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It's always interesting to think we can look into a crystal ball and see what the future holds, though I'm extremely thankful we couldn't do that back in January 2020. Had we known what lay ahead, we may have all wanted to stick our heads in a hole and not come out until the all's-clear bell went off. Life has changed, and so has the way we eat. Now, the National Restaurant Association has released its forecast for dining in 2021, and the COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for many of the predictions.

Here's a look at what we might expect to see and experience when we dine out this year.

- Restaurants will be serving more frozen-food products as they've found frozen products last longer and reduce waste as they cope with the fluctuations in operations: close, then open, then open to 50% capacity. You know the song.

- Fine-dining establishments that once depended on intimate settings and personalized service were left empty as the pandemic raged. In 2021, the National Restaurant Association predicts they will continue to step away from the traditional role model, offering more to-go experiences. For instance, in Chicago, chef Noah Sandoval of three restaurants — Kumiko, Oriole and Kikko — is getting winning reviews for selling his pizzas out of the back door of a hole-in-the-wall music venue.

- Food choices will seek to better the planet. Burger King is testing a lower-carbon-footprint beef, and Starbucks is committed to reducing its water, waste and carbon emissions by adding more plant-based beverages to its menu. Independent restaurants, too, will aid in bettering the planet with efforts that include composting and supporting farmers who practice regenerative agriculture and waste reduction.

- The next big thing in vegan substitutes will come in liquid form with more milk alternatives that already include soy milk and oat milk.

- More restaurants will hop on the virtual experience by offering special menus for takeout only, such as Applebee's Neighborhood Wings.

- Restaurants will try their hands at large-scale retail, selling their sauces, spice blends, T-shirts, hats and other branded foods and gear. This is nothing new for well-known chefs Wolfgang Puck and Rick Bayless, but it's something new for others, such as Tocabe, a Denver-based eatery specializing in Native American fare and looking to sell frozen meals via mail order. Locally, small businesses such as Clumpies Ice Cream Co., Mad Priest Coffee and hot-sauce purveyor Hoff & Pepper report their selection of merchandise, which ranges from T-shirts to mugs, helps grow their brands.

- Since the pandemic, diners have adjusted to contactless ordering via a QR code and even paying through SMS links. This is a trend that's predicted to stay and expand to include loyalty programs so guests can earn rewards.

- Chicken went spicy with the introduction of Nashville Hot Chicken, and doughnuts are expected to do the same. Think doughnuts laced with Chinese chile oil.

- As we put 2020 in our rear-view mirrors, outdoor dining is another pandemic-era food trend that's here to stay. Restaurants will expand their outdoor seating areas and reduce indoor capacity.

So many times I read predictions that sound as if they'll take forever to reach Chattanooga. This forecast appears to be one that will reach big and small towns across America in coming months. It will be interesting to see how things play out.

Happy New Year to you all!

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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Anne Braly
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