2019 restaurant menu trends

Much like fashion, food goes in and out of style in the blink of an eye. From fondue to avocado, the industry has seen palates evolve year-to-year, as guests welcome emerging food trends to their plates. Diners have recently become more daring, seeking out culinary experiences that are guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.

A survey from Global Data revealed that Millennials are more likely to try novel flavors, with 79 percent stating that they “enjoy experimenting with products from different cultures or countries.” This willingness to try new foods has led restaurants to make a choice: adapt to adventurous diners or keep it classic?

Whether it’s staying active on social media, reading restaurant management blogs, or staying connected with other owners and chefs, trendwatching is a key to keeping customers interested. Restaurateurs that are in-tune with the trends around the industry are likely to attract customers that are on the hunt for the next best thing in the culinary world.

Upserve surveyed 2018 menu and sales data from nearly 9,000 restaurants to dig into what food trends drove the most orders, and which are being left behind.

The Hottest 2019 Restaurant Menu Trends

Many emerging food trends popped up across the country in 2018, but few made restaurant customers curious more than these unique eats. If these ingredients aren’t already on your menu, you might want to think about updating your current menu to keep your customers coming back.

1. CBD (Cannabidiol) — up 99%!

It was only a matter of time before cannabidiol—or CBD—made its way into the restaurant industry. The non-psychoactive derivative from the cannabis plant has helped consumers looking for relief from inflammation, pain, anxiety, insomnia, seizures, spasms, and other conditions without the negative side effects of some pharmaceutical drugs.

According to the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) What’s Hot Culinary Survey, a barometer of U.S. food and beverage trends, 650 professional chefs—all members of the American Culinary Federation—said infusing food and drink with cannabis and CBD could create unique cuisine opportunities and potential new markets for experiential dining occasions. Of the survey’s respondents, 77 percent identified cannabis/CBD-infused drinks as the number one trend in the restaurant industry right now, and 76 percent tapped cannabis/CBD-infused food as the second most popular trend.

Data revealed a 99 percent increase in CBD menu items in 2018, setting up 2019 as the year of CBD. From baked goods to CBD-infused beverages, restaurants across the country are responding to a consumer demand to chill out.

“There has been growing popularity and support around CBD, and if it makes people happier and less stressed, then why not give the public what they want?” says Nick Duckworth, owner of cafe Banter NYC. They currently only sell Dirty Lemon CBD, a packaged, CBD-infused drink, but will be expanding their CBD offerings in 2019, allowing customers “to add CBD drops to most beverages.”

At River and Woods in Boulder, CO, CBD has become a menu staple that’s used in everything from glasses of water to garnish for oysters. “It is mainly used in our beverage program for cocktails, mocktails, beer, and wine,” says Ian Mitchell, beverage manager at River and Woods. “We serve Kannaway Pure Gold, Full Spectrum CBD oil. While a single portion is $5 per 5mg, our wellness cocktail offers a discounted price of only $3 to add the small 5mg optional garnish to the ‘Be Well.’ With the benefits of ginger, turmeric, apple cider, and carrot, the addition of CBD further promotes anti-inflammatory and many other health-based properties.”

In Colorado, CBD is not only accepted—it’s everywhere. “For us, it’s a way to expand the experience of dining, and to do it in a way that the community could appreciate,” Mitchell says. “CBD was a great addition to our menu because of its medicinal benefits, the simplicity and elegance of it as a garnish, and its trendy nature. The oil is tasteless and colorless, but creates a great circular shape on cocktails.”

On any given night at River and Woods, up to 20 orders worth of CBD are sold throughout the restaurant. But it wasn’t the trendiness that made them make the decision to offer CBD to customers, says Mitchell, but the value for customers. “A customer had asked for an explanation of CBD, and then requested that she get some in her water glass. This great moment encapsulates everything we’re striving to do.”

Best Practices for Serving CBD

Before you consider adding CBD to your menu, it’s important to consider the implications of infusing your cocktails and lattes with the oil’s soothing benefits. The science behind combining CBD with alcohol is mixed, which is why some restaurants are erring on the side of caution when it comes to CBD dosing on their menus.

“On CBD, you’re very chill, very lighthearted, mellow. The alcohol will make that more intense,” James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, told Vice. “If you’re a happy drunk, then CBD could make you a happier drunk,” Giordano says. “If you’re an angry or violent drunk, the CBD may certainly disinhibit some of that.”

Due to the lack of research around dosing CBD, it is recommended that owners and managers start with small doses to be safe, or limit doses per customer.

“It’s important to understand that CBD is biphasic in its nature, so in small doses it’s gonna make you feel more alert and activated, and then in larger doses, it’s going to have more of a calming, sedating effect,” Emily Berg, an Herbal Program Manager with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things CBD, told Gothamist. “With that being said, a large dose may not be suitable for every application of CBD, and that’s why we kind of suggest microdosing. We also suggest that because your absorption rate depends on your metabolic rate.”

At River and Woods, there are no formal limits for customers ordering CBD cocktails or food.

