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Like a shark that must keep swimming forward to survive, success in the restaurant industry requires entrepreneurs to identify what trends to take advantage of and keep pushing the envelope to find the next big thing to excite customers. Even the most entrenched national restaurant chains can’t afford to lean on their laurels and depend on innovation to stay relevant in the marketplace. This includes fast-food chains who constantly experiment with new menu items, especially trendy ones, to grab the attention of potential diners. (KFC’s Beyond Fried Chicken, anyone?)

Here are four food trends you’ll be seeing even more of in 2020.

Open Fire Cooking

There’s nothing more primal than preparing food over direct fire, like a caveman cooking up the bounty of the hunt. It seems like almost every new restaurant announcement includes a mention of some sort of wood-fired cooking component, ranging from pizza ovens to barbecue pits to ember grills or rotisseries. In addition to adding desirable flavor components to meats and vegetables, cooking over open flames contributes a dramatic element that just isn’t evident when a chef pops a pan into a gas oven.

Open fire grill at King + Duke

Open fire cooking is making a comeback to provide diners with unique flavors and experiences. Image: Johnny Autry

When successful Atlanta chef and restaurateur Ford Fry was coming up with the concept for King + Duke in Buckhead, he knew he wanted to feature open fire cooking as a centerpiece of the kitchen and dining experience. Ford’s VP of Culinary, Chef Drew Belline, designed a kitchen around a 24-foot open hearth with multiple stations for different cooking processes. Chef Drew shares how integral this centerpiece is to the restaurant: “I have always been a fan of wood cooking, and not just meats – anything and everything cooked over or by way of burning wood. In a world that seems so focused on modern cookery and techniques, I like to buck the system and do the opposite! Wood cooking is primitive but also creates soulful flavors and a centerpiece for an amazing dining experience.”

If you’ve ever cooked over a campfire or fire pit in your backyard, you know temperature regulation isn’t as simple as turning a stove’s burner to medium-high or hitting a microwave’s “popcorn” button. Drew knows that doing great things is rarely easy: “Good food is hard work. Of course in this situation, it’s even more difficult in the sense that in most commercial kitchens you have regulated gas stoves that put out a consistent heat and flame. At King +Duke, the cooks have to manage that heat and flame on top of what’s cooking, along with everything else that happens in a professional kitchen. Working at King + Duke can really give the cooks an advanced education in the application of heat, but the payoff with flavor and the different techniques we are able to utilize on the hearth makes it worth it for sure.”

24-foot open heart at King + Duke for open fire cooking, a 2020 food trend

The 24-foot open hearth at King + Duke makes for some oh-so-tasty dishes. Image: Andrew Thomas Lee

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The open fire also adds a lot to the customer experience. “The hearth makes it personal,” shares Drew. “It adds warmth to a room with a hint of smoke, and it makes for a damn good show. The experience is intended to be a modern-day tavern based on the historic ways of galley kitchens where you could really see the raw and fundamental elements of the process unfolding before you. That’s what we try to convey at King + Duke. Whether you see your duck slow-roasting next to the coals, a pot of beans simmering in the smoke or a giant bone-in ribeye resting over the roasted potatoes catching all the drippings, it’s an interactive experience intended to entice the senses and whet the palate.”

Nonprofit/Pay-What-You-Can Restaurants

It’s difficult enough to make money operating a restaurant, but some operators are actually making the conscious decision not to strive for profits. Instead, they set up restaurants with charitable components or other social benefits as the ultimate goal. In some cases, the restaurant offers opportunities to train potential future workers in the industry. For example, The Cookery is a small Nashville cafe affiliated with Lambscroft Ministries, where formerly homeless students are trained and equipped in culinary techniques and food safety regulations to prepare them for employment in the city’s food industry.

One World Everybody Eats is a Texas-based 501(c)3 tax-exempt, nonprofit organization that supports pay-what-you-can cafes and restaurants. Its mission is to increase food security and build communities by establishing a network of places where guests with means can voluntarily pay a little extra to assist other diners who might not be able to buy themselves a healthy meal. The organization’s network has expanded to more than 50 pay-what-you-can community cafes operating around the country with many others in the planning stages in the United States and six other countries. For its efforts, One World Everybody Eats was awarded the 2017 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Award.

Some restaurants even target members of the culinary community with specific needs for their largesse. In Atlanta, Giving Kitchen assists food service workers with emergency needs, a situation that can be catastrophic to industry workers who might be living from paycheck to paycheck. Giving Kitchen raises funds through special events and proceeds from their award-winning restaurant, Staplehouse.

