10 Food Business Trends to Watch for 2012

Are you in the restaurant, foodservice or food manufacturing business? No matter how tough the economy is, people still need to eat. And foodservice entrepreneurs have shown a lot of creativity in the past few years—in fact, you could almost say the recession has sparked a renaissance of restaurant industry creativity. Beyond food trucks, burgers and beer, what are some of the hot food trends for 2012?

artisan bread

Here are 10 of the most promising trends I’ve featured on my food trends site, SmallBizTrendCast.

  1. Artisanal everything: Not new, but still going strong, “artisanal” originally referred to handcrafted foods but is now springing up everywhere. The term has even trickled down to quick-service restaurants, with major chains like Jack in the Box touting “artisanal” breads as a selling point. One product that’s not quite so mainstream: artisanal marshmallows.
  2. So cool it’s hot: Ice cream (especially, you guessed it, artisanal ice cream) shows no signs of slowing down. (And why should it—who doesn’t love ice cream?) Next up, restaurant consulting firm Andrew Freeman & Co. predicts “snow ice”–a dessert with the flavor and creaminess of ice cream but that has a light, airy texture—will hit big in the U.S. for 2012.
  3. One potato, two potato: They may have been banned from school lunchroom menus, but they’re showing up everywhere else. Andrew Freeman & Co. says the big trend will be “have-it-your-way” potatoes, such as make-your-own mashed potatoes with customized mix-ins, fries where you can choose the cut, degree of crispness and dipping sauce; and chips with custom “dustings” and dips. If plain old potatoes sound too unhealthy for your customers, try offering sweet potato fries and dishes.
  4. Breakfast anytime: Customers want what they want when they want it—and for many, what they want is breakfast. Restaurants are happy to oblige, since breakfast food ingredients are typically cheaper than other meals. Some are serving breakfast menus all day long; others are reinterpreting breakfast foods for dinner with items like sandwiches made of waffles, egg dishes or French toast bread puddings.
  5. Juicy news: Depending on where you live, it might seem like juice bars are oversaturated. But Howard Schultz doesn’t think so. The Starbucks entrepreneur recently bought Evolution Fresh, a super-premium juice maker with a brand presence in grocery stores on the West Coast. He plans to sell the juice to more retail outlets, put it on the menu at Starbucks and launch juice bars in 2012. If Schultz thinks this market has more room for growth, maybe you should, too—especially if you’re in an area where juice bars (or Starbucks) don’t have a strong presence.
  6. Sweets from Swedes: Scandinavian sweets, which have long been popular in places with lots of Scandinavians, like Minnesota, are now becoming trendy in urban areas like L.A. and New York. What’s behind the popularity? Americans are craving small sizes and natural ingredients, both features of Scandinavian treats. One to watch: a dark treacle syrup called stroop, used in Dutch desserts.
  7. Healthy eating: Trends like gluten-free foods and products catering to diners with food allergies will continue to be hot. Watch for whole grains, a wider range of salads, selection in portion size, and low-sodium options to grow in popularity as well.
  8. Appetite for appetizers: Whether you call them tapas, small plates or appetizers, smaller-sized portions are going to keep growing strong for several reasons. They’re less expensive for cost-conscious diners, offer smaller portions for health-conscious diners, and are made for sharing, which appeals to people’s desire to make eating out a social experience. Chefs like them, too, because appetizers allow them to experiment with new recipes and ingredients without committing to a full-scale meal.
  9. Mostly Mediterranean: In a recent Technomic poll, 60 percent of restaurant-goers said they are open to trying Mediterranean food, and sales of Greek, Spanish and Middle Eastern menu items grew by nearly 2 percent between 2009 and 2010. A growing interest in eating healthfully, vegetarian foods and ethnic foods are among the factors in Mediterranean food’s popularity—so break out the chickpeas.
  10. Familiar favorites with a twist: One overwhelming trend that will continue into 2012 is a yen for familiarity. Consumers battered by the economy want comfort food. But that doesn’t mean plain old mac-and-cheese. Americans are eager to try new tastes, as long as it’s couched in something they know. So smart chefs are putting new twists on old formats, like pizzas, wraps and sandwiches, or using exotic ingredients in familiar foods (wasabi ice cream).

Image from atm2003/Shutterstock


Rieva Lesonsky Rieva Lesonsky is a Columnist for Small Business Trends covering employment, retail trends and women in business. She is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Visit her blog, SmallBizDaily, to get the scoop on business trends and free TrendCast reports.

16 Reactions
  1. Being from Idaho, I love that potatoes are getting a little more love. I would also point out that grass fed beef is continuing to pick up momentum as more farmers get online and more people are becoming aware of the flavor and health benefits.

  2. Very nice breakdown Rieva. I am however surprised that you didn’t list the mobile food trucks as part of the continued trends that you oversee for 2012.

  3. I’m surprised to see that local and organic aren’t specified on the list of trends for 2012. And I have to agree with the previous comment about food trucks, which again ties to the local trend. Regarding a move to global flavors, I think those in food and foodservice should consider a move to fusion. If they’re worried about consumers’ hesitance to try new things, fusion cuisine is a great way to mix the familiar with the foreign. (jourdanh@jacobsagency.com)

  4. Rieva,

    It is fun to hear that Scandinavian sweets are getting popular. I had a special type of Danish with several thin layers with jam and other sweet stuff, that I want to get hold the next time I visit America.

    As a tea enthusiast and content creator at TeaParty.nu, I bet that tea will be the new beverage trend in the near future. Gary Vaynerchuk predicted that in the appendix of his book, Crush It. Are you tea drinkers? I will commemorate Boston Tea Party on December 16 with an afternoon tea event in Gothenburg, Sweden. 🙂

  5. Thanks a for a great report on food trends!

    One thing;

    I’d share more about your post…but now I’m hungry….

    The Franchise King®

  6. Thanks all for your comments. Food trucks are still very popular, but the market is saturated in many cities. That said, it’s still a great way to start a food business.

    Martin, I agree about tea. I called it a trend to watch in my weekly TrendCast newsletter several months ago, and included it last year as a hot trend in my Hot Businesses book.

    And yes, locally sourced food is hot too.

    I only had room for 10 trends here. Sorry

  7. Don’t forget homemade ice cream sandwiches in different flavors like basil on a pistachio wafer dipped in chocolate, and the huge popularity of French macaroons! No one knew there was a different macaroon until recently!