If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that no one knows what the future holds.
But when it comes to food and dining, predictions can be made.
Restaurant consulting firm Baum + Whiteman, which releases a trend report each year, said that in 2022, diners will see robots in restaurants (find automated cooking and service at Komodo in Brick and Automat in Jersey City), vegan chicken, ghost kitchens, quirky fast-food trends from Asia, a focus on nonalcoholic drinks, and a renewed interest in fine dining.
As for dining in New Jersey, here’s what local chefs see coming.
Virtual menus are not going anywhere
Digital menus are a carryover from 2021, a result of restaurants wanting as few items on their tables as possible.
But aside from keeping germs at bay, paperless menus also are helpful for restaurants with menus that change frequently.
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“We use the virtual menus as we change our menu daily or sometimes on the fly. It is a great way to keep up with the volatility of the market,” said Lou Smith, chef and owner of Blend on Main in Manasquan. “It has been made so simple for the customer to engage on their personal device; it is as simple as pressing a button.
“They may explore the entire menu in seconds and at the size they would like to read it,” he said.
Takeout will still be big
With the omicron COVID variant on the rise, Richard Cusack of June BYOB, a fine dining restaurant in Collingswood, sees takeout coming back into play in 2022.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Cusack said. “I really didn’t want to think about doing (takeout) again, and now I’m going to have to. It’s gotten to the point where I have to see where everything is going, and then I’m going to have to adjust.”
The chef and his wife Christina closed their original Philadelphia restaurant due to the pandemic and opened their new location in Collingswood in August, bringing French fine dining to the borough.
Although the restaurant has been busy, the new variant has led to the cancelation of about 40 reservations in December, compared to the average of eight.
“It’s like numbers are going down now,” Cusack added. “People aren’t coming out … It’s starting to give me flashbacks of my old place.”
Plant-based options are on the rise
Chefs and restaurateurs have noticed an uptick in plant-based food options for vegans, vegetarians and anyone who wants to see less meat on their plate.
“Some high-end restaurants, such as Eleven Madison Park in New York City, are even going completely plant-based,” said Chef Christopher Dutka of 618 Restaurant in Freehold Borough.
Dutka has been getting creative with new dishes, cooking old favorites with plant-based substitutes – like his vegan mushroom and lentil Bolognese made with rigatoni and cashew “parmesan,” and vegan tacos made with quinoa.
Restaurant co-owner Liz Borowski also has noticed demand for plant-based items, and supports tailoring certain menu items accordingly.
“Offering plant-based menu items helps us cater to a diverse range of customers, whether they’re (eating this way) for their health, supporting the environment or the welfare of animals,” she said.
Even restaurant owners who have always only offered plant-based foods, like Rob Ramos of Living on the Veg in Stafford and Long Beach Township, are noticing more customers wanting to eat less meat.
“A lot of our core customers aren’t even vegetarian, they just like the idea that they can take meat off their plate for a couple days a week,” he said.
Tim Witcher of The Wing Kitchen in Turnersville, Glassboro and Clementon predicts that “innovative” vegan and vegetarian food is going to have an impact in 2022.
“I know it’s big already, but I think it’s gonna be bigger in the new year,” Witcher said. “People are looking for alternative things to not only eat, but to heal their body. Things that we aren’t used to seeing, like sea moss … are going to be big coming up.”
Witcher is working to incorporate this surge of vegan eating; he has an idea for a vegan Smashburger called Smash Vegan. He is still developing the concept but hopes to do pop-ups with it soon.
“Just because you’re vegan, doesn’t mean you’re super healthy,” Wither said. “Being a vegan, greasy spot where you can get some good stuff – that’s what I’m working on.”
Restaurants adapting to healthy eating
Long gone are the days where “healthy” just meant eating your vegetables and avoiding sweets. As medical technology allows us to be more in tune with our bodies, consumers understand exactly what they should and should not be eating, based on their dietary sensitivities and restrictions.
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This has left a need for restaurants to become more accessible – especially to those following gluten-free diets, whether it be for general health reasons or due to Celiac disease.
Dave Hasenbein, owner of HasenFire Creative Catering and assistant manager of Tucker’s Tavern in Beach Haven, has noticed a trend toward gluten-free eating, as well as creative strategies from chefs to becoming healthier in general.