The organization and the restaurant were conceived when Chef Ryan Hidinger was diagnosed with late-stage cancer in December 2012. After an outpouring of support from the local culinary community, Ryan’s wife Jen, along with his sister Kara and her husband Chef Ryan Smith, created an organization to help other restaurant workers in similar situations.

Jen describes the organization’s creation this way: “One of our founding board members sent an early morning email to my late husband Ryan Hidinger just a few weeks after his diagnosis with this idea that we could start a nonprofit to take care of restaurant workers and that the nonprofit could also open [Ryan’s] dream restaurant. It could be a restaurant of purpose. It was a brilliant idea and founded two incredible Atlanta institutions: Staplehouse and Giving Kitchen.”

The Giving Kitchen exterior in Atlanta

Giving Kitchen warms stomachs and hearts by helping members of the culinary community in need. Image: Facebook

Jen Hidinger-Kendrick talking to donors at Giving Kitchen event

Jen Hidinger-Kendrick wanted to give back to the community that helped her family in their time of need. Image: Giving Kitchen

As noble as their efforts have been (earning a Beard Humanitarian Award in 2019), operating a nonprofit restaurant involves its own unique set of challenges. This is not an undertaking for the weak of spirit. “Trust your resources and do your homework,” Jen explains. “From a compliance and business operating perspective, having a nonprofit organization own a restaurant has been a unique and challenging idea to navigate over the years. Each decision made on behalf of the nonprofit in regards to the restaurant must be made through the lens of ‘how are we best stewarding a donor dollar?’ vs. owning your restaurant outright where you can make any decision you want about its future and wellbeing. It’s not traditional restaurant ownership when it’s under the umbrella of a nonprofit.”

Even with the challenges associated with these efforts, the concept of operating restaurants in the name of societal good is gaining traction across the country.

Cooking with CBD

One of the hottest trends in health and wellness has made the move into the culinary world as CBD is now appearing on menus. A non-psychoactive component of the hemp or cannabis plant, CBD is one of more than 100 cannabinoids, and many consumers claim that using it has helped relieve pain and anxiety without the “high” associated with THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.

When Tennessee legalized the cultivation of hemp with less than 0.3 percent THC in 2014, LabCanna was one of the first companies in the state to jump into the CBD business, eventually earning the first-ever Hemp Processing License by the State of Tennessee two years later. In addition to growing its own hemp, LabCanna also works with Tennessee farmers to maintain adequate local sourcing and support the local agricultural economy. LabCanna processes the biomass of hemp flowers through an extraction process that releases the desired components from the plant, which are then distilled to isolate specific compounds, such as CBD. Once isolated, the CBD can be infused into balms, lotions and ointments for personal use, and most notably, into oils or butters for cooking.

Coffee cups from Harvest at LabCanna, a new 2020 food trend

After changes in legislation, LabCanna opened Harvest to introduce the restaurant industry to CBD. Image: LabCanna

To help promote the tradition of hemp as a medicinal and healing plant, LabCanna opened Harvest, a hemp-centric cafe in Fairview, TN. Sophie Stevens, Director of Retail Operations for LabCanna, describes the idea behind opening a restaurant: “LabCanna decided to invest in Harvest as a way to introduce more people to CBD. We want to be clean in everything we do, and we source ingredients for people with dietary restrictions, so we have lots of gluten-free and vegan options as well.”

Government regulations on the industry have been a bit of a moving target, but LabCanna strives to stay ahead of the changes. “The FDA hasn’t put a lot of regulations on CBD yet,” explains Sophie. “We are choosing to set our own high expectations and standards. We employ third-party testing to ensure that our products are free of pesticides and heavy metals, and that everything we use is ethically sourced. We haven’t had to change anything about our processes as the regulations change.”

Danny Davis is the chef at Harvest, and he has a personal relationship with CBD. “I was in the Marines, and after I left the military I discovered that CBD helped me more with my various ailments than medications ever did. I already loved cooking, so I put that together, and it just clicked.” Danny started his own catering company and then moved up to opening his own restaurant with LabCanna at Harvest.

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Harvest LabCanna logo

LabCanna prides itself on the fact that they only use products that are pesticide-free and ethically sourced. Image: LabCanna

The cooking process starts through decarboxylation (roasting hemp flowers in the oven). Danny then infuses the CBD into tinctures, butters and cocoa butter he can use in the kitchen. All the delicious pastries at Harvest use these infused products, and the kitchen can add CBD to other products upon request. “We use the butters as a flavorant and as a beneficial ingredient,” explains Danny. “But the other parts of the plant also contribute vitamins, nutrients and fiber. Plus, it’s aesthetically pleasing. We try to use the whole plant the same way that Indians used every part of the buffalo.”

