What are this year’s food trends?  It’s all about experiential menus.  Nancy Kruse, menu maven, trend tracker, and president of The Kruse Company, shared her research and top 5 list of 2018 food trends with attendees of the 2018 National Restaurant Show.

She started off with a small lesson in economics which is important to paint the bigger economic picture for all businesses.  Kruse explained that consumer confidence is at an all-time high with lower income brackets seeing the most improvement.  Also at an all-time high is the Disposable Personal Income indicator.  These two indicators tend to mean that people are willing to spend their money on non-essential items, like dining out.

2018 Food Trends for Food Truck Vendors

nancy kruseDespite this good economic news, consumers are faced with a lot of distractions when it comes to food options.  One of the biggest challenges to food truck/restaurant sales is getting consumers out of the house.  This is why providing your customers an experience is key.

Kruse points out some reasons consumers are staying home.

  • Large screen TVs and great content to consume (Netflix, Hulu, etc.)
  • Meal delivery kits
  • Food delivery services (Grub Hub, Uber Eats, etc.)
  • Grocery store innovations

There have been many articles on why consumers opt to stay home, so some of Kruse’s points aren’t a surprise.  This new trend of everything getting delivered and staying home is felt by other industries as well, such as movie theaters.

While her comments are specifically geared toward restaurants, they can be applied to food trucks.  Kruse’s most consistent takeaway for restaurants of all types is “creating vibrant, memorable experiences that cannot be replicated at home.”  Meaning, give consumers the Instagram-worthy photos they desire, exciting and unique food that can’t be recreated at home, all in a unique environment.

That being said, food trucks aren’t hiring movie set designers to build out dining rooms.  Food trucks are able to create their experiences by innovating their menus, a great experience while customers are in line and the service at the window.

Top 5 Experiential Menu Items

The biggest focus of the Kruse 2018 food trends center around menus. An experiential menu or signature dish includes elements of show-stopping looks, unique, delicious flavor and the ability to evoke different kinds of emotions.

2018 Food Trends: Eye-Popping Dishes

  • The WOW Factor.  When the dish is handed to the customer, you get that “wow!”  Kruse mentioned the Crystal Ball Frappuccino at Starbucks and edible gold sprinkled wings at Buffalo Wild Wings.
  • The AWWWW!  This may be a bit more difficult to pull off for a food truck, but the idea is to serve a dish that evokes cozy, warm and nostalgic feelings.  Restaurants have the ability to serve their food on butcher boards or in cast iron dishes.  In this instance, food trucks can create these emotions with their actual food.
  • The DARE.  By using squid ink or activated charcoal, food can get transformed into an eye-catching item with an implicit dare.  Apparently, the term “goth food” is being applied to these “scary” creations, like black ice cream and squid ink-infused hamburger buns.
  • The UGLY/DELICIOUS.  These more homey and hearty meals fall into this category.  These types of dishes are ubiquitous on food trucks where the food may not be assembled with tweezers, but tastes incredible.

2018 Food Trends: Pumped-Up Prep

In this section, Kruse talks about hyping up the transformation of the food or creating an experience on the dish that isn’t easily replicated at home.  Customers want to know the story behind what’s on their plates: give them one.

  • SMOKING. Smoking as a method of preparation, has risen in restaurants 10% since last year.  This preparation method implies a long preparation and attention by an expert pitmaster.  Smoked meats are promoted across the spectrum of restaurants, including the limited time offer Arby’s smoked brisket sandwich.
  • SMOKED or SET ON FIRE dishes.  Handing a smoking dish or drink to a customer will definitely evoke an emotion.  Using smoked ingredients other than meats or charring them in an unexpected way are also very popular.
  • SEXY SAUCES.  Along with smoking, sauces, specifically barbecue sauces, are very important when presenting an experience to your customers.  Creating a new flavor or highlighting an heirloom recipe speaks to customers’ desire for a story around their food.

Kruse advises to “romance the smoke” on your menus and amp up the sauce by telling its story or its preparation method.  In the end, the goal is to give the consumer something they cannot recreate at home.

2018 Food Trends: Vibrant Veggies

In this section, Kruse’s 2018 food trends, points out the increased interest in vegetables for many reasons.  About 20% of the people on college campuses classify themselves as vegetarian.  As such, much of the innovative vegetarian and vegan dishes are being developed on college campuses.

