Chefs predict the next big trend is healthy, fast-casual restaurants

Jeweled white bean and summer corn salad at JuicyJenny's vegan lunch bar
Jeweled white bean and summer corn salad at JuicyJenny’s vegan lunch bar

Courtesy of Jenny Levison

At a recent restaurant development conference in Buckhead, several chefs were asked to predict the next big food trend. The consensus? Healthy, fast-casual, and superfood-focused restaurants.

Look at Jenny Levison, for example. In May, Levison opened a second location of Souper Jenny—a fast-casual breakfast and lunch spot that serves soups, salads, and sandwiches—to cater to the growing demand. She also launched Juicy Jenny juice bar (with vegan lunch offerings) next door to the original Souper Jenny in Buckhead. Business is rocking at both.

“I think people are catching on to the fact that if you start to juice (the green stuff), you can get a lot of the nutrients your body needs every day,” Levison says.

Pierre Panos, founder of Fresh To Order, also says he’s seen double-digit increases in sales in the last four years, profits he attributes to a changing clientele.

“They’re wizening up,” he says. “People perceived fast-casual as healthy and fresh because they could see it in front of them. They’re not duped by that anymore. They want to see actual proteins being cooked to order.”

Down the road, Panos is confident Fresh to Order will add a juice component to its stores.

Healthy, of course, means different things to different people. To some, it’s all about preparation.

“Healthy is not just eating more vegetables. It’s about not eating processed and genetically modified foods,” Levison says, noting that her customers are eating more vegetarian and dairy-free options

At Metrofresh, owner Mitchell Anderson says many of his customers are interested in eating Paleo, a meat and veggie-centric caveman-like diet. Over the last couple of years, he’s seen a forty to sixty percent increase in customers. Quinoa and raw vegetable salads, Anderson says, attract the most attention from customers, particularly an item he calls Veggie Trail Mix (raw chopped carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, and cranberries with honey Dijon dressing).

Other restaurants, like the Arizona-based True Food Kitchen, which opened at Lenox Mall in June, concentrate on nutrient-rich dishes often derived from superfoods. Here, menu items include Tuscan kale salad, Inside Out quinoa burger, and spaghetti squash casserole.

But can we really eat healthy, fast-casual food all day? Federico Castellucci—president of Castellucci Hospitality Group, which owns Sugo, the Iberian Pig, Double Zero Napoletana, and the soon-to-open Cooks & Soldiers—doesn’t think so.

“By dinner, people’s will power reserves have declined, and they are going to choose the more delicious and desirable options,” he says, noting that although his restaurants offer healthy options, they are often passed over in favor of more decadent dishes. Plus, “people will always want to cheat.”

We also live in the South, a region known for caloric, high-fat foods. Kevin Gillespie, owner-chef of Gunshow, thinks that a focus on health will also cause a resurgence in demand for comfort food. “Humans seek the foods that make them feel well physically and emotionally. Regardless of which way the industry goes, there will always be people seeking those soulful foods of yesteryear,” he says.

Ryan Pernice, owner and operator of Table & Main and Osteria Mattone, says he’s added a few lighter sides and vegetable offerings to his restaurants’ menus, but doesn’t believe the health trend will really affect his business.

“I don’t know when people think, ‘Man, I want to go to a sit down dinner and have a nice meal, and it needs to be healthy.’ Eating out, in some ways, is more about indulgence. It should be transportive,” he says.