The Future of Convenience Food
We’re so proud to present the first bi-monthly Trends on Trends culinary forecast. In this new series we’ll explore more than just fads and crazes and seek answers to the shape-shifting futures of global cuisine. For our first forecast, we’re seeking more out of our frosty meals in the freezer aisle. The best thing in the frozen food section right now is Roberta’s Pizza, which is a step in the right direction. More thoughtful T.V. dinners are something we’ve been exploring for a while now and are thrilled to see the concept come to life with the insanely creative, Michelin-starred team over at Take Root, Elise Kornack and Anna Hieronimus. With photography by Davide Luciano, this photo series will complement the lovely words and collaborative research of London-based trend forecaster Lara Piras and Trends on Trends.
“Not always but often, the level of enjoyment we have when eating is contingent on how hungry we are and how convenient the food was to acquire. If refined food was packaged conveniently, would it be eaten more often, regardless or not of the price? It’s an exciting concept, that could quite literally change the way we eat– in a busy city like NYC convenience/ accessibility plays a large role in how we live.” — Elise Kornack, Take Root
The future of convenience food is nigh. The Fast Casual Generation, Millennials are dictating the future of the food industry thanks to their hunger for healthy, affordable eating experiences. Food brands and chefs of the moment are now being forced to create new, convenient ventures to ensure their tastebuds stay tantalized on the go.
Healthy consumption in all areas of the food industry has been a focus for the past few years now. 2014 was the ‘year of the vegan,’ which saw a wealth of new quinoa-and-green-juice-friendly spots open up all over the world including The Springs in LA and 26grains in London. Off the back of this, there’s soon to be a lust for convenient healthy food, as consumers no longer feel they should have to compromise on nutrient kicks while getting to their busy day-to-day. One of the most notable reasons for this? A new Millennial is on the horizon; one that shies away from rebellious, junk-food-eating behaviour and actively seeks out food products and services that aid in their wellbeing journey. As Sara Monnette, Senior Director of Consumer Insights at Technomic notes, “When choosing a restaurant, millennials are more apt to look for organic or premium ingredients and healthy menu options, and 33 percent of consumers 21 and younger care more about convenience, price and taste.” 
So why should the food industry sit up and listen to these sectors? Because, “More customers will be aging into the 18- to 21-year-old demographic in 2016—those Gen Zers with the most autonomy and money to patronize restaurants.”  They are now beginning to demand food that’s fast yet good. As business insights company Canvas8 states, “Gen Yers continue to eschew fast-food restaurants, so what can brands in the market do to win back their customers? According to a recent survey of 13- to 32-year-olds the US, an improved focus on health would be a positive start, with Gen Y looking for high quality food without high calorie fears.” 
The future consumer will expect the best elements of food services in one. They’ll want their food served quickly and for it to be homemade, fresh and above all healthy. Both established and new brands will have to deliver on all points if they are to succeed. This is evident in the opening of Locol, a new fast food dining concept created by chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson. Dubbed ‘revolutionary fast food,’ their model completely dismisses the empty-calorie trends of America’s finest and offers wholesome, quick food from their soon-to-open first location in LA Watts. The team states, “We fundamentally believe that wholesomeness, deliciousness and affordability don’t have to be mutually exclusive concepts in fast food. We believe that fast food restaurants can truly empower the communities they currently underserve. We believe that the giant corporations that feed most of America have degraded our communities by maximizing profits over decades. We believe that chefs should feed America, and not suits.”  Similarly in Washington DC, Chaia is “driven by building a better food system.” Founded by food writers and educators Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern the institute’s Mexican themed ethos is “farm to taco,” while boasting a unique relationship between farmers and urban street-style food. Offering seasonal, quick-to-table plant-based taco dishes, sides and natural drinks in a stylish, casual setting, Simon and Stern partner with local farms to ensure the produce is ethical, local and of course nutritious.
The health-focused convenience food theme is evidently picking up on a global scale. There’s also S’wich based in Dubai where shawarmas i.e. kebabs are being transformed by celebrity chef Izu Ani from stereotypically unhealthy to quite the opposite. Ani’s take on the traditional Arabian street-style food is now promptly available in three key locations within Dubai. They’re filled with delicious local and organic meats and vegetables and wrapped in flatbreads that are baked on the premises. The team state, “It’s like our very own mini-revolution. (Hey we are in the Middle East). So from now on, there will be no more dodgy shawarma fillings. No more indigestion. No more regrets. Just the same awesome (or rather, much better) taste that will very soon lead to a healthy shawarmaddiction.” 
In China, health foods are growing three times as fast as overall food market. Sales in this category were up 15 percent in China by the third quarter of last year, according to Nielsen data, versus just 5 percent for the wider market. Nielsen analysts state, “Current trends toward convenience, health and wellness, fresh foods and cost consciousness are all helping to determine the agri-food products available in grocery retail channels in China. Due to busier, urban lifestyles and rising disposable incomes, opportunities in packaged food sales are growing in the Chinese market. Products that address other consumer concerns, such as health and food safety, will be particularly promising.”  An interesting example can be seen in Tesco who has launched a convenience chain format in Shanghai called Express, which has a fresh focus.