“There’s a trend toward gluten-free and vegetarian creativity, and restaurants are putting more energy toward being creative with healthy eating,” Hasenbein said. “Before, chefs could just add sugar, flour, fat or a deep fryer into the mix, and it was called delicious. But those things aren’t flying anymore.”
Outdoor dining will continue
Since the pandemic, outdoor dining has been on the rise. Not only is it the safest way to dine at a restaurant, it’s also delightful during warmer months.
Going forward, we’ll see restaurants continue to set up tables outside on patios and sidewalks, as well as major chains making structural changes.
Gino Tessaro, construction and zoning official for Hasbrouck Heights, is an unconventional expert for dining trends. But he said he’s noticed more chains work outdoor seating into their building plans than ever before.
A new Shake Shack being built on Route 17 in Hasbrouck Heights, for example, included in its zoning application a two-lane drive-through and a 990-square-foot patio with 40 seats to account for more takeout and outdoor diners.
“Things are changing due to the virus, and they’re figuring more people will want to be outside,” Tessaro said. “We’ll likely see the effects of COVID on restaurant architectural design for years to come.”
Private dining, with a twist
For diners who like to enjoy a meal at the bar and conversation with fellow customers, the last two years have been rough.
But a new dining experience could be emerging to take its place: private dining that offers its own experience and a meal.
Jackie Mazza, executive chef at Clydz in New Brunswick, saw this on a recent visit to Terrain Cafe in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. Inside its “Woodland Village” outdoor dining setup were personal tents with tables and personal wood-burning ovens.
“Nothing beats that experience at a bar and striking up conversations with strangers, but it was really nice to have this cute, decorated hut and have a nice private dinner,” Mazza said. “It made it feel more special, even though the meal and service (were) the same.”
The tents, and other private dinner experiences can serve two purposes: attracting diners who have grown used to eating at home and are no longer wooed by a typical restaurant experience, and asssuring them that they can feel safe while eating out.
“I think you will see a ton of different dining options for restaurants, if they can do those types of things,” Mazza said. “Those are the types of experiences that restaurants need to focus on going forward because I think that’s going to be a big draw.”
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Supply chain troubles might mean smaller menus
For restaurants, the nation’s labor shortage translates to an unpredictable supply of ingredients for chefs, who more than ever are learning to work with what they have.
“Due to limited supply chain and increased costs, chefs will take a creative approach toward minimizing waste and creating flavors from the ingredients themselves,” said Chef Antony Bustamante, culinary partner with the Culture Collective hospitality group, which owns Asbury Park’s Barrio Costero, Reyla and Laylow. “Streamlining the menu to focus on delicious food and minimizing choices will help restaurants effectively manage their costs.”
This could also mean that your favorite restaurant may serve a particular dish one week, but not the next.
“We will be looking at menus changing more often, with simpler, quality products and fewer specialty, hard-to-get items,” Bustamante said. “Deliveries have been difficult on many restaurants due to our purveyors being short staffed, cutting hours and the issues of restocking imported products that we depend on being readily available.”
What’s happening behind the bar?
Jamie Dodge, beverage partner with Culture Collective, said that while it’s hard to predict what cocktail trends will be in 2022, he has a few ideas.
“The agave trend certainly isn’t going anywhere, especially with it being called ‘the healthiest spirit to drink’ and ‘least likely to give you a hangover,’ ” he said. “More and more people are getting into mezcal cocktails.
“We’re big advocates of mixing mezcal (a distilled spirit made from agave) with other base spirits in cocktails for a lightly smoky backbone to the drink,” Dodge said.
Also on tap: cocktails with heat.
“We’ve been getting more and more requests for spicy cocktails in the past few months,” Dodge said. “I normally associate those spicy libations with the hot summer months, but they’re still going strong in the colder months.”
Finally, “maybe foams will be hot in ’22,” he said. “At Laylow, we’ve always got a drink with a nondairy and egg-free foam on top. It certainly adds a really cool element to the cocktail, and people are always amazed that they are not whipped cream.”
Taking the booze out of cocktails
Danny Childs is mixologist and bar manager of The Farm & Fisherman Tavern in Cherry Hill, one of the state’s most respected farm-to-fork restaurants.
