Already 2018 is feeling so yesterday when it comes to food and wine. Gone are the heady days when having a rosé paired with some house-made charcuterie seemed new and exciting. Now having a can of sparkling wine alongside an Uzbekistan oshi-sabo stew will become as common as enjoying a “clean meat” burger served with a ‘pét-nat.’
Labor: The restaurant labor shortage will worsen. Like other places around the country, Napa Valley restaurants are finding it increasingly difficult to hire and retain qualified personnel. The causes are partly driven by the high cost of living, but they are also linked to broader trends: lack of affordable housing, higher-paying alternative careers (e.g., construction), a slowing local population growth and increasing demand.
The United States Department of Agriculture tracks the percent of calories and the cost of food consumed by Americans at home and away from home. In the 1970s, about 18 percent of a person’s calories and about 30 percent of their food cost went to eating out. Today that’s grown to nearly 40 percent of their calories and close to 50 percent of their food costs.
The result? An $800 billion U.S. restaurant industry that employees an estimated 14.7 million Americans, according to the National Restaurant Association. That number is expected to grow to nearly 17 million over the next decade.
Here in the Napa Valley, where housing costs are out of reach for many, the dynamics appear particularly sobering, especially considering that the numbers of tourists, resorts, restaurants and wineries continue to expand.
Technology: The use of technology will increase. As labor becomes increasingly scarce, restaurants are looking to replace both service and production with automated alternatives. A new push within the tech sector in Silicon Valley is producing everything from robotic burger-makers and pizza machines to 3-D printers that can make near-perfect replicas of pastry shells and crepes. Sally the Salad Robot vending machines are beginning to pop up in workplaces, while apps and kiosks are being used more frequently to order food. McDonald’s plans to have touchscreen ordering in all its U.S. restaurants by 2020, and Starbucks is examining how to include more automation without affecting “personal service.”
This trend is also being picked up by fine restaurants that are switching from the Open Table online reservation system to Tock, which includes more interaction and often prepayment and preordering, which can help restaurants cut down on absenteeism and food waste.
Going out to eat is evolving. Homes and restaurants were historically the main venues for eating, but that is changing. Between delivered food (e.g., Amazon “Prime” food delivery service), meal kits, pop-up restaurants, food trucks, wineries serving food, and coffeehouses/retail shops/grocery stores all expanding their food-service options, restaurants are finding it difficult to understand their evolving role — will they become hangout hubs or blend into consumptive centers for the sale of unrelated goods and services?
Take a look at the new RH (what used to be called, Restoration Hardware) “store” in Yountville. It’s just one of six such RHs around the country, including one that is 90,000 square feet with a barista on the second floor and a full-service restaurant/wine bar on the roof that recently replaced the Pastis restaurant in New York. Are these places restaurants? Design centers? Bars? And what function does the annexation of the next-door Ma(i)sonry serve? What had been a stunning old-stone structure with airy-open space has been transformed into a sort-of adjunct food-wine-art-design center for who-knows-whom-or-what with very-limited and tight parking to boot. Or have a peek at the new Prisoner Winery in St. Helena, which has two restaurant-level kitchens and a small mall that sells local artisan goods. Can’t imagine AT&T cellphone stores with coffee, snacks and a Wi-Fi lounge? Seattle already has one. Look for more of these mashups in the future.
Adaptogens: Adaptogens are “herbs” that are believed to help the body combat stress. Ingredients mostly come from Chinese or Indian plants or fungi and include items such as panax ginseng, reishi mushroom, gotu kola and ashwagandha (Indian ginseng). These herbs, roots and seeds are thought to help immunity, physical and mental stamina, hormonal balance, lung health and overall well-being. Maybe you thought having a turmeric latte was strange? Just wait.
Rise of the “flexitarians”: Gallup reports the sales of plant-based food grew 8.1 percent in 2017 and exceeded $3.1 billion last year. However, by contrast, Gallup also reports that only 5 percent of Americans identify as vegetarian (an actual decrease from when the survey was first taken in 1999, when 6 percent of Americans identified as vegetarian), and the rates of veganism have only grown from 2 percent in 2012 to 3 percent in 2017.
