This year is different.
Every January, we ask restaurant-industry insiders to look into their crystal balls and predict what trends we’ll be seeing in the world of food over the next 12 months.
Usually they say something like “sake bars” or “nutritional yeast” or “old-school French fare” or “the resurgence of large plates” — all (or none) of which may in fact be the case in 2018.
There are a few replies in that mold, as you’ll see. But this year’s answers reveal that perhaps even more than how food tastes and what gets put on the plate, people are thinking about how the industry operates, how it can overcome challenges, and how it can change for the better. This year’s thinking is about foundations over flavors.
What’s on the horizon for restaurants in 2018? Read on for this year’s predictions.
JESSE BAERKAHN, president of retail advisory firm Graffito SP
Restaurants will be more family-friendly. When Baerkahn lived in Brooklyn, 5-7 p.m. was family time at all kinds of local restaurants, from takeout joints to upscale bistros. “We are starting to see that more in Boston,” he says. “Operators are getting more comfortable with that.” This year, he predicts, restaurateurs will increasingly continue to take families into account — not compromising the integrity of the product, but perhaps finding ways to present it that are simpler but still interesting.
There will be more commissaries, and they will have cafes. Commissaries, the production kitchens used by food trucks and the like, will be in increasing demand as businesses open in smaller spaces (think food-hall stalls) and spawn multiple locations. “There are going to be more commissaries, and the majority we’re going to see opening will havepublic-facing elements to them,” Baerkahn says.
Public transportation will be paramount. Another motivating factor in today’s restaurant landscape: a serious labor shortage. Restaurateurs have always hoped to locate near mass transit in order to attract customers. Now transportation is even more important, for the sake of getting employees to work. “It’s going to drive growth where you have new stuff coming along,” Baerkahn says. “The Orange Line, no doubt. That’s where a lot of the development is happening. Malden Center. The Green Line corridor. Anywhere you have the [train] connections.”
There will be greater diversity in ownership. “We are making more of an effort in our work and with our clients to do deals with minority- and female-owned businesses and restaurants,” Baerkahn says. Landowners are beginning to realize how much that’s needed in this city, he says, and to strategize about how to do it better. “People are realizing we have to try harder to do this, it’s important, and it’s going to create a much better restaurant community here.”
ERICA DISKIN, designer at Assembly Design Studio in Boston
Retro will be redefined. Prepare to feel old. Nostalgia has long been a popular look in restaurant decor — from speakeasies to ’60s style. Now, says Diskin, “retro is being done in a different way.” And that means different decades, from the ’70s basement vibe she created at Capo in South Boston and beyond. “I definitely see more ’80s and ’90s,” she says, “whether it’s the music being played or the artwork on the walls.” You might find Nirvana on the playlist, Nintendo at the bar.
The future will be customized. Open kitchens have become standard, and chefs want them to stand out. Rather than buying grills, oyster bars, and other equipment from manufacturers, Diskin predicts, more people will work with custom builders to get things exactly the way they want them. For instance, Gardner-based company Blue Barn has built elements for La Brasa, Loco Taqueria, Steel & Rye, Sulmona, and other local outfits. “It gives the chefs a new toy to customize to their cooking and what they’re trying to achieve with their menus,” she says.
Fast-casual and multiuse concepts will continue to explode. Higher-end, big-name chefs will continue to open quick-service, casual spots (see, for instance, Jody Adams and Saloniki). And restaurants will increasingly serve more than one purpose — incorporating entertainment such as live music and video arcades, and shifting focus throughout the day, from morning bakery-cafe to casual lunch spot to more-formal restaurant/bar at night.
There will be a T-shirt and you will buy it. As Instagram continues to be a driving force in restaurant marketing, more restaurateurs are thinking about what Diskin calls “the fashion element” of restaurant design. “They’re figuring out more creative, unique ways to have staff have a cohesive look. And it’s such an old-school marketing tactic, but they’re getting the swag out there.” Think custom hats, tees, sweatbands, and more. Don’t forget to post a photo of yourself with the restaurant’s logo prominently displayed.
IRENE LI, chef-owner of Mei Mei
Working conditions will improve. “Restaurant owners are going to be looking to do better by their staff, and restaurant workers are going to start asking for more,” Li says. Last year, sexual harassment and abuse within the industry came to light as stories broke about high-profile chefs like Mario Batali and John Besh. There has been ongoing discussion of tipping and how it should work, or whether it should exist at all. “We’re going to be looking at things like offering health care, incentives, and higher wages across the board,” Li says. “We might see tipping going away or being adapted.” At Mei Mei, they’ve launched money-saving, profit-sharing initiatives, opening the books to the staff. “There’s going to be a lot more conversation.” And that will include talking about the culture of the industry as a whole.
We will remember the rest of Asia. We will see more underrepresented cuisines — Filipino and Indonesian food (as at pop-up Kaki Lima), for starters. “I’m hoping to see more people of color open restaurants where they cook food that they relate to,” Li says. “It’s going to be really exciting, empowering, and delicious.”
