Trend: healthy, fast-casual, transparent, and superfood-focused restaurants

Chefs dish on what, why, and when
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, a number of chefs were asked for their predictions on the next big food trend. The consensus? Healthy, fast-casual, and superfood-focused restaurants. That may make sense given the popularity of kale this year, but then again, bacon is held in pretty high esteem these days, too.

We turned to the experts to learn more.

The rise in health consciousness
“People are starting to care more about more about their health and how they feel on a daily basis,” says Jenny Levison, owner of fast-casual spots Souper Jenny, Café Jonah, and Juicy Jenny.

“Absolutely it’s the big trend in restaurants,” agrees Mitchell Anderson of MetroFresh. “Focus on healthy eating, even from the White House, has begun a big incursion into fast-casual and traditional sit-down restaurants. Even national chains are getting in on the act.”

He says he’s seen an increase in business at Metrofresh over the last couple of years, including a 40 to 60 percent rise in customers.

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

“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.”

The trend, Panos explains, will lean toward what he calls “fast fine” rather than “fast casual,” meaning more elevated environment, service, and food preparation methods.

Whether casual or fine, Ryan Pernice, owner and operator of Table & Main and Osteria Mattone, believes the consumers will demand food fast. “People have always been stretched for time, and now there’s this move toward mobility and greater awareness of food,” he says. “Consumers are going to look for concepts that cater to both.”

Origin is important
“Healthy” often means different things to different people. To some, it’s all about origin.

“People are really starting to care about where their food comes from,” Levison says. “Healthy is not just eating more vegetables. It’s about not eating processed and genetically modified foods.”

She says she’s started to notice her customers eating more vegetarian and dairy-free options. Anderson agrees, noting that diets have changed over the years but many of his customers are interested in eating Paleo now. He says quinoa and raw vegetable salads seem to 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).

“In my mind, healthy eating means everything natural (whole) and nothing processed, higher in protein, fruits and vegetables, and watch the carbs,” he says.

Gunshow owner and chef Kevin Gillespie has a slightly different take. “People are more aware about what is healthy because of the sheer amount of information available. But, people will want the food they’ve always wanted, just with more transparency about how it’s prepared,” he says.

“We say healthy to mean brown rice, broccoli, and steamed fish. No one wants that stuff. They eat it because they feel like they have to in order to eat a cheeseburger later,” he continues. “So what we’re seeing more of is people saying ‘Yes, this is a fried chicken sandwich, but it’s all-natural, farm-raised chicken on whole grain house-made bread.”

A liquid diet
Juicing, too, has grown in popularity. “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,” says Levison, whose Juicy Jenny business grows every day.

“Juicing is healthy, fast, and fresh, but I don’t think stand-alone juicing concepts will survive. It has to be combined with something,” says Panos, who is 80 percent sure Fresh To Order will add a juice component to its stores in the future.

Anderson believes that even those who aren’t as educated about the nutritional benefits may be attracted to juicing because it “tastes like health.”

However, juicing can be quite expensive for both customers and business owners. “If anything kills the trend, it will be the price,” Anderson says.

The superfood revolution
And then there are superfoods. “The [health] trend is really two-fold,” says Federico Castellucci, president of Castellucci Hospitality Group, which owns full-service restaurants Sugo, the Iberian Pig, Double Zero Napoletana, and the soon-to-open Cooks & Soldiers. “On one side, you have healthier dining options at restaurants in both the full-service and fast-casual segments. On the other, you have superfoods, which are high nutrient density, low-calorie foods. People have never even heard of most superfoods like maca, camu, lucuma, and maqui berries.”

He points out that these unique superfoods are very expensive and therefore are skipped over by most restaurateurs. “In most of these places, it is more of a marketing slogan than anything else, but it is a good start to having more healthy options out there.”

Having it all
The millennial generation “wants to eat healthy and look good, but also not deprive themselves of delicious foods,” Castellucci says.

That’s why he thinks healthy eating is more important to consumers earlier in the day.

“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,” he says.

Gillespie, who is opening Terminus City BBQ next year, feels similarly. “Any time you drive the industry in one direction, you also see the emergence of the opposite,” he says. “So if a lot of people open these super healthy places where you get a bean sprout wrap, you’ll see a hole open up for the traditional places serving food that your grandmother made.”

“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. I hope we don’t let our traditional food disappear on us.”

Panos believes restaurants will adapt accordingly. “You’ll start to find Italian and Indian restaurants that will go fast fine,” he says.

But Pernice doesn’t think the trend will affect his business. “We don’t compete on either of those two things [speed or health]; our best seller is fried chicken,” he says. “What people look for is a return to the authentic gracious hospitality—that’s where we’d rather play.”

“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.”

Looking to the future
There is one thing the chefs and restaurateurs seem to agree on.

“I hope people become more healthy,” says Gillespie, who recently lost thirty pounds. “That’s been a big push of mine in the past year.”

“I hope the evolution of healthy just becomes more mainstream where it’s not really a choice,” Anderson adds.