course. In Spain, Can Roca projects images onto food dishes to heighten the experience.

11. 'New' Asian flavors. A new wave of Asian flavors is upon us, the report says. This includes gochujang, a sweet/spicy combo of hot chili paste and soy, and shichimi togarashi, a Japanese seven-spice blend, which the report calls "the new salt and pepper."

12. 'New' Mideast cooking. Beyond the traditional Spanish and Greek dishes, culinary influences are making their way stateside from Turkey, Israel, Morocco, Iraq and Iran.

Read more about trends and statistics.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

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