Surprisingly, eating our veggies creates the “halo effect” which gives customers “permission” to eat other foods deemed less healthy.

  • ROASTED CARROTS. Roasted carrots have increased 124% on menus in the last year.  Kruse points out that the only thing changing about the ubiquitous root veg is the preparation.  By roasting them, there is an implicit higher value due to technique used in preparation.  Carrots are low in cost and provide a relatively clean palette to explore different ethnic flavors.
  • POTATOES. Potatoes never go out of style either.  They are being transformed into pasta bowls and infused with new and ethnic flavors to enhance the vegetarian experience.
  • VEGGIE DRINKS/COCKTAILS. Vegetable drinks are increasing in popularity on menus.  Fruit and vegetable drinks are a clean slate to incorporate popular ethnic flavors and provide the customer a perceived health value.

Vegetables are often more affordable than meat and with a pumped-up preparation can be a high margin item in a dish.  They balance the plate and by creating something unexpected they will continue to wow customers.

2018 Food Trends: Meat Still Matters

Despite the increase in vegetarianism, Americans still eat a lot of meat, 22lbs. per person per year, on average.  Meat is still meat, but there are some new trends in how restaurants are handling this restaurant staple.

  • FRESH OVER FROZEN MEAT has a higher perceived value.  This trend is found across the restaurant spectrum with sourcing local protein in high-end restaurants to McDonald’s re-introducing the Quarter Pounder with fresh hamburger patties.
  • PRIME RIB is making a comeback.  From the doldrum plates of weddings and bat mitzvahs, prime rib is sexy again.  The rise in popularity could be attributed to a skipped generation that didn’t have to sit through those boring banquet dinners.  This new/old cut of meat has even found it’s way onto the menu at Jack-in-the-Box!
  • SEAFOOD, the other animal protein.  Kruse points out that many customers are unfamiliar with seafood in general, especially how to prepare it.  As a chef, you can introduce seafood to your customers in a familiar way, on a chip, over noodles or in a bowl.  Speaking of bowls, the latest trend in seafood is the rise in popularity of poke bowls.
  • ALTERNATIVE MEAT.  Meat substitutes are revolutionizing vegetarianism.  The new wave of plant-based meat substitutes is challenging all preconceived notions of meat substitutes.  Beyond Meat and Impossible are shaking up the restaurant world by creating a product that looks, acts, feels and tastes like your favorite meat product.  These products are changing the meat landscape on all menus.  From Wahlburgers and White Castle to the fanciest vegan restaurants, these meat substitutes will soon be adopted by even the most ardent meat-lovers.

Kruse maintains that restaurants should remain committed to carnivores.  At the end of the day, customers want to feel good about what they eat.  You can do that by providing innovative meat alternatives on your menu, share the sourcing and preparation methods too.

2018 Food Trends: Global Pantries

Ethnic flavors are on the rise.  This is already very common in the food truck industry.  I guess restaurants are finally catching up!  While there’s a big world of food to explore, Kruse discussed Mediterranean and Asian foods.

  • MEDITERRANEAN foods, east of Italy, are increasingly popular on menus.  The Israeli dish of shakshuka is popping up all over.  Middle Eastern spices, like the Lebanese spice blend za’atar, are showing up on menus too.  Even though Italian food is ubiquitous, highly regionalized Italian dishes are gaining popularity, like cacio e pepe, a local favorite in Rome.
  • ASIAN food is still hot, although now flavors are centered around Indian, Taiwanese and Korean ingredients.  Infusing ethnic flavors into familiar foods makes it easier to introduce new flavors to American palates.  Since Roy Choi famously created the Korean taco, other food truck owners have been experimenting with Kimchi fries and Indian meatballs.

Kruse states in her 2018 food trends, that customers look to their local restaurants as experts to provide them new ethnic food experiences.  When serving something new, she recommends serving those ethnically unfamiliar dishes in a familiar way, whether it’s a meatball or over chips or pasta.

The Bottom Line

So what does Kruse point out in her 2018 food trends? At the end of the day, the goal is to get customers out of their homes and offices and into your lines.  Provide customers with unique food experiences, something that can’t be created at home, diners will reward you with repeat business.

RELATED: What These Food Trends Mean For Your Food Truck

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