A trend he is confident will only grow is that of nonalcoholic cocktails and other craft beverages. Non-boozy ”booze,” he said, is everywhere and ready to serve those wanting something much more interesting to pair with their meal besides an iced tea or Coke.
“A lot of people have stopped drinking,” said Childs, who is also a drinks writer with a cookbook due out in 2023 named after his Slow Drinks column in Edible Jersey magazine. “A lot of them felt they drank too much during the pandemic, and there is a huge explosion in the nonalcoholic drinks realm. Craft breweries are making alcohol-free beers, and wineries are making alcohol-free wines, and there is a whole alcohol-free ‘liquor store’ opening in New York, I just heard.”
A growing interest in artisanal and sustainable cocktails also was evident in the rise of virtual cocktail classes throughout the pandemic, he said, as more of us longed to learn to replicate some of our best bar experiences at home. At the same time, many customers expressed a growing interest in natural wines, and lighter craft beer options that move away from IPAs and toward crisper lagers, pilsners and light ales.
Childs also is hopeful the temporary measures allowing bars and restaurants takeout and delivery of cocktails will become permanent law.
“It’s great for business, great for patrons and great for bartenders,” he said. “If we reduce capacity or whatever winds up happening, it’s great to have that source of income.”
Adventures in foraging, fermentation
The Farm & Fisherman is also doing a bang-up business in fermented beverages, a natural extension of its farm-to-fork mission.
“We have a whole section of our menu with fermented sodas,” said Childs, who added that the menu currently offers cranberry, lemon-lime, celery and ginger sodas. “They are just so delicious, with all of the components that you would expect from a cocktail. They are fermented with our ginger starter … You have citrus, you have sweetness, texture from the bubbles and then whatever flavor that is in there. The celery soda is salty and herbaceous and sweet and sour all at once. It’s that whole sensory experience.”
Kombuchas are also a big seller at the restaurant, as are teas made from herbs grown behind the restaurant. Chef-partner Todd Fuller’s favorite drink is a no-booze cocktail made from a rhubarb and balsamic shrub, topped off with club soda.
“It’s refreshing and delicious, and you don’t always want something that is going to induce a buzz,” Childs said. “I think that foraging and fermentation will continue to grow in popularity. This has been forecasted for years, and even old-guard bars, you are starting to see them foray into foraging ingredients, fermenting things, exploring the different flavor possibilities that way.”
The continued need to evolve
Chistine and Dory Chamoun own Dory’s Mediterranean Grill, a small Lebanese cafe in Medford that shifted to take-out with outdoor seating at the start of the pandemic.
Ongoing staffing shortages has meant limiting hours to noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
“We have simplified our menu and expanded what we offer in our small shop,” said Christine Chamoun, who recently transformed the former seating area into a Lebanese marketplace filled with specialty items hard to find elsewhere: honey, olives, olive oil, jams and pickled items imported from Lebanon.
“It is really breathing new life into this space, and our guests are excited to try out what we have in store,” Chamoun said. “Because of the open kitchen concept, visitors can engage with Chef Dory … He has been known to make recommendations as to various ways to enjoy these items. We have been really having fun with this.”
Another innovation has been Dory’s online ordering system, which allows the couple to update their menu in real time, responding to supply chain issues and what might sell out. Customers also can see market items and add groceries to their lunch or dinner order. “It is easy and very convenient for individuals and families on the go,” she added.
Innovation has also been the lifeblood of Farm & Fisherman, where Chef Fuller and his team launched BackDoor Pizza, an order-ahead takeout business, from the rear of the restaurant.
The speakeasy-style, gourmet line of pies has been a smashing success.
“It’s a true testament of Todd’s kind of business savvy … his culinary genius. He has such a long history of working at so many different restaurants, and he’s just able to adapt so well because of his skill set,” Childs said.
“It’s still extremely busy, busier than when we opened … We had to learn to run a restaurant within a restaurant.”
It’s been well worth it, as the Instagram adoration for small batch, artisanal pizzaioli has spilled over onto every one of their wood-oven pies.
“‘There are many people who may not be interested in Farm & Fish who love BackDoor Pizza,” Childs said. “We’ve tapped into that whole pizza world. It’s fascinating and amazing: People drive down from Bucks County to try it. It’s increased our income without having to expand.”