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The Next Big Food Thing

Way back in the 1980′s our insightful and creative chief industry analyst, Harry Balzer, observed that if a food manufacturer wanted their product to grow, they needed to think of a way to “put it on pizza.” Pizza, along with carry-out, delivery, and at-home family eating, drove the foodservice industry in the 1980′s in a way that nothing has since then.

Hold that thought.

Like most people in the foodservice information business, I read all sorts of things about the “next big thing” in food and foodservice.  “Next big things” is another topic that takes me back to the ’80s, before I came to NPD, when I was running restaurants in Chicago.  At that time “the next big thing” was New Orleans food, led by Paul Prudhomme’s “Louisiana Kitchen” cookbook (to which I still refer …check out the corn bread stuffing).  “Cajun” anything would sell in our restaurants. Cajun restaurants sprang up all over Chicago.

The next “big thing” was Carribbean, which gave us jerk seasoning but didn’t have the lasting effect that Cajun did.  The first Thai restaurant opened across the street from our Chicago (Hyde Park) restaurant around 1985 and was quickly followed by another one. Thai, over the years, became the next big thing.  Before any of that, Calvin Trillen wrote a piece in the New Yorker about Buffalo Chicken Wings and, in my view of the universe, introduced us to what has become my favorite flavor.  In the mid-80′s all of us Lettuce Entertain You wannabees (Lettuce Entertain You was and still is a successful foodservice company that holds a variety of restaurant concepts, and helped to make Buffalo Chicken Wings popular). As wannabees we were trying to put a decent version of Buffalo Chicken Wings on our tables.

I’m hard pressed to identify a “next big thing” since the wings that has had the same impact as Cajun, Thai and Buffalo.  OK, wraps is another but they came after my restaurant career.  And lattes..sure lattes, you can’t deny that. But aside from that, what have the Romans ever done for us?  Don’t talk to me about sushi.

So, when I read that “Peruvian” will now be the “next big thing” I’m intrigued but skeptical even though friends of mine have said that the food in Lima is out of this world. There just aren’t enough Peruvians to take the cuisine to every corner of the country.

In all the predictions, the big mystery to me is Indian food.  It has the great spiciness of our much loved Mexican food. It has the variety and excitement of our much loved Italian food.  Indians are the third largest immigrant group (after Mexicans and Chinese) in the US and yet, aside from mid- to high-end sit down restaurants, it hasn’t made great inroads. According to NPD’s CREST®, our continuous foodservice tracker, Indian food is served about 0.1% of all visits to restaurants. How come Indian food isn’t the next big thing?

Just to get a sense of scale, I looked at CREST Great Britain where we track British consumers’ use of restaurants. There, where Indian food has arguably moved to the main stream, (and, as a well understood post-drinking food) Indian food is served at 3% of all restaurant visits.  Sure, it doesn’t sound like much but it’s an index of about…hang on…carry the one….an index of about 2000 over the US number.  Our Advanced Analytics guys describe this as being “a whole heckuva lot more” than in the US.

My neighborhood here at the NPD Foodservice Blog World Headquarters in the San Francisco Bay area is a melting pot of east and south Asians. As a result, we have an embarrassment of first rate Asian restaurants at the mid- to low-range.  Indian restaurants still account for less than 1% of all restaurants in the US.

So, the other day I passed the restaurant (photographed) just down the street from my house.

And, a few days later, one of the people living in my house reported that it’s “fantastic.” I’m going to have to wait until after some heavy January travel to find out. BTW, Pillsbury seems to have a recipe for Chicken Curry Pizza if you want to try it at home.

A quick web search for “Indian Pizza” or “curry pizza” reveals a few places in the Bay Area (from where wraps originally came). It also raises several mentions of global pizza chains re-tooling their products for the market in India.

And, I thought of Harry.

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About Bob O'Brien

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Bob O’Brien is global senior vice president for market researcher The NPD Group, foodservice sector. He joined NPD’s foodservice division in 1987. He has been responsible for driving foodservice analysis outside the United States, leading the launch of CREST® Japan, China, Australia and the new CREST® Mexico pilot project. Bob speaks frequently to industry and management groups. He can be reached at the NPD Group.

Mr. O'Brien's column on foodservice is syndicated to Blue MauMau by permission of The NPD Group.

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