Between the viral success of cronuts, Buddha bowls and, of course, unicorn Frappuccinos, it may feel like food trends didn’t exist before Instagram. But, as anyone who has eaten pasta salad can attest, food fads pre-date social media. The difference today is how fast the trends can permeate the mainstream.
After it first became popular in the ’80s, pasta salad took at least a decade to trickle into corporate cafeteria territory; now, a food trend like the rainbow bagel can hit peak saturation within a month, from the appearing everywhere from the Food Network to your local bakery.
Christine Couvelier, executive chef and president of food trend development tracker Culinary Concierge says the biggest difference today is how the trends are interpreted.
“Whether it be the Food Network or food movies or food media or social media, consumers know more about food than ever before,” she says. “Certainly, a lot of people’s travels focus more and more around food. When you’re going somewhere, people will say to you, ‘You have to go to this place and pick up this bagel, and have the chicken at this place,’ and when you come home from a trip, you like to share your finds, too. I think that really helps food trends come back to where you live and be worked into people’s menus and things we cook.”
The life cycle of a trend typically starts with piquing the interest of a group of people who have influential voices and an acute eye for what’s new. Once they’re followers begin to pick up it, word spreads. Soon, the trend can reach critical mass. (Avocado toast, anyone?)
Darren Tristano, chief insights officer with Chicago-based restaurant research firm Technomic notes that restaurants are now trying out limited-offer items more frequently to keep up with the pace of social media.
“Consumer expectations are speeding up the impact of trend cycles, allowing faster engagement, reaction (both positive and negative), and response by consumers that provides feedback to operators, allowing them to tweak the items or remove them if consumers don’t see the product as being relevant to their lives or affordable,” Tristano says. “Competitors have very fast access to the new items and the results. This is very different from times where operators had to go to their competitors to see new items on the menu, and had little to no feedback from consumers on the items.”
New York Times senior economics correspondent Neil Irwin even developed the Fried Calamari Index as a tool to measure food trends. Fried calamari, now a passé (but delicious, let’s be real) dish found everywhere from strip mall Italian restaurants to Applebee’s, started out like most food trends in “forward-thinking, innovative restaurants in New York and other capitals of gastronomy.” Irwin finds that foods that have become trendy in the last decade become popular faster but can also fade just as quickly. Octopus took off as a new trend in 2014, and by this year, Bon Appetit’s deputy editor is listing it as a trend he hopes disappears. Hot chicken was touted in 2015 as the next boom for fast-casual restaurants. By 2016, KFC was embarking on a hot chicken food truck tour.
Scot Rossillo has long been honing a colorful baking technique as the owner of the Bagel Store in Brooklyn, turning out rainbow bagels for the past 20 years, during which time hue as often looked down upon by some industry colleagues and criticized for committing bagel atrocities. But when Instagram appeal combined with Today show and Food Network appearances, it was Rossillo who had the last laugh.
“Two decades ago, people’s mindsets and the energy to get it out there wasn’t quite as speedy as it is today,” Rossillo says. “If you’re onto something that’s going to be huge, in order to get it there faster, you don’t have to wait 20 years of hard work and doubting yourself. … You’ll get there much, much faster in today’s market.”
Rossillo, who’s spent his life baking, acknowledges that he’s had to work extra hard to stay ahead of trends. His secret? “I don’t look at what other people do. I appreciate it, but I’ll never copy someone else’s work—that’s their creation,” he says. “I’m always in research and development, seven days a week, whether at home or at the store. I have a Google Drive that maintains about 100,000 photos of things I’ll be doing in the future. What I’m doing now with the galaxy bagels and glitter bagels, I’ve had that idea for a long time, but the timing has to be accurate.”
And it’s timing that can make the difference between a trend having staying power or being just a flash in the pan, says Couvelier.
“If it’s something that lasts through emerging, developing and existing [phases], it has staying power, and it has popularity, and it begins to show up in different areas of our food likes and dislikes,” she says. “Trends are separate from that. Trends could be a ‘wow’ thing where someone says, ‘Wow, this is amazing, I have to make this.’ But six months or 12 months later you’re not new on the block, things have dwindled down and it hasn’t caught on.”
The key to creating a food trend that lasts is making sure it’s familiar while still being new, and, most importantly, that it tastes delicious.
“Often, sustainability of a trend will depend on whether the item is healthy or indulgent,” Tristano says. “The majority of consumers dine away from home based on craveability and indulgence. Indulgent items seem to dominate while a smaller minority of consumers continue to look for healthier fare than can be satisfying and provide fuel.”
Look no further than your own Instagram for proof. Healthy items like Buddha bowls or smoothie bowls can break through, but it’s the indulgent cronuts, cupcakes and unicorn-colored treats that get everyone talking.
So what’s on the docket for 2017? Couvelier predicts we’ll see more of turmeric in things like smoothies, juices and salad dresses, as well as vegetables being reinvented to be able to anchor a main dish. Tristano sees a similar forecast, expecting a growth in the number of vegan restaurants, as well as restaurants who cater to younger diners and those with dietary restrictions. For the same health- and customization-based reasons, he sees poke and barbecue as also having growth potential.
But regardless of what new food trends may emerge, success will ultimately come down to Couvelier’s motto: “Taste, taste, taste.”