Looking back on 2016, instore has covered a lot of retail foodservice trends, working with a variety of expert sources, including numerous leaders in the industry, suppliers and manufacturers, retail chains and independents, pundits, consultants and associations. From the National Restaurant Association’s first “Foodservice at Retail” day to IDDBA’s Show & Sell Center, we’ve sent our people across the country over the last 12 months in order to do one thing: provide our readers with a comprehensive road map into the coming year.

And so we identified the biggest and most undeniable trends for 2017 — in the areas of cakes, meats, packaging, ethnic cuisine and bakery breads — and whittled them down to present you with five specific steps you can take to incorporate these trends in your retail foodservice program and be on the cutting edge of the New Year.

High voltage cake design

Snapchat, Facebook, Pinterest — apps and sites like these have an influence over almost everything we see, touch, smell, and taste more than ever before. And when it comes to cake decorating in the New Year, these social media outlets are going to have a screaming influence over what bakeries will be putting out — with magnificent, eye-catching designs and inspired decorations, all of which will be equally influenced by modern technology and nostalgia.

“We identified ‘high voltage’ as a trend that’s going to shine in 2017, and completely agree,” says Shawna LeMott, creative marketing manager at Lucks Food Decorating Company. “Color will be very important, and confections will see bright, neon-inspired colors and striking pattern combinations versus the softer candy colors of 2016. The palette is really inspired by the ‘80s, which blends with modern techniques and today’s pop culture references for a youthful, rebellious and vibrant style.”

Research and numbers back up this prediction, as experts throughout the industry have followed the progression of social media’s influence over what we eat.

“If you look at platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, one of the most popular categories of ‘pins’ is cakes,” says Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director at research firm Canadean, which provides industry analysis on international food and beverage trends. “Cake designs can easily go viral, something that was virtually impossible before social media came onto the scene. Because of this influence, I think you are going to see much more emphasis on high voltage cake decorating and other efforts to take its design up a notch, attempting to generate sales momentum with some help from social media.”

Tina Steichen, cake designer and decorator supervisor at DecoPac, agrees that this particular trend is blowing up, and also has her eye on a few other variations of this intensive-decoration theme within the bakery landscape.

“Consumers want what they see on social media channels and high voltage is everywhere,” she says. “This trend makes customization to consumer preferences easy. It’s no problem combining many different interests on one cake to make the ultimate personal treat.

“And we are not only seeing bright, colorful cakes decorated this way, but also soft pastels mixed with gold accents. Another trend I see making an appearance is natural stone — cakes that are completely edible but look like marble or geodes are great examples. Just like in the jewelry industry, Rose Gold is emerging in popularity, and neon gel colors and metallic shimmers make it easy for decorators to create amazing cakes.”

LeMott cautions that moderation is another important thing for retailers to keep in mind however, despite the overall trend toward over-the-top indulgence. “Businesses should pay attention to the fact that this trend is driven by millennials and Generation Z,” she points out. “Yes, these younger consumer generations are a driving force for trends, but you’ll also need to consider your own audiences and customers before diving head first into the high voltage style.

“There definitely will be other food decorating trends to watch for and consider in 2017, even if they’re not as attention-commanding as the bright high voltage trend,” she adds. “Desserts that are globally inspired will be a popular movement, including mash-ups of exotic flavors and influences from international travels. Also, the trend toward clean food and local, seasonal ingredients will continue to grow in 2017. In addition, other techniques such as metallic accents or unexpected texture combinations will remain in demand.”

Antibiotic-free proteins

With consumers scrutinizing the contents of their food now more than ever before, blanket use of antibiotics on animals destined for the meat case — whether for growth promotion, disease prevention, or other reasons — has taken a serious step into the spotlight over the last year.

According to The Washington Post, it’s not so much that consumers are worried about those antibiotics ending up in the meat they consume — processing regulation ensures that antibiotics are withdrawn at a certain point before slaughter, among other practices that guarantee those residual antibiotics won’t stick around long enough to end up inside the end product. What it’s really about is the very serious concern of breeding antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’ that could live on and in the animal, eventually making their way into the meat during slaughter, and possibly in the end consumers themselves. If that superbug then causes illness in the person who ate it, regular treatment for the problem wouldn’t fix it, since the illness itself will have already built up an immunity to it.

