Chefs across the country predict more attention to healthy menu items and increasing use of local produce for 2013.
Chefs across the country predict more attention to healthy menu items and increasing use of local produce for 2013.

Chefs predict fresh produce and nutrition will rank among the top restaurant trends in 2013, according to a survey by the National Restaurant Association.

Local produce ranks second and healthy kids’ meals are third in the association’s “What’s Hot in 2013” survey. The Washington, D.C.-based association polled more than 1,800 American Culinary Federation chefs in October and November for the seventh annual survey.

“Produce has become a very important component in cuisine offerings across all segments of the restaurant industry,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the association’s research and knowledge group.

“The typical American palette is more sophisticated than 10 years ago in terms of fresh produce and the average restaurant-goer has higher expectations.”

A shift toward more local meats and seafood was the only trend cited more frequently by chefs than locally grown produce and healthy kids’ meals.

The least featured several other produce items, either directly or indirectly. Children’s nutrition as a culinary theme ranked No. 5 with chefs, and fruit/vegetable side dishes for children took the No. 15 spot.

Chefs listed environmental sustainability as a culinary theme as the No. 4 trend, with “hyper-local sourcing (e.g. restaurant gardens)” coming in at No. 7.

Riehle said chefs are moving toward local sourcing because it has become top of mind for consumers. He said many consumers have higher trust for “community” businesses. Riehle said restaurants are more respected and trusted if they use local sources for fresh produce and other commodities.

His advice to growers who want to maintain and increase their restaurant sales is to partner with foodservice operators to get messages to consumers.

“Suppliers need to work with restaurants to get the story behind the food to the consumer,” said Riehle, citing menus, smart phone apps and quick response codes as three methods.

“Real-time information about their food is of great interest to more and more consumers. Using the supply chain to help differentiate their operations from others is one way restaurants can tell their stories.”

Outlook drops despite positive sales

For the first time in 14 months, restaurant operators responding to the NRA’s monthly poll expressed pessimism in October about their economic outlook.

The association’s Restaurant Performance Index poll includes a variety of questions about restaurant operators’ personal opinions as well as their businesses actual sales and customer volumes. A composite score of 100 or higher for the index indicates expansion in the industry.

Since late 2011 the monthly index has been above 100. For October, however, it dipped almost a full point to 99.5. Riehle said it is not unusual for the index to drop during politically charged times, such as before a presidential election.

“The magnitude of the decline was surprising, though, because of how the index has improved in the last year and a half,” Riehle said.

“Consumers always get a bit anxious in a highly-charged political climate and the barrage of negative campaign ads probably had an impact.”

Despite their lack of economic optimism, the restaurant operators reported positive same-store sales for the 17th consecutive month. Also incongruous with their outlook, half of restaurant operators are planning capital expenditures in the next six months, up from 44% in September.