“There are no rules governing limits on CBD infusions,” says Mitchell. “Because we use a product that contains 0% THC—and it is illegal to serve THC in any way under CO liquor license laws—there is no psychotropic concern any more than there would be if we were adding any herbal extract like aloe or ginger root. We also do 5mg doses, and safe daily doses are 35mg and up, so we haven’t run into any issues with anyone even approaching a level that might be questionable.”

Refreshing your menu in 2019? Our Smart Menu Builder can help.

2. Fermented Foods — up 149%

The wellness trend continues: a recent obsession with gut health has consumers turning to naturally preserved foods. This means that fermentation has swept the restaurant industry, with a staggering 149 percent increase on Upserve customer menus, making it the biggest trend in 2018.

One of the most popular items to take the food industry by storm? Kombucha. This fermented, sweetened, slightly effervescent, functional tea beverage has popped up everywhere from restaurants to mass retailers.

Ben Aalvik is the co-owner of Fully Rooted, a raw cold-pressed juice and kombucha company based in Providence, Rhode Island. Ben has been brewing his own kombucha since 2010, but didn’t introduce it to his pressed juice business until 2017. “We started selling cold-pressed juices in 2013. When a lot of markets started carrying kombucha in 2016, we knew it was a good time to start,” he says. “Kombucha is a very difficult product to keep consistent, so we added a brewery room to our space to control the product. There are a lot of things that can throw it off or change characteristics of the beverage.”

Fully Rooted has a line of four flavors of kombucha—Citrus Hibiscus, Gingerishi, Hopped, and Lavender—and use a combination of black, green, and herbal teas in their product. “We experiment with both types of teas, and have some herbal-based, caffeine-free products using Honeybush Tea from South Africa with nettle and lemon balm,” Aalvik explains. He and the Fully Rooted team are well aware that consumers are interested in functional beverages like kombucha, and are working on a new line of herbalist-formulated kombucha that has added benefits. “It requires a lot of education,” he says. “There are still a lot of people who have no idea what it is, or how to say it.”

fully rooted kombucha
Photo: Fully Rooted on Instagram

Despite the lack of knowledge from consumers, kombucha has managed to grow in popularity. Fully Rooted started wholesaling their products in September 2018, selling to local restaurants, cafes, and small businesses. “We’re being careful to not run out of product, but we’re keeping up with the demand,” he says. “The restaurants that are carrying our kombucha are growing sales every week.”

Aalvik cites the biggest challenge with the kombucha business is a price point. “We’re at $7 per bottle, which is working. When grocery stores are selling it for $4 per bottle, businesses are hesitant, but ends up selling well,” he says. “We have an advantage over the bigger brands—it’s lighter and fresher. When products come to Rhode Island from California, it ferments more in the bottles, resulting in a more sour flavor.”

As for the next thing in fermentation, Aalvik believes that water kefir could be big. “There are a lot of different fermented beverages around the world, but I think water kefir is the next one that could get more popular. It offers different strains of probiotics that are more helpful for other parts of the body,” he explains. “And it’s quick to produce—only one to two days, instead of seven to 10 for kombucha.”

What does this fermentation trend mean for restaurants in 2019? Restaurants should expect more customers to be seeking the probiotic-filled foods all year long. Fermentation carries a wide range of health-related benefits, including necessary enzymes, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B. With a variety of categories for fermentation to live on restaurant menus—including vegetables, beverages, and dairy products—chefs can have fun getting a little funky in the kitchen with fermentation.

Looking for ideas? Try adding kimchi to a dish or kombucha to your cocktail menu. Your most adventurous customers, and their digestive systems, will thank you.

3. Jackfruit — up 52%

Plant-based foodies have grown fond of the world’s largest tree fruit, jackfruit, which saw a 52 percent increase on restaurant menus. The fruit is native to India and Southeast Asia, and packs a nutritional punch for vegetarians as a good source of protein, calcium, iron, and potassium. As an adaptable food, jackfruit is commonly used as a meat substitute in meatless dishes. Unripe jackfruit has a meat-like taste and texture, and when cooked the fruit is transformed into a savory meat substitute similar to pulled pork, perfect for tacos or sandwiches.

“Our popular jackfruit barbecue sandwich was inspired by a random conversation I had with another shopper at an Asian food market,” says Kendra Feather, owner of Ipanema Cafe, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. “We were experimenting with jackfruit as a new ingredient and it led to our BBQ Jackfruit Sandwich, a great vegan take on the pulled pork sandwich with vegan slaw and spicy chipotle aioli.” Feather says the sandwich is now one of the most popular items on the menu. “It hits a sweet spot between familiar and new, and offers a great healthy alternative to pork.” The restaurant also offers Mole Jackfruit Tacos with fried potatoes and brussel sprouts, which Feather describes as “both delicious and 100 percent vegan.”

Restaurant owners and managers find value in having jackfruit items on their menu as more and more people shift to plant-based diets. “We have made a choice to work towards having more options for vegetarian, gluten-free, and other specialty diets,” says Kyle Kensrue, Director of Operations at Randolph Beer, a gastropub with three locations in New York City. “We have BBQ Jackfruit Sliders. Non-vegetarians order the sliders and they say they’re just as good as the meat version.”

