The emergence of barbecue, burritos and steamed buns has raised diners' expectations in the casual-dining sector. So what do operators need to do to stand out in 2016? Richard McComb reports
A few years ago, if you had asked chefs and foodservice bosses to pinpoint new trends in the casual-dining sector, the answers would have been "conceptual."
This is another way of saying operators were a little uncertain. Something was happening, but it was tricky to put your finger on.
Food was becoming more closely aligned with lifestyle and fashion. Suddenly hot dogs, once synonymous with 1970s naffness, became essential hipster fodder.
The arrival of the street-food bandwagon coincided with the proliferation of social media; dishes assembled in Seoul and Tokyo were now being viewed instantly in London, Birmingham and Manchester, thanks to the power of Instagram and Twitter.
Ask the same question about casual-dining themes for 2016 and the replies are focused and detailed. Inquiries by The Caterer have thrown up everything from pintxos and barbecue to bergamot, superfoods and signature chips.
Haysmacintyre, the chartered accountants, reported a buoyant 2015 boosted by increased turnover and a high number of new openings. Andrew Ball, head of hospitality, attributes success to improved products and competitive pricing.
"In 2014, 74% of people were eating out at least once a week, and 27% of people were eating out more than three times a week. This is approximately double the 2012 figures," says Ball.
Amid spiralling competition, what do chefs think it takes to stand out from the casual-dining pack?
"The consumer today is looking for bold flavours and innovative dishes. You can't just pull out a chorizo cooked in red wine and expect a throng of people trying to get a table.
"Another key trend is that while we love a treat now and again - be it a dirty burger or fried cheese drizzled in truffle honey - we'll continue to see an increase in healthy dishes as well as dishes catering to people cutting gluten or dairy, with an emphasis on wellbeing."
Jared Male, pitmaster at Big Easy Barbecue and Crabshack, says authenticity will be the key. "How are these foods really served in America?" he asks. "The flavours, the presentation? I think as the British palate becomes more accustomed to these offerings, people will start to step outside their comfort zones."
The chef is a champion of the deli sandwich. "I'm talking made-to-order sandwiches on hero rolls busting at the seams with sliced cold cuts, cheeses, and toppings."
Ross Shonhan of Bone Daddies thinks London's love of American barbecue has "far from maxed out" and he also hopes to see more Vietnamese and Thai restaurants.
Shonhan adds: "I think we will see more grand dining rooms - Sexy Fish, Park Chinois - where people are encouraged to stay after dinner. Traditional perceptions are being challenged, so expect to see places that fit less perfectly in a box and just serve great food with a variety of influences."
Fresh Direct salmon in coffee marinade
A casual vibe
Peter and Elaine Kinsella, owners of Lunya Liverpool and Manchester, believe casual dining is all about a democratic style of eating rather than a price point: "For us, this means a guest sitting at the bar drinking a £1,500 bottle of Pingus next to a guest having half an Estrella Damm. And comfortable seating is important to us. Casual shouldn't mean sitting on an old school chair."
The customer's love of a "cocooning environment" and flexibility is central to the approach at the Ivy Café, Marylebone, according to general manager Thasanee Robinson.
"Due to the public's increasingly busy work and personal schedules we have noticed that customers are looking for an increased flexibility when it comes to service hours," says Robinson. "The Ivy Café looks to support this growing need by offering an all-day menu, allowing guests to enjoy everything from breakfast and elevenses to afternoon snacks, cream tea and dinner."
Andy Briggs, co-founder and head executive chef for the Stable pizza restaurants, warns against complacency and says operators should tweak menus to ensure they always deliver the best produce. He says: "I may be biased but pizza and cider are continuing to thrive. We will be pushing our expansion into London in the run-up to spring, bringing the South West to the big smoke, arriving in Exeter and Reading soon after. Cider is becoming more popular month-on-month."
Blurring the boundaries
Dev Biswal, owner and head chef at the Ambrette restaurants in Kent and East Sussex, thinks the old barriers between fine-dining and casual-dining are blurring: "It's now possible to combine the two and offer a rapid fine-dining experience to customers who want to enjoy fresh flavours and be wowed by the latest preparation techniques, but don't have a whole afternoon or evening to spend at a restaurant."