What’s worse is that this isn’t theory — it’s already happening.

“Each year in the United States at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics,” reports the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, “and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.”

In light of these sobering statistics, here’s what it really boils down to for supermarkets and c-stores — as of 2017, not making the move toward providing even a limited offering of antibiotic-free (ABF) and/or no-antibiotics-ever (NAE) meats now means that all of those consumers driving this change are going to go elsewhere to find what they want. Restaurants have already been responding en masse (as of this year, all chicken sold at Subway, McDonald’s, Panera Bread and Chipotle will have been raised without any antibiotics), and you can expect your own competition to follow suit in 2017, if they haven’t already.

“Interest in hormone- or antibiotic-free meats has prompted some of the larger protein producers to respond,” Vierhile agrees. “Earlier this year, Perdue Farms launched a ‘No Antibiotics Ever’ initiative to try to cut through the confusion in antibiotic-related claims for animal protein products. The company said it would convert all its chilled and frozen convenience products to NAE by May 2016.”

And just to drive that point home, it’s not only Perdue that’s doing this — and the few who’ve made the change are reaping huge profits.

“The market for ABF and NAE meats just keeps getting bigger and bigger; and more people are demanding it,” says Tim Beeler, owner and president of Beeler’s Pure Pork. “People again want to eat pure food.”

Beeler’s — a 6th-generation, family-owned farm — was way ahead of the curve on this one, deciding to go NAE with their pork back in 1987, and the payoff has been huge. According to a Consumer’s Union report, Chain Reaction, which was released this past September, pork and beef are the two proteins that have seen the least progress in this area. With demand growing ever higher, Beeler’s early decision to eliminate antibiotics has him positioned in the market better than ever: “Our bacon sales are seeing double-digit increases every year,” he says.

“This could be a huge deal for a retailer, and when we make presentations we encourage them to make full-on displays — put all your natural or ABF or your organic, I don’t care what category it is — put it together, make a big to-do about it, let consumers know where it is and what you’ve got, and I think you’ll be rewarded with increased sales.”

Grab-and-go packaging

It can’t be emphasized enough just how much consumers love to be able to literally grab something that’s ready to eat and head right back out the door, and this specific category is far from exhausted. In 2017, grab-and-go packaging is going both green and ergonomic, and those retail foodservice operations that employ this kind of packaging are going to have the leading edge over those who don’t.

“We are an on-the-go society, there is no question about it,” says Lynn Dyer, president of the Food Packaging Institute. “And in packaging we’ve seen a lot of innovations over the years that have helped to enable that, and we’ll continue to see that in 2017.”

Again, we see this backed up by numbers that illustrate just how important your grab-and-go packaging is. “Forty-two percent of Americans say that portability is the convenience-related feature they prioritize the most when they are choosing food and drink products to consume while traveling,” Vierhile says.

Almost half of all Americans — now that’s a number that all foodservice retailers should  pay attention to. And it’s not just them that are.  

For Bryce Rutter, CEO of Metaphase Design Group, the next wave of G&G packaging is obvious — packaging has to not only be friendly to your consumers’ conscious in regards to the planet, but to their five senses as well. In short, it has to be both responsible and engaging.

“In 2017 we will see a stronger trend towards more socially responsible packaging designs,” he says. “The expanded use of pulp-based package designs provides a unique and disruptive visual and physical experience with superb structural qualities. Two excellent examples include the Paper Water Bottle (a company unto itself) and Domilovo’s Eggs (with packaging designed by GETBRAND). Both use pulp material made from sustainable combinations of plant-based fibers that is biodegradable and compostable.”

As for products that engage, Rutter specifically talks of what he calls his “Synesthetic Design Process,” which focuses on a consumer’s multisensory experience with a products packaging, engaging with how it looks, feels, and sounds.

“What is inside the package defines the interplay between these three primary senses that shape and inform packaging innovations,” he says. “For example, the Domilovo’s Eggs – GETBRAND package design not only protects the eggs during shipping and handling, the soft sound created by the pulp surfaces rubbing against each other when the package is opened and closed combined with the warm-to-touch surface texture to create the impression of preciousness and safety. Both are great examples of balancing the functional and emotional experience of the consumer.”
And according to Rutter, retail foodservice has really been behind when it comes to taking both the sensory experience and the ergonomics of their packaging into consideration. People relate personally to packaging they have a difficult time opening, and the pervasive 1- to 3-compartment clear clamshell box just isn’t going to cut it from now on. Make no doubt: packaging that’s difficult to open or reseal will drive a customer away from your prepared foods and into the arms of another retailer’s in a hot minute.