The reason for what appear contradictory data is being called “flexitarianism.” The idea is that most consumers now enjoy more plant-based food options in their diet, but that they do not identify as strict vegetarians or vegans. Dropping the titles and dogmatism means these flexitarians might eat meat on a weekly or monthly basis. These same eaters might augment their diets with lab-grown “clean meat” that’s created by culturing animal cells into protein “cuts” that provide a meatlike experience without having to slaughter animals.
Meat is not going away anytime soon, but if the United Kingdom is any indication of the United States’ food future, expect an ever-increasing number of vegetable-centric and “clean-meat” meals. A recent report suggests that today one-third of the dinners eaten in the U.K. do not include traditional protein from animals.
Going from “taste” to “health”: While past generations have often gone out to dine as a matter of “taste,” newer generations are eating as a matter of “health.” Taste here not only represents the idea of how delicious the food is but also what it means to be seen dining at a particular restaurant — dressing up, eating extravagantly, enjoying food and service fit for a queen and king. Today, taste has been replaced with health concerns. Health now is not limited to the individual’s well-being but also incorporates the consumed foods’ impact on the entire food “web” — from those growing, cooking and serving it to the environmental impacts.
The idea of going out to be served by overworked and underpaid working-class professionals or eating food that was grown using chemicals harmful to themselves and the planet or raised in an inhumane manner has become untenable for many consumers who believe that what they consume has become their most powerful vote.
What this means is an increasing rise of more casual eating options (often called “fast casual” and “fast fine”) and more prepaid delivered food. And, in a bit of a plot twist, that might indicate a longer-term shift away from eating out altogether. And although meals of the future might be made by robots, strangely enough they might just be enjoyed at home.
Other food trends to watch out for in 2019: a shift away from individual “star” chefs to brands and an increase in the use of phrases such as “hyper local,” “self-serve,” “oat milk,” “Stans (as in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan cuisines), “vegan ice cream and cheeses, “old school,” “bitter,” “low-alcohol wines/cocktails,” “cannabis terroir” and “brain food.”
Canned wines: The sale of canned low-alcohol wines has jumped 43 percent in the past year, with younger drinkers driving the trend. studies show. Many of these wines have additions to them, such as lemonade or other fruit juices. Nearly 40 years ago there was a similar trend (remember California Cooler?), which quickly rose to prominence and then faded into obscurity. Today, although the category is small, expect the selection of wines coming in tinned six-packs and the range of flavorings to increase.
Weird wines: Although Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are not going away anytime soon, consumers are looking increasingly toward red blends (such as The Prisoner) and non-traditional varieties. There is also push for “orange” wines and ‘pét-nat’ (pétillant naturel), which have lower alcohol than traditional options.
Cannabis “wines”: My bet is that although there will be an initial increase in cannabis-infused “wines,” this trend will not last long. The reason is that although the sale of cannabis for recreational use was made legal in California in 2018, the California State Department of Alcohol Beverage Control has precluded the combination of alcohol and cannabis. Because there are so many alternative ways to ingest cannabis for either the high or the health benefits, it seems that what might be novel now will just become cumbersome and costly later. Why have a wine-flavored weed concoction when those who enjoy marijuana could just smoke or ingest it through edibles without the extra cost or calories?
Declining wine consumption: The Silicon Valley Bank has widely reported that wine sales in the United States have been flat for the last few years, with many wine-consuming baby-boomers slowing their consumption and younger people shifting away from wine toward alternative “relaxants,” such as beer, spirits and cannabis. Some of the youngest may even be foregoing intoxicants altogether, choosing instead to use virtual reality as their preferred method of escape. Part of the decline is due to health concerns.
Whereas in the 1970s there was a growing idea that alcohol (and especially wine) had health benefits, today there are growing concerns over alcohol’s negative impacts on health. In a September 2018 report, the World Health Organization reported that 3 million people died from harmful alcohol use in 2016 and called for more taxes to pay for alcohol-related health costs and consumption-reduction efforts.
Because the number of permitted wine producers has only increased over the last decade (by 190 percent, using ABC permit data), and because most of these wine producers make mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, which takes years to age in barrel, there will be an oversupply of Cabernet just at the time when consumers are looking for alternatives, adding downward price pressure.