Hong Kong’s Sunday’s Grocery is a little different. Still a prime representative of the future convenience food movement, it’s a one-stop sustainably sourced provisions shop with a focus on quality and creativity. It specializes in Japanese whisky, sake, shochu, beer, homeware, and the main event – affordable and healthy takeaway sandwiches, soups and salads. Chef Corey Lee is also opening up a casual restaurant named In Situ in San Francisco’s MOMA San Francisco next year where he’s taking on the ‘Imitation Game,’ asking 80 top chefs from around the world to submit their signature recipes with the full intention of recreating them.
Elsewhere around the globe there’s We Love Gogo in South Africa, which too offers healthy, locally sourced food and drinks. They also have a unique service in ‘Servd Fresh,’ whose team have launched a range of vending machines that disperses healthy snacks instead of the dangerously sugary everyday versions the majority of the globe are exposed to.
Australians eat non-home-cooked evening meals 2.5 times a week on average, which is a pretty high number. This figure includes eating out, takeaway and supermarket ready-to-eat prepared meals and they have a real need for healthy options when it comes to fast foods. Interestingly, The United Nations have declared 2016 to be the Year of Pulses (Australians refer to them, legumes). This, alongside a new desire for nutritious convenience has prompted a shift in food services. Fit and Fresh Australia for example is simple, healthy food delivered to your home or office and they also offer meal plans advised by top chefs and doctors.
One health-focused exception that’s set to blow up within the world of convenience food is a modern take on the ‘Meat ‘n’ Three,’ concept that’s been popular in the American South, mostly Nashville since the 1930s. Diners get to choose one meat option and three sides from the menu. Healthy it may not be, but plentiful important chefs and restaurants are beginning to experiment with this idea, signalling a move towards this style of eatery in the near future. David Chang of Fuku recently took a trip to Arnold’s Country Kitchen in Nashville, TN, which focuses on the Meat+3 theme, and as he says, “It emboldened me to try and open up a hot shoppe / buffet / meat +3 / cafeteria kind of place here in NYC.” [A] With this cafeteria vibe in the air we can see more classic Hawaiian Plate Lunch-style restaurants succeeding in the near future, especially with the opening of Hawaiian restaurants across the country like Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco and Brooklyn’s Onomea who serve up Hawaiian classics with some Plate Lunch options. The same goes for Japanese cuisine, both Japanese-inspired as well as traditional Japanese restaurants are taking over as some of the best in the US. Ramen Gods from Japan are also opening outposts in the US so we predict soon enough we’ll start to see the Japanese version of a Plate Lunch bento available in wider US territories. There’s also a great popup in New York called Sumo Stew where a local culinary personality works with different chefs to curate a pretty perfect and pretty convenient bento box.
With ideas like these gaining momentum on such a huge, worldwide scale both amongst the media, and more importantly amongst young consumers, there is set to be a reshifting of power in the fast food markets. GenZ will be more exposed to quality fast food that’s created by chefs. The price is low but the taste is there and products will also be more responsibly sourced.
So what does this all mean?
If they are to stay ahead and on top of this trend, restaurants should be making a slow but steady shift away from fine dining. Chefs will be leaving classically celebrated kitchens for a more casual, wholesome option. Take René Redzepi as a prime example, closing Noma to experiment with his new urban farm project as well as opening a family-style “urban,” restaurant named 108 in Denmark that “has a proximity to nature, to farms, and to the vibes of the city.” As well, Eleven Madison’s Daniel Humm and Will Guidara (famed for fine dining) now opening a fast-casual restaurant in NYC called Make it Nice. The newly opened Trois Familia in Los Angeles provides the perfect glimpse into the future of convenience food. Combining French and Mexican cuisine into one casual setting LA heavy-hitting chefs: Jon Shook, Vinny Dotolo and Ludo Lefebvre make their food one step more accessible to the Millennials and Gen Zers looking for a consistent place to eat good food. Roberta’s in Brooklyn is another prime example of spanning all levels of dining from fine to frozen pizza.
With the culinary knowledge of the average consumer on the rise, Millennials are craving thoughtfully sourced, genuine meals and Gen zers are demanding transparency and flavor to be added to the mix. Chefs are playing into nostalgia, old family recipes and reinterpreted food from their heritage. On top of this concept is Night + Market in Los Angeles doing Thai street food in an overly informal setting but with dishes that are bringing the heat and the flavor. Same goes for The Commodore and El Cortez in Brooklyn, playing the nostalgia card with their versions of fried chicken, nachos and grilled cheese in playfully tacky tiki setting.
When looking to the future, these signs are signalling a shift in the way consumers are going to consume. Convenience food is going to become a whole lot more convenient; in the sense that it’s not only accessible and affordable but that it comes in the form of delicious nutrients that are both necessities in our lives and ever prevalent in the Fast Casual Generation’s needs and wants today.