What’s for Breakfast?

As a frequent traveler, both professionally and personally, one component of my food intake remains stable to ensure my eating doesn’t go entirely rogue. Breakfast. Coffee and a banana with a handful of nuts. As much as I crave a little consistency, recently I’ve learned that I’m missing out on a daypart that is getting increasingly more interesting – both worldly and creative.

It isn’t just avocado toast on the rise – though it’s the #1 fastest-growing breakfast item at both limited-service and full-service restaurants according to Datassential.1 This past weekend in Oregon, I had it twice, but not “just any avo toast”. Both incorporated ingredients like radish, poached eggs and….heat. “Mama Lil’s Peppers” and “Chili Flakes”. A perfect example of how operators are responding to the fact that 45% of consumers state that a bold or spicy flavor is an important attribute to consider when ordering a breakfast item!1

Avocado toast that incorporated radish, poached eggs, and a lot of spice.

Foodscape3, led by Datassential earlier this fall, featured some of the wildest foods at every meal. Breakfast was no exception. From Korean milk bread (yes it’s as good as it sounds), to mini conchas from the Mexican Panaderia, the pastry options did not disappoint. More than a third of consumers say they’re interested in trying a global pastry, and there aren’t too many restaurants that offer them that opportunity – just 10% today.1

Example of a global breakfast option at Foodscape3

It’s exciting to have more opportunities to experience foods and flavors from around the world. It’s certainly offering restaurants and operators a chance to develop more unique dishes, both at the expected breakfast hour and throughout the day. More than half of all operators offer a brunch menu that differs from their breakfast offerings and about a quarter of all are seeing an increase in brunch sales this past year. I know I’m intrigued by what I’ll see as a consumer – even if it means I have to find alternative ways to maintain some meal consistency on the road. Or, incorporate a post-breakfast stroll!

1 Datassential Foodscape3. Chicago, IL. September 2019.

Sober Curious Movement

#DryJanuary #SoberOctober #SoberCurious #SoberIsSexy

The sober-curious movement is a natural outflow of plant-based eating and lifestyle diets. Consumers are more focused on what is in their food, where it came from and how it benefits their body. The sober-curious movement is no different. As discussed back in July, the low ABV and sober trend has taken off this year, with more beverage companies creating no to low alcoholic beverages and more consumers are challenging themselves to take a break from the booze.

Watermelon fruity cocktail mocktail drink decorated with cubes of fresh watermelon and rosemary
Watermelon fruity cocktail mocktail drink decorated with cubes of fresh watermelon and rosemary

According to Nielson, Millennials are driving the mindful drinking movement, with 66% saying they’re making efforts this year to reduce their alcohol consumption1. For those 21 and older, the top two reasons they stated for abstaining from alcohol were health (50%) and weight loss (28%). In January 2019, one-fifth of Americans said they participated in Dry January and 83% of Americans who participated this year say they will participate again in 2020.

More recently we have begun to see companies pop up like Wild Basin Boozy Sparkling Water, who’s tagline “Keep running wild”, which speaks to active lifestyle consumers who value the outdoors, socializing with friends and healthier living. We are also seeing non-alcoholic spirits popping up like Seedlip, who wants to help the dilemma of ‘what to drink when you’re not drinking’. 

Bar and restaurant experience without the buzz

Bars and restaurants are noticing the trend as well. The Sans Bar in Austin, TX is the first sober bar in the city. The owner of the bar wanted to create a safe and inviting atmosphere for people who want to have a good time without alcohol. They offer live music, upscale environment, and sober drinks that you can’t find anywhere else. Even in our hometown of Minneapolis, MN the restaurant The Lynhall has created a Sober Sunday Supper Series where they partner with local restaurants, prepare a four-course family style dinner paired with non-alcoholic beverages. Colorado is the latest state to take part in this trend with Bar Zero, a nonprofit bar supporting people who are choosing not to drink.

Shot of an immaculate bar with many bottles and glasses with no people
Shot of an immaculate bar with many bottles and glasses with no people

As consumers experiment with making a shift away from the prominence of alcohol, there will likely be even more who challenge themselves with #DryJanaury to give their body and mind a break. How operators start and continue to lean into this “movement” with food, drink and social experiences may offer new ways to win over this emerging group.

1 Nielsen, Many Americans Are Looking for a Bar Experience Without the Buzz, 2019

Lunch Kitting?

Meal kits continue to be scrutinized – are they here to stay or not? In recent years, they have influenced consumer’s shopping habits and their time spent meal prepping. Meal kits provide the perfect amount of each ingredient, minimize food waste and allow consumers to enhance their culinary skills through new recipes and different cuisine types. Yet, the debate continues as to whether this is a viable play as brands and ideas come and go.

What’s been happening?

The meal kit market has quickly evolved from a nearly exclusive online, subscription-based home delivery service to include a wide range of options at retail. A number of brands have partnered with brick-and-mortar stores to give consumers pre-packaged options in a whole new way. Consumers are interested in trying new ways to purchase meal kits, with over a quarter of recent users purchasing both in-store and online1. According to The NPD Group, nearly 93 million consumers have never tried a meal kit service, but are interested in trying one, which points to a market opportunity.

Food Marketing Institute identifies the typical meal kit consumer as high-income households, urban shoppers, Millennials, and households with children2. These meal kit shoppers are convenience-seekers, with 45% also frequently buying foodservice items and 48% relying heavily on semi- and fully-prepared items.

common meal kit ingredients

The newest addition: school lunches

As children head back to school, working parents are looking for convenience when it comes to preparing school lunches and weeknight dinners. Two companies, Yumble and Nurture Life, are differentiating themselves from traditional meal kit services with healthy, ready-to-eat options geared towards kids. Served as-is or with minimal (2 minutes!) heat time, Yumble offers plant-based, organic, and hidden veggie offerings all specifically designed for kids. Plus, their meal kits include the added bonus of fun activities in the box to add more ways for the whole family to connect around mealtime. Nuture Life features foods for babies, toddlers and children up to age 18. We are also starting to see other companies deliver individually-sealed lunch trays directly to the school for a lower price point.  

family meal prep

With time and cost as the main barriers for parents who want to serve healthy family meals, kid-friendly meal kit companies have an opportunity to solve one of parents’ biggest pain points: high-quality meals with limited amount of time. These companies have not yet moved to the brick and mortar model, which may be an opportunity for them to gain new customers who are less likely to give it a try due to subscription requirements or costs.

kids eating lunch

What’s next?

The main drawback facing meal kit providers is the high cost of customer acquisition, and the difficulty retaining those customers who can quickly move to a different meal kit company or jump on the next food fad. So, will meal kits go away or are they here for the long run? I believe meal kits provide a multitude of benefits including convenience and minimized food waste. I don’t believe meal kits will last forever due to the increasing challenge of retaining customers in the current environment, with factors like third-party delivery and and food on-the-go.  

1 https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/2019/93-million-us-adults-have-yet-to-use-a-meal-kit-but-are-interested-in-giving-them-a-try/
2 https://www.fmi.org/blog/view/fmi-blog/2018/06/11/what-do-we-know-about-the-meal-kit-consumer

Food Trucks Are Here To Stay

They’ve been around for years and there’s no end in sight. Serving as an integral part of the overall mobile food movement, food trucks (mobile vehicles where food and beverage is cooked and sold), are more alive than ever before. With 62% