2021 Food Trends Report Part II

Welcome back to Part II of our annual Top Ten Food Trends report. We think this is year 32…and we’ve seen a lot of changes over those years. One thing, however, has remained true: people’s interest in thinking about what comes next. We help companies envision it, consumers engage with it, and dreamers dream it.

When 2020 came along, we began helping people adapt to it. Much of what you’ll see in Part II is about how the industry is adapting, and what we may have stick with us for the future. Be sure to check out our November newsletter [found here], along with Part I [found here], where you’ll see numbers 1-4.

  • Defining and identifying local

It’s time to get our heads around local. Years ago, it was all about locally-grown, made or produced—and that even if you didn’t live in that local it was still local to you if you were able to obtain it. So, if you grew up someplace that offered a great local bakery, and they were now able to ship to you, it was still buying local. Think Goldbelly.

Now, the debate has centered around restaurants more than products—after all, ecommerce, under the definition above, made everything local unless it was owned by big business. And there’s the question of the day: is it local if a local person holds the franchise? Or is it only local if it’s a one-off, true mom & pop? The thing is, while everyone believes that supporting local owners is important, that doesn’t usually feed a fast food addiction the way a local franchise holder does.

So, let’s agree that the restaurant industry as a whole is suffering, that the industry as a whole creates jobs, and that the industry as a whole needs our support. It doesn’t do any of us any good when a restaurant closes down. So, support programs like the one in Stephenville, TX, where each holder of a utility account in the city was sent a $25 gift card to be used at a participating local restaurant. Support national campaigns and app-driven incentives for franchises (yes, it’s OK to use the BOGO—just be sure to tip on the freebie as well). Buy direct when it makes sense—using something like the California beef directory. Just buy.

  • More data

Decisions are made with data. These days your gut instinct has to be validated by a survey, a diary, a digital follow, a sales report or something else that goes by the numbers. Disclosure: we use data, too, and have the proprietary software to prove it.

It’s a technology-laden world, and data truly does help understand the story. We’re seeing it in the pandemic, as more and more companies rely on apps to measure engagement. The uptick in business for those that have an app shows up big time, and has driven more food companies to invest in app development as well as ecommerce. The numbers show them where they should be putting their money. A&W is just one operation that can point to the data to show profits from drive-thru sales, and we referred earlier to Danny Meyer’s plan to add drive-thru to select Shake Shack locations.

We expect the changes to be permanent. While the consumer is not “just a number,” new data tells an accurate story and is changing the way we market forever.

  • International comfort food

Cozy and comfortable are the key words we search for these days. We’re caught by ads that make us feel like we just might be able to find solace in something—and food is generally high on the list (right next to fuzzy slippers and weighted blankets). There is, however, a twist. It’s not like anyone will turn away the fried chicken and mashed potato combo, but I am personally craving Xiaolongbao, otherwise known as soup dumplings.

Part of it is a desire for something unique; part of it is that we’ve learned Americans don’t have a corner on the market for flavor, by any means. The traditional comfort foods of other nations are seeping into our senses with Mexican pozole, and German spaetzli, and Vietnamese Pho, to call out just a few. The recipes, ingredients, and spices are readily available these days and many of these are perfect to make at home.

  • Flavors

Speaking of memorable flavors, we are continuing our unending search for flavorful food. Sustenance is all well and good, and appreciated in light of everything else 2020 has hit us with, but we crave the kind of flavor celebrity chefs are good at making us think they’ve achieved.

It’s why Trader Joe’s Everything but the Leftovers seasoning hit home when it was introduced (yes, I have a jar in my pantry, and it’s everything I wanted it to be). It’s like having the flavor of an Everything bagel without the poppy seeds in your teeth. It’s why Cajun Chef Isaac Toups has partnered with Spiceology to develop a curated home chef seasoning blend line to help people explore new flavors—kind of like the old days when Chef Paul Prudhomme did the same. And, it’s why the olive oil selections now go beyond EVO and Mediterranean, and into Fresh Blood Orange Olive Oil or California Balsamico Bianco with Fresh Apple from Temecula Olive Oil.

As for a 2021 flavor call out, we’re seeing a lot of trend analysts talk about CBD and chickpeas as though they were flavorful, which, honestly, they are not. They are additive. Going along with the idea of comfort foods, we’re seeing apple used in creative new ways—with a specific identification of which apple flavor is best for a recipe. Global flavors are growing on home cooks, too, who are venturing into the use of Mediterranean Baharat and similar flavors—most of which were introduced years ago, but are just now gaining acceptance.

  • Eating at Home

During the height of the pandemic I had a large number of emails from young families asking for help finding recipes that would expand their repertoire. They weren’t used to cooking at home so often, and had run out of ideas. It was an easy fix, and many of them have kept the new routine going. The food companies are eager to help them out, reducing steps and adding shortcuts to their not-quite-scratch collections. We won’t belabor this, since eating out is still an option and—did we mention the food industry needs support? But, eating at home delivers the comfort we want, the money savings we need, and the possibility of tailored-to-me flavors. It’s not going to go away anytime soon.

  • New holiday food traditions

It’s not just that our food trend report is always issued just as Thanksgiving is sneaking up on us, but we often see new trends around the holidays. This year it’s obvious to anyone—holidays are not always celebrated as they have been in the past. This year’s Halloween treats were left at the end of the driveway. This year’s Thanksgiving dinner participants will likely be fewer. So, while we can’t always gather around the table, we are still creating ingenious ways to celebrate the holidays.

Think candy chutes, Halloween charcuterie boards, and Wegman’s “Friendsgiving” ice cream flavor—featuring almond ice cream with blackberry swirls and sugar cookie pieces. Cocoa bombs are everywhere, not just on TikTok, and food gifts are more necessary these days than ties. We’re figuring out how to Zoom a dinner party, and how to do homemade curbside delivery to surprise nearby family and friends. The things we do this year—driven by necessity—will, in years to come, be part of our new traditions.

And that, folks, is why we love to track the trends. Because some of them actually make a difference.