KEN ORINGER, chef-owner of Coppa, Little Donkey, Toro, and Uni
More women will get their due. “For everything that’s been going on in recent times, I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more well-deserved women chefs in the spotlight,” Oringer says, alluding to the harassment allegations. “There are so many talented women in our city.”
International flavors will proliferate. “I think Middle Eastern food is still not in the forefront of our city and we’re going to start seeing a lot more really great Lebanese food, a lot more Israeli-inspired food.” He also expects Filipino food, as well as Malaysian, regional Indian, mom-and-pop-style Peruvian, and izakaya fare. “Street food is going to continue to shine in every way and form from different cultures because people are looking for something affordable and flavorful,” he says.
We will eat our vegetables. Vegetables will be a continued focus. “These Life Alive-type places are going to really explode, not just in fast-casual but in a bunch of other ways, too.”
Cassie Piuma, chef and co-owner of Sarma
Kids’ menus will get cooler. “A lot of reputable restaurants are doing some pretty cool kids’ menus,” Piuma says. “People are not just caring about what their kids are eating in terms of healthy food, but are really exposing them to cuisines and new flavors and more spices.” At Sarma, they are starting to see more families than they used to. Parents are feeding their kids hummus and fried chickpeas. “People want to go out and eat good food. They’re going to expose their kids to it so they can join.”
Salt will be the new gluten. More people will try to restrict their sodium intake at restaurants. “I’ve never seen so many people request food with no salt since I’ve been cooking. I’d say almost once a night, which is a lot, people want absolutely no salt, no pickles, no olives.” And chefs will — perhaps gradually — adjust their menus to suit the need. Piuma is starting to think about designing new dishes that will be delicious as well as low-sodium. “I design my menus now based around all the dietary restrictions,” she says. “You have to be proactive about it if you want to produce food you’re proud of.”
Tenzin Samdo, beverage director and partner at Cafe ArtScience
The experience will be front and center. Bartenders want to tell you how they make their drinks and what goes into them. But that’s not what bar-going is really about, says Samdo. “We go out for the experience. When you go out, try to cherish that moment. Every moment is accountable. At the end of the day, it is not about how you make the prettiest drink or what scientific technique or bizarre technology you use.” Rather, it is about personality, interaction, showmanship, and creativity, says Samdo, who built a program based on altitude, with every cocktail inspired by an endangered species. Increasingly, bars will focus on these things.
Details will matter. At Cafe ArtScience, they can clarify a pina colada so that it looks like a martini, or put an image on a cocktail using an edible printer. But just as important: If somebody orders a vodka soda, the lime wedge is freshly cut. “It tells a lot about your program, how seriously you take this program. If you make it, make it nice.”
Bars will go greener. Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws a day, according to a commonly cited figure. Samdo doesn’t buy them anymore — he uses ones made from biodegradable cornstarch, metal, bamboo, and the like at Cafe ArtScience. They look beautiful, he saves money, and it’s good for the environment. Bartenders need to think more about how to operate sustainably, he says.
Michael Staub, restaurant-development consultant and principal of Group M
The Seaport will sap us. “The enormous increase in new seats in the Seaport by national multi-unit operators weakens the local independent restaurant community,” Staub predicts. There aren’t enough diners to go around. “There’s only so much air in the balloon.”
Restaurants will close. “The over-supply of new restaurants will increase competition with established locations and the result could be a rash of closings and turnovers.” New restaurants are stealing the thunder of places that have been around for a long time. New operators are also entering into deals wherein it’s hard to make the numbers add up. Some big restaurants that opened in 2017 will suffer as their start-up rent deals expire. This can be $10,000 more a month after first-year rent concessions disappear.
Prices will go up. “Operators will need to increase prices to deal with sky-high rents and upward pressure on wages.” Many restaurateurs are trying to figure out how to pay living wage, and also reckon with the disparity between the front and back of house — you have cooks making $15 an hour and servers making $45-$50, Staub says. He believes best practices will emerge on how to make this more equitable. “The biggest issue I’m concerned about, and it’s more of a moral issue, is for all this interest in eating locally and sustainably, you need to support your local independent restaurant and help them get through these times.”
Everyone will work harder for less! “I don’t know anybody who’s done exceedingly well in 2017,” Staub says.
Douglass Williams, chef-owner of Mida
We will be inspired to take better care of our health. When people say they want to eat better, they usually mean at home, Williams says. “But I think restaurants have a big part to play.” Chefs and restaurant owners are role models, particularly when it comes to food. By making the right choices for themselves, they influence their customers. Williams cites chefs like Matt Jennings of Townsman and Steve “Nookie” Postal of Commonwealth, who have publicly documented their own weight loss. “It rubs off on the public. It goes from us out into the public. The public demands it [healthy food], it goes back to us, and it becomes a circle of health.” Williams, who has Crohn’s disease, went into remission six years ago as a result of making his own good choices, he says. “I think it’s going to be underlying to all the important things in 2018, the real things that mean something to people: kicking out the poor personal management.”
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.