The flavors that hemp contributes to food vary depending on the strain of the plant utilized. Danny shares, “You have to learn the character of each terpene in specific plants. Some are earthy, while others have mango flavors or more herbal characteristics.” He believes that CBD is here to stay in the restaurant world: “Hemp should be more than just a trend. It’s a superfood. We encourage customers to do the research and seek out the education to decide what’s right for them. I’ve found it has all sorts of benefits to me.”

Keep an eye out for hemp and CBD-infused products to show up on more and more menus in the future.

Healthy Comfort Food

It’s a sad fact that most comfort food just isn’t that healthy. Fried chicken, pork chops, or biscuits and gravy might make you feel happy on a cold and dreary day, but you probably wouldn’t want to tell your doctor they are a regular part of your diet. Even the vegetable side dishes in a soul food restaurant or Southern eatery often hide the fact that they were cooked with lard or bacon grease to make them even more delicious.

Fortunately, more restaurants are striving to create the sort of homey country food we crave while keeping it healthy for you. One of the most notable examples is The Southern V, North Nashville’s plant-based Southern-style eatery. The Southern V is a family affair, the brainchild of Tiffany and Clifton Hancock, two engaging restaurateurs who made their own major lifestyle changes after the births of their two daughters.

The Southern V owners Tiffany and Cliff Hancock posing in restaurant that uses 2020 food trend

Tiffany and Cliff Hancock put a healthy twist on Southern comfort food through their plant-based eatery The Southern V. Image: The Southern V

Clifton explains, “We did it for our children. Tiffany nursed both of our babies, and she discovered that they developed an intolerance to dairy, meat and soy. So she went vegan, and it really helped our girls out.” Clifton took a little longer to make the switch. “I was still in transition. I couldn’t let go of queso,” he jokes.

As the couple committed to a 100 percent plant-based diet, they still had cravings for some of their old favorites. Clifton recalls, “Tiffany really wanted a vegan Krispy Kreme donut, but we couldn’t find one. So she made one for herself. Friends tried them and encouraged her to start selling them, so that’s how we started out selling them in farmers’ markets around town.”

Tiffany proved to be a master of vegan baking, but they still craved savory foods, too. “We had a hard time finding Southern comfort food that we could eat, so we recreated those dishes. We were hungry!” admits Clifton. The couple debuted their first vegan hot chicken biscuit at their market booths in 2016, and their business began to take off.

Clifton remembers, “That let us debut our first Vegan Shack in a tiny 600-square-foot building with a walk-up window. We’d take orders and customers would wait in their cars until their food was ready. In April of 2018, we opened our restaurant, The Southern V on Buchanan Street, and we’ve developed sort of a cult following since then.”

Since they only use soy in two items on their healthy menu (the sour cream on their jackfruit nachos and their burger), the Hancocks make their own seitan as the primary protein used in their savory dishes. “We make it in-house so that we know what goes into it, and we season it ourselves. It fries up just like chicken! It still gives a nostalgic experience where vegans can remember what it was like to eat barbecue and fried chicken without violating their ethical principles,” shares Clifton.

The Southern V's Chick'n Fried Chick'n with mushroom gravy served with tomato and cucumber salad, turnip greens, baked beans, and mac 'n' cheeze.

Who knew fried chicken could be considered healthy? Image: The Southern V

Fried Chick'n from The Southern V, taking advantage of 2020 food trends

The Fried Chick’n from The Southern V has our mouths watering! Image: The Southern V

There are actually historical and cultural bases for the idea of vegetarian and vegan comfort food. “In African culture, meat wasn’t consumed heavily,” explains Clifton. “It was usually reserved for special celebrations, like weddings. There are definitely African roots in veganism, but now it’s become a class sort of thing.” Thanks to celebrity endorsements and wider cultural acceptance of food items like the Impossible Whopper at Burger King, the commercial push is piquing interest in plant-based lifestyles.

Still, the Hancocks occasionally notice pushback about the cost of going vegan. Clifton has an answer: “Sure, it can be more expensive, but would I rather pay on the front end or the back end? If I clean up my lifestyle, I won’t have to pay as much on medications later. We tell people not to eat here every day. Plant a garden! Visit farmers’ markets and buy fresh produce there. It can end up being cheaper. Personally, going vegan disciplines us to cook and create better food for our family at home and makes us more conscientious about what we put in our bodies. There’s something about tasting healthy food that you know is still home-cooked instead of just going to the store and buying some frozen food, but most of all, we want our customers to feel comfortable eating with us.”

At The Southern V and other healthy comfort food restaurants popping up around the South, you can eat well and feel good about yourself at the same time.

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