Big chains are refreshing their offer to keep pace with the changes and appeal to the younger generation. Wagamama trialled a new menu, evolved restaurant design and a refined service style before rolling it out across the group last year. It wants to promote immersive dining where the brand story is key. This involves using open kitchens, dishes, crockery and restaurant layout to involve customers in the 'co-creation' of the experience. Creating beautiful and 'Instagram-able' food is also crucial.
Steven Mangleshot, Wagamama's executive chef, says: "I still believe that ramen will continue to grow throughout the UK, as well as Asian steamed buns, which have been hugely talked about in recent months. Our hirata buns were launched back in May and have been an instant hit on the menu."
Pizza Hut says it is in the middle of the biggest transformation in its history, including a re-design and re-imaging of its entire restaurant estate and a menu re-launch for the millennial market. New items include 'frickles' (fried pickles), pulled-pork pizzas, Prosecco and craft beer.
AHDB Moroccan lamb
Event caterers are responding to rising consumer demands for healthy eating options. Amadeus, part of the Birmingham-based NEC Group, is continuing to introduce superfoods like seeds and coconut milk into its products.
Marc Frankl, Amadeus food and beverage director, says it is vital that operators take a holistic approach, including site fit-out, décor and service style, to promote brand identity.
Frankl says: "For example, if the counters and menus are designed correctly, you will aid the customer in their decision-making, which in turn increases the average transaction value as well as top line sales."
Amadeus has fitted out high-street brands as well as introducing its own brands across its venues. The Oak Kitchen incorporates natural materials and warm neutral tones to mirror a traditional domestic kitchen and focuses on hearty British food.
Brakes reports increased demand for its creative menu development and category management teams as a source of creative ideas for operators.
Dave Hilling, head of business development (casual dining) at Brakes, says 'informal premiumisation' is driving demand for a subtle mix of innovation and nostalgia in 2016. "Modern Asian and American concepts will dominate, differentiated by introducing pickling, fermenting, smoking and grilling. While this may not be judged to be particularly new, it will become increasingly visible to the high-street consumer and therefore outlets that focus on these areas will reap the benefits," says Hilling.
"As for the outlets themselves, consumers are increasingly discerning and, while they expect their favourite restaurant to deliver a consistently high level of quality and service, they don't want the surroundings to be sterile. There is a huge opportunity then, for operators to make themselves relevant to the local community through individual design, décor or theme, appealing and engaging to the local target market. The devil is in the detail.
"At the premium end of casual dining, we will see more focus on achieving an exclusive feel by utilising tools such as the Chef's Table, for example."
Destiny Foods is set to introduce a range of free-from products as the food allergy and intolerance market goes mainstream.
Bryan Jackson, director of sales, expects rising demand for speciality desserts, such as baklava, and reports demand for gourmet products such as Destiny's gourmand tarts.
Jackson says: "Caterers are experimenting with flavours, with our clementine tarts proving popular. Twists on traditional items will also be popular, with pÁ¢tisserie such as éclairs seeing classic recipes reinvented for today's experimental diners. Bespoke desserts made specifically for a particular restaurant group will also allow caterers to offer something truly different to their customers."
Utopia Creative Bar range
The reinvention of classic dishes typically provides fertile territory for casual dining. Duncan Parsonage, head of food development at Fresh Direct, thinks 2016 will be no different. "Think miso and orange ice-cream, hemp seed pesto, and coconut-flour battered fish and chips," says Parsonage.
"Small plates and grazing are definitely in as these allow diners to experiment with a multitude of menu offerings. They're great news for food outlets too as figures show that this trend is pushing up average spend per head."
Small things make a big different, such as giving your spuds some sparkle, according to Richard Musgrave, McCain Foods' senior brand manager. "An easy way to add variety, and identify a 'signature' style that consumers will associate with the outlet is by offering chips with a range of toppings or seasonings," says Musgrave.
