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VOL. 127 | NO. 1 | Monday, January 2, 2012

What’s in Store for Restaurant Biz in 2012?

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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New Year’s Eve! What a scary night! Not only because people have to stand around at midnight with a bunch of so-called friends and sing that dreary “Auld Lang Syne” and put each other’s eyes out with supersonically zooming champagne corks (see Memphis Grapevine for advice on avoiding this), but because this artificially imposed deadline for the ending of one year and the beginning of another sets the scene for trend-spotting galore.

(Photo illustration: Emily Morrow)

Magazines and newspapers, websites and blogs in the weeks before and after the New Year are filled with predictions about what’s going to be hot and not in just about every field and avocation, and restaurant trends are no exception.

Here, for example, are the restaurant trend projections for 2012 from the National Restaurant Association, which surveyed 1,800 professional chefs around the country:

1. Locally sourced meats and seafood

2. Locally grown produce

3. Healthy kids’ meals

4. Hyper-local items

5. Sustainability as a culinary theme

6. Children’s nutrition as a culinary theme

7. Gluten-free/food allergy-conscious items

8. Locally produced wine and beer

9. Sustainable seafood

10. Whole grain items in kids’ meals

It seems to me that not only do some of these entries resemble trends predicted a year ago for 2011, but several of these items are redundant.

Why not say “Locally grown meats, seafood and produce as well as locally made wine and beer”?

And what does “hyper-local” mean, using only ingredients found within a hundred yards of the restaurant’s front door? No, this list is not satisfactory.

For more boldness, pith and provocation, we’ll turn to the national restaurant consulting firm of Baum & Whiteman, whose predictions I will quote from or paraphrase somewhat since they’re in paragraph form:

1. The economy will hit “mom-and-pop” restaurants hard, with 8,000 to 10,000 closings in 2012.

2. “Look for excitement at the lower end of the market where devil-may-care entrepreneurs are piling flavors from all over the globe onto a single dish. Gastronomically, everything goes.”

3. A “widening flavor-gap” will open between chain restaurants, which must narrow their ingredient range to remain profitable, and the more creative and flexible independents.

4. Sandwiches made from things other than bread. (Yawn.)

5. More animal innards and odd parts moving up from Mexican and Korean restaurants into the mainstream. (As if sweetbreads were not odd enough.)

6. More house-made vegetable and fruit pickles. “Kimchee may be the ingredient of the year.”

7. The growing importance of Korean restaurants and ingredients (such as kimchee).

8. People will have a little more money in 2012 and will spend more in adventurous restaurants; as a result, a. comfort food is over; “we’re bored by gastro-nostalgia”; b. people will drink earlier and dine later; c. they will eat “round things that pop in the mouth,” mini sandwiches, and “Japanese snacky things.”

9. Beer gardens will boom around the country.

10. Food truck operators will open real restaurants.

11. Move over molecular gastronomy; chefs will forage for ingredients and “wildcraft” their plates.

12. Japanese craft beers.

13. No towering food architecture.

14. We’re all going to love Peruvian food!

15. Burgers will peak

16. (1) Misuse of words like “artisan” and “heirloom” and “local” will pollute their meaning, especially as chains co-opt them for marketing slogans. Adding a whole grain to factory bread doesn’t make it “artisan” and not all misshapen tomatoes are “heirlooms” from “local” growers. “Green” and “sustainable” are in this category, too. (2) There’s a looming oversupply of farmers markets. (3) Too many chefs are smoking too many foods.

Now it looks as if part of the list is grandstanding in order to break from the prediction pack and get ahead of the curve. “Food architecture” actually was passé years ago. Beer gardens? Meh. Foraging chefs? One imagines Erling Jensen, Felicia Willett, Jose Gutierrez and Ben Smith in Overton Park at dawn, in white chef jackets and striped pants, crawling through the underbrush in search of tender weeds and fungi; ain’t gonna happen.

And we have to account for the vast cultural chasm that divides the main portions of the South and Midwest from the more sophisticated East and West Coasts and the poles of Chicago and Dallas.

Let’s face it; Memphis lags two years behind the culinary trends of the biggest restaurant markets.

Food trucks have barely made an inroad on the roads of the Bluff City, but already they’re on the way out in other metropolitan areas where they were a phenomenon in 2010 and 2011.

Korean and Peruvian cuisine in the mainstream? Not if you’re swimming upstream in Memphis.

Are local diners ready for the “devil-may-care” ingredient anarchy implied by item No. 2 on this list?

Again, let’s face it: Memphis is essentially a conservative eating town that doesn’t cotton to the egalitarian and esoteric.

Comfort food may be banished from restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, but Memphians will take all the comfort they can get. Just ask Jackson Kramer at Interim how much of the restaurant’s signature macaroni and cheese his kitchen turns out.

The most serious of the Baum & Whiteman predictions is the first, that small, locally and family owned restaurants will face economic hardship in 2012. Gas prices have weakened over the past two weeks, but that downturn is probably temporary.

Besides, transportation costs are only one minor force behind the extraordinary and unfortunate rise in food prices that 2011 saw.

A whole congeries of economic, political, climatic and demographic principles has influenced worldwide food prices, and those conditions will not soon be assuaged.

Let’s keep our grease-stained fingers crossed and hope that we don’t see restaurant closings next year similar to what occurred so devastatingly in 2008, ’09 and ’10.

PROPERTY SALES 92 242 2,507
MORTGAGES 108 336 2,943
BUILDING PERMITS 202 643 6,711
BANKRUPTCIES 43 176 1,963