Like many other restaurants, Ryan Wallace, owner of William Oliver’s Publick House, a gastropub in Lafayette, CO, has jackfruit tacos and a jackfruit sandwich on his menu, but also has another option on their secret menu: jackfruit on a baked potato. “I wanted to add jackfruit to our menu because it is such a versatile ingredient that lends itself to so many dishes, to easily create new and fun flavors,” Wallace says. “Our customers have really enjoyed the addition of jackfruit, but the vast majority of them had never heard of it before. It’s been fun to introduce people to something new.”

4. Fire-roasted Foods – up 19%

While some cooking methods quickly become stale, fire roasting has worked its way into American kitchens with a 19 percent increase on restaurant menus. Fire roasting vegetables and fruits results in a depth of flavor not attainable with regular roasting or baking, creating a variety of smoky flavors for chefs to offer customers.

Looking for ways to bring the flame to the kitchen with fire-roasted menu items? Heat up your menu with a fire-roasted tomato bisque, fire-roasted shrimp tacos, or try adding a fire-roasted green chile jam to chicken, pancakes, or a burger for a subtly sweet burn.

Build a data-driven menu with help from our Restaurant Menu Template.

5. Ancient Grains — up 11%

The last trend is not so much a food of the future, but a sign that consumers are continuing the trend of going back to their roots. With diets that focus on wholesome, unprocessed foods, ancient grains saw an 11 percent increase on restaurant menus in 2018. Grains such as teff, einkorn, amaranth, millet or spelt may sound rather exotic to the average foodie, but health-conscious consumers are well versed in these carbohydrates that provide more nutrition than a simple grain.

“Quinoa is probably number one in trending grains,” says Mike Kostyo, senior publications manager for Datassential, a food industry market research firm. Quinoa’s menu mentions are up 350 percent over the past four years, and the grain is on the menu at one in five fast casual restaurants. It’s remarkable growth for “something a decade ago most people had never heard of,” Kostyo told QSR Magazine.

When it comes to consumption in the U.S., the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2018 Food & Health Survey indicates Americans rank healthful eating as one of their top three concerns. With 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 16-34 are on a diet or specific eating pattern, eating healthfully is a priority now and into the future.

While eating healthy is not typically reserved for fast food or fast casual eateries, ancient grains have taken over the QSR space in the form of grain bowls. A far cry from your grandmother’s bowl of brown rice and overly steamed broccoli, these bowls are vegetable goodness atop a canvas of grains, and brightened with unexpected flavors such as pickled vegetables, Thai basil, and spicy dressings. Consumers love QSRs because of the wealth of options, which makes grain bowls a perfect fit for this concept: customers move down the line, choosing from charred broccoli, smashed cucumbers, crunchy chickpeas, shaved brussel sprouts, and over a dozen more ingredients depending on the location.

Get in on this new, ancient trend by creating your own delicious grain bowl to offer on your menu, or give your customers the opportunity to create their own healthy masterpiece.

What’s Next for Restaurant Menu Trends?

While restaurants made room on their menus for CBD, jackfruit, and fermented foods, a few items were left in dust in 2018.

Despite fermented foods’ rise in 2018, sauerkraut saw an 18 percent decline on restaurant menus, allowing chefs to experiment fermenting ingredients other than cabbage. Vegetarian favorite king oyster mushrooms were also dropped from menus, with a 93 percent decline in 2018, likely replaced with jackfruit recipes for non-meat eaters.

As for overall trends, restaurants feel that plant-based diets will become more common in restaurants. “I think you’ll see more and more restaurants incorporating plant-based items into their menu,” said Kensrue. Feather agrees, saying “plant-based eating has been getting a lot of love over the last few years. This is the year it starts to go mainstream.”

Wallace believes that 2019 will bring an uncomplicated approach to restaurant menus. “I think we will continue to see people seek new items to recreate classic, simple dishes. Simplicity. That’s the 2019 trend prediction in one word,” he says.

“New trends will always leave behind folks who question what all the fuss is about,” says Mitchell, who puts connection at the forefront of his purpose at River and Woods. “The ability to create a connection, nourishing body and soul by guiding someone through a unique experience, is what I hope will continuously set us apart. In the future, I imagine we will see more menus catered to this concept.

Ultimately, it’s all about turning on consumers to a greater shared experience. “While the basis of trends is exclusivity,” says Mitchell, “I think being inclusive serves a better purpose.”

80% of a restaurant’s food sales come from only 16% of menu items. How do you know which ones? The perfect menu is just a click away with Upserve's Menu Builder.

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Holly Everett is a five-year restaurant industry veteran turned small business marketing specialist. After working at Seven Stars Bakery in Providence, Rhode Island throughout college, she entered the world of marketing where she led B2B marketing initiatives at companies focusing on growing small businesses. At Upserve, she integrates her passion for the restaurant industry and knowledge of the needs of small business owners to help make restaurants wildly successful.