"While the topping or seasoning components themselves don't need to be unique, creating a range of flavour combinations with a quirky name for each option will link that taste to the outlet and help operators stand out from the competition."
McCain-topped chip and potato products include Smokey Joes - sweet potato fries with aÁ¯oli sauce and smoked paprika.
Jane Chapman, food chain team manager for AHDB Pork, expects to see pulled pork, a darling of casual-dining, maintain its popularity but she also expects to see more Mexican cuisine and Brazilian-themed barbecue.
"We've been talking about the inspiration and influence of street food for years, and it continues to drive trends in both retail and foodservice," says Chapman.
"This year, with bowls being the in-thing to serve dishes in, expect to see pork noodle broths, chowders and traditional stews served at your local street market."
The new challenge for foodservice is to meet the raised expectations of customers. It is not enough to serve ribs - they have to be really good ribs with an authentic sauce.
Tom Styman-Heighton, Funnybones foodservice development chef, says: "Regionality will develop with foods becoming more representative of particular areas, if not individual American states. This will result in us defining our barbecue sauces, moving away from simply high-quality generic barbecue sauce to those with much more specific characteristics - a Kansas- or Carolina-style sauce, for example. We will be working to follow this trend over the year."
Olympia Kiln range
As the number of casual-dining outlets continues to rise, gaining a competitive advantage requires more than just a great food offering.
Heather Beattie, Olympia brand manager for Nisbets, says: "While an enticing menu may be key in this growing market, branding and a consistent look and feel also plays a big part in conveying the casual-dining concept and should be carried across every aspect of your establishment, including tableware.
"One material proving particularly fashionable at the minute is enamelware."
Nisbets' durable Olympia enamelled range includes oven- and dishwasher-safe blue and white tableware.
The new Olympia Kiln range, with its rural, earthy tones, complements casual-dining favourites such as burgers. Kiln plates, bowls, mugs, saucers and cups are available in moss, sandstone, ocean and bark colours.
Henry Stephenson, managing director at Stephensons, says the prominent trends for 2016 will continue with themes of simplicity and authenticity.
"Customers' craving for a return to simpler times sees the rustic trend still going strong," says Stephenson.
"Qualities such as Seasons by Porcelite's hand-finished appearance and natural, earthy colours give customers the back-to-basics experience they are looking for."
It could also be the year for copper, with martini cocktail glasses and barware such as cocktail shakers, strainers and spoons in metal. Look out for copper tableware - salt and pepper pots, butter dish domes and serving bowls.
Beacon and its suppliers Lockhart Catering Equipment believe metals will feature heavily in casual dining for table-top products and accessories.
Emma Warrington, senior food buyer at Beacon, says: "The variety of colours and materials available now is vast, from aluminium and galvanised steel to coppers and gold."
Chefs' tips for 2016
Francesco Mazzei, chef-patron at Sartoria, London
- Anchovy water is a versatile marinade, adding flavour to stews or in a salad dressing with olive oil and lemon juice.
- Try liquorice for marinating game.
- Bergamot as a superfood helps to lower cholesterol and clear the skin.
Ben Tish, chef-director at Salt Yard Group, London
- The Middle Eastern trend will go from strength to strength.
- Try natural cooking techniques, like wood-fired grilling and roasting.
Yasuhiro Mineno, chef-patron, Yashin Ocean House, London
- Marinating fish in soy sauce, sake and Marmite can boost umami.
- Miso mixed with Greek yogurt and refrigerated for few days gives a richer flavour because of the lactic acid in the yogurt.
- Fish from Portugal such as alfonsino and scorpion is "super-lovely".
Mudassar Amjad, managing director, Zouk, Manchester and Bradford
- Healthy interpretations of regional Indian cuisine, such as Gujarati (vegetarian dishes prepared with sweet, salty and spicy blends) will become more popular.
- Karahi is a traditional dish from North-west Pakistan. It is prepared over flames in a special pan with tomatoes, crushed peppercorns, cumin, ginger and garlic.
Products and suppliers
Nisbets Olympia range
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