Sixteen years ago, we decided to let the rubber hit the road. Our goal in launching an annual street-level trends tour was to uncover menu-ready opportunities. We knew that the best way to find these for our customers was through live tasting—visiting newly opened restaurants on the forward side of innovation and tasting their food. We knew that lightbulbs don’t go off around trend tracking and opportunity spotting until that happens. We wanted to gauge the innovative quality of the food firsthand. So we came up with a strategy that involves intense research followed by my team and I traveling to the three primary markets of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, visiting more than 100 restaurants and tasting more than 1,100 dishes. We then meticulously document our findings and cherry pick the best ideas for menu translation. By doing this tour every year, we’ve created a continuous circle of identifying the most exciting new restaurant openings that lets us measure the arc of flavor on menus.
At its core, the process begins by following what’s happening in new restaurants in those hot markets of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Although there’s innovation happening in other cities, we focus on these three for a few reasons: first, they really are the epicenter of trends, and second, we have limited time and budget. We focus mostly on brand-new restaurants because new, full-service restaurants are innovation incubators. Sometimes, we visit a restaurant more than once, if they boast a particularly innovative chef.
We track trends all year. It’s how I start my day—checking blogs, sites, printed materials—from Eater and Thrillist to Grub Street, Tasting Table and more. I keep a running document with flavors and dishes that catch my eye, looking for creative combinations that may translate into wider opportunities. That work yields a count of more than 450 restaurants in those three cities that we think are noteworthy. That’s when the vetting process begins, and we winnow it down to approximately 40 restaurants per city.
Once we land on our target list of restaurants, the logistical planning begins. We make reservations and confirm that they’re open during our planned visit. We spend five days in each city and we visit eight restaurants a day. Our team is comprised of six people per city to maximize our findings, compare notes and document every detail.
Dining our way through the menu, we try a minimum of 10 to 12 items, sometimes more. We take notes, photograph the plates, scan the menus and take hard menu copies. We also talk to the staff about the dining scene in that particular city, getting a clear overall picture of the latest trends and innovations. We put in 100-hour weeks, doing about 12 to 14 hours a day. We limp away, but we limp away smiling.
Translating the opportunities
Once we’re back to work, we parse out what we have seen so we can share with our customers what it all means. We analyze it and pull out trends and menu opportunities. We ask: What are the most significant findings that we’re going to bring to our customers and build resources around? Every culinary article we write is based on this street-level research. We use it to continuously bring benefits to our customers, helping us identify new opportunities and nimbly adapt, giving our customers a chance to be first-to-market with new menu items.
In our 16 years of research, we have visited over 1,250 restaurants and sampled over 13,000 dishes. Here are just a few of our favorite opportunities that have stemmed from this research:
- Custom-blend ground beef program: Introduced eight years ago, we saw custom blends in the marketplace during their early inception and we brought it to customers like you because of its ability to build sales.
- Dutch crunch roll: Hailing from Northern California, this roll was brought to the Midwest after we fell in love with it on a trends tour. Five years ago, we introduced it to a different market with great success.
- Green jackfruit: Over two years ago, we were on the leading edge of introducing green jackfruit as a delicious vegan/vegetarian solution.
At the end of the day, all of this is to help you innovate and hone your competitive edge. And our goal is to always provide you the culinary inspiration to do so.