There is one sure fire way to tell a restaurant trend has finally met its end- being so thoroughly chewed up and well digested by the popular culture that it becomes the gastronomic equivalent of “beating a dead horse”.
How you say?
When the beloved food super giants enter the ring to get a piece of the pie your favorite trend is on the scenic route to sure fire extinction. Luckily I have had a chance to see the ebb and flow of some pretty monumental shifts in my career, and have been equally as entertained by the food mega giants ploy to clone the trend into something easily digestible to the less than discerning American pallet.
Some fun examples,
Resurgence of South west cuisine–> McDonald’s Premium Southwest Salad, Burger King’s Southwest breakfast Burrito, TGI Friday’s Southwest wedge, Southwest sliders, and enough chipotle mayo cover the entire earth.
Fusion Explosion-McDonalds Asian Salad, Fried Potstickers (every quick service chain restaurant from TGI Fridays to Ruby Tuesdays), Teriyaki wings, chickens, burritos, salads, bowls, cups, noodles…you get the point.
Spanish & South American revival- creating both a new ideas from old classics including empanadas at McDonalds and susprio doughnuts at Dunkin’ Doughnuts.
So enough with the examples…
I have a prevailing theory for this. Bare with me, I like lists.
Phase one: Most major trends start with a significant amount of capital in a fairly large city-scape. Well refined and well traveled palettes decide something is, “in”. The newest and hottest trends slowly trickle through the long long lines of restaurants through word of mouth, social media, and industry publications. This diffusion can be slow and steady, but will culminate with the item being on every trendy restaurant’s menu or be systematically exercised from the public eye like a malevolent demon. This is the purest form of natural social selection possible.
Phase two: Large companies hate change. Many Mega giants have been running the same business model for upwards of 100 years. The product of this stasis is a consistency that every independent restaurant and small corporation drools over. This stasis is what makes them inflexible but enduring. This is exactly the same reason that in order for them to take a leap of faith on a new menu item, the concept must be so thoroughly masticated by the public maw that the opportunity for failure is next to nil. Imagine rolling out the newest trend at your eatery with three locations. Daunting? A little. Now, try doing it for 14,000. Yeah, a little bigger deal, huh?
Phase three: The idea must be made as “vanilla” as possible. The general public does not want to be challenged. For many Americans a culinary challenge is eating fresh veggies. Case in point, ask one of your non-foodie friends if they like fish sauce. Go ahead, I dare you. The shocking result, they don’t, and many of them may have never even heard of it. Most wonder bread eating Americans do not like any form of ethnic food- they do like the idea of it though. So, corporate chefs begin toiling at test kitchens hashing out recipes that have the inheritable traits of the original idea but none of the “scary” characteristics. If a six year old will eat it with ranch dressing, the job here is done.
Phase four: Market, market, market. When you are done, market some more. People already like the idea, they want to taste the latest trend, but often the demographic going to the Mega giants will not have the same disposable income as their foodie buddies hoarking down the latest and greatest at the newest concept in Chicago or NYC. They want the idea, but they want it for cheap. They have heard about these crazy new trends from The Food Network, Cooking TV, and the latest issue of (add tabloid or junk periodical here), and want in on the action. And as we know, “If I saw it on TV and that giant billboard it must be good.”
Repetition in marketing works people. It has for years.
Stage Five: At the end of the day, the trend suffers the cruel and slow death of mass media maceration. The writhing may take days, it may take weeks, hell- it may take years to finally end. But when it does, be sure a new trend will be there to take its place. This is the beauty of our market consumer society; there will always be a latest, greatest, and newest. Especially in the US, where we strive to create new and inventive things- to push the boundaries, and to walk a little too close to the metaphoric edge.
So slave away fair chefs, create the newest trend. Push the envelope and go where no cook has gone before. Just remember one thing: Mega Big Brother is watching you with envious eyes waiting for the exact moment where your loving creation can be scooped up, stripped down, and marketed for millions.
So, are you selling out, or are you buying in?