“It appears as if packaging manufacturers have forgotten that we humans use our hands to get into these packages,” Rutter laments. “Most current package designs do not provide explicitly obvious visual cues on how and where you open the package, and suffer from insufficient surface area for your fingertips to grasp in order to open and close the package. So we fight with these packages with whatever the closest kitchen gadget is to poke or cut our way in.”

A few more grab-and-go packaging innovations to keep an eye on this year are those that focus on one-handed engagement as well as the prioritization of portion control, Vierhile says. “One general trend that is worth paying attention to is a tendency toward more utensil-less dining, as on-the-go consumers want foods they can eat with one hand, and that rules out foods that must be eaten with a fork or spoon. This may be a stronger area of innovation for grab-and-go than anything else packaging-related.”

And when it comes to portion control, snacking, and the grab-and-go packaging of tomorrow, Vierhile says there are already some inspired new innovations making a splash on the packaging scene

“One example from the snack category stands out,” he notes. “It’s a unique package for a ready-to-eat popcorn product called Poptacular. The bag is shaped somewhat like a funnel, and is openable (and resealable) at both ends. Opening the top of the bag allows the consumer to eat a pre-measured portion of popcorn without gorging on the whole pack. Opening the bag from the bottom allows access to the entire bag. This aspect of portion control is worth noting since it is the type of innovation that could be seen as a value-add to grab-and-go packaging.”

Asian influx

Supermarkets are venturing beyond sushi and expanding into foods from Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand, as Asian foods cater to both consumers’ adventurous palates and their desire for healthier items. This is according to market analytics firm IRI, which also noted that the Asian food category enjoyed a nearly 4 percent increase in sales among all food retailers in 2016.

What’s more, those seeking out Asian flavors largely do so by going out to eat as opposed to trying to prepare the dishes themselves. According to the report Defining Ethnic Food by Mintel, of those who consumed Japanese foods, 18 percent made it at home as opposed to 36 percent who sought it out at a restaurant. For Thai food, those numbers were a similar 13 versus 28 percent — and it’s numbers like these that have opened supermarket doors to so many new Asian cuisines.

A great example of this is Hissho Sushi, which supplies retailers across the country. And while Hissho still considers its namesake the company’s primary product, the introduction of their Pan-Asian hot bars to the supermarket industry in August of 2016 is a perfect illustration of how these new cuisines are rushing through the floodgates that sushi has opened. Originally only found at universities, corporate and hospital settings, those who in the past have only carried one of Hissho’s lines are now clamoring for the other.

“Since we started the hot bar, it has grown exponentially, and where we have a hot bar, they now want sushi too, and vice versa,” says Philip Maung, president and CEO of the company.
Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean — you name it, and retail foodservice shoppers are asking to see more of it, inspired by both the authentic cuisines and their fusions.

“Interest in Asian cuisine beyond Chinese or Thai does seem to be picking up,” agrees Canadean’s Vierhile. “One factor that may have pushed things along is the success of sriracha as a flavor, which represents an on-ramp to trying different Asian food flavors, including Korean sauces like gochujang. Vietnam-inspired dishes like pho seem to be gaining momentum, and more companies in the packaged-food space are explicitly noting that their products feature flavors from Korea or Vietnam. Good examples include Suji’s Korean Cuisine, EatingWell Korean-Inspired Beef, and Passage Foods Street Kitchen Asian Scratch Kits.”

That’s good to know, but what of those in retail foodservice looking to make their own start into these cuisines? “Asian-inspired noodle soups — such as ramen, udon, and pho — are growing in popularity among consumers and provide an excellent opportunity for food retailers to connect with shoppers,” suggests Eric Richard, education coordinator for IDDBA. “Not only are they a popular choice among shoppers — especially millennials and Gen Z — both enable retailers to experiment with new flavors and tastes as well as provide convenience and personalization for on-the-go shoppers. Tropical Asian, featuring flavors and cuisine from Malaysia and the Philippines, is also making an appearance in the rapidly-growing Asian flavor sector.”

Maung says that simply having a sushi chef present in the store who can be seen preparing it fresh will usually triple sales.

“Our delivery locations are converting to full-service as they see the advantage of having the chef on site,” Maung says. “New chains that we approach all see Hissho’s sushi and hot bar as a means to increase their sales significantly, as the customary Chinese-American food has lost its appeal. Grocery stores are going through a lot of changes these days to keep up with demand, and they realize that to be competitive, they must have a sushi bar — and if they can add our hot bar too, they’re way ahead of the game.”

And according to celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain, it’s not just the authentic cuisines that are going to boom in the year to come, but fusions between them and traditional American fare, thanks to America’s ever-changing demographics.

“Right now the coolest restaurants in America, the places that everybody wants to eat, have mostly Korean-American or Chinese-American chefs that are second or third generation,” he said at the 2016 IDDBA convention. “Their palates, their expectations of food, their interests and their obsessions are what is driving all of our wants and expectations. You only need to look around at the supermarket, you only need to look at menus and how they’ve changed to see that the world is changing very, very quickly.”

So maybe it was the introduction of sriracha, the explosion of The Food Network, or simply the growing number of second-generation chefs marrying their comfort foods to those of America, but if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that the Asian influx into American cuisine — and its demand in retail foodservice — will continue to increase.

Pulses and ancient grains

With pulses and ancient grains there is a cornucopia of buzzwords to promote: vegan, vegetarian, sustainable, high-protein, low-fat, gluten-free and inexpensive. And when it comes to both in-store bakeries and delis in 2017, it’s these much-discussed little power foods that will make all the difference.

Between the two they embody transparency in added protein, a clear and understandable ingredients list, a surprising number of healthy attributes, and availability to those with restricted diets. They’re also a staple of many ethnic cuisines that entice the curious, and in the case of pulses, they even have an environmentally friendly twist — producing a lower carbon footprint than meat-based proteins and actually benefiting the soil they’re grown in as opposed to depleting it, encouraging sustainability.  

“Pulses in particular are a cost-effective and nutritious plant-based source of protein,” says Emily Schwartz, MS, RDN, CD and western markets regional dietician of Skogen’s Festival Foods. There are very practical and appetizing reasons to incorporate pulses into your regular retail foodservice menu, she says, including using the ingredients to extend the shelf-life and nutrition of casserole, pasta, soup and meatball dishes, as well as add nutrition and texture to dips and smoothies. And hummus alone can replace almost anything mayonnaise-based, such as egg salads.

And with their high protein content, those retailers who have decided to start including pulses in various prepared foods offerings would do well to stress that increased protein as a direct result of them specifically, Vierhile says. Many companies emphasize the protein itself, he continues, but consumer interest in transparency now means that they want to know exactly what ingredient brought that added protein into the recipe and where it came from.

This is the white space laid ready for exploitation, and why pulses now more than ever are the perfect ingredients to show off, especially within the deli arena. As for ancient grains, their inclusion into your in-store bakery’s products — especially for those lagging bread sales — is critical for 2017.

Ninety-five percent of all in-store bakery items don’t have any health declarations, says Eric Richard, education coordinator at IDDBA. Furthermore, IDDBA found that 65 percent of consumers are seeking to incorporate more fiber into their diets and almost 60 percent more whole grains.

So the incorporation of ancient grains into your bakery’s ingredients lists is a perfect match to fulfill the needs of those consumers looking for more protein, fiber, and grains — and as of this year, it’s absolutely necessary to do so. Why? Because all of those other bakery products in your store, that are competing for that dollar, are already taking advantage of the opportunity.

“Ancient grains can piggyback on the trend toward adding iconic health ingredients to bakery items in order to enhance health credentials,” agrees Vierhile, who goes on to note that according to a study by Canadean, bakeries in particular are behind the times, with bread and rolls only coming in at No. 6 on the list of new product launches that incorporated ancient grains in the last two years.

So at the end of the day, to not incorporate these two trending items into your retail foodservice programs, be they bakery or deli, would be to miss out on some of the most powerful new ways to maximize profits in the year to come. In fact, the same can be said of all five of the specified trends covered over the course of this article — take the steps outlined herein, and it’s possible that 2017 might be your biggest year yet. And of course instore will be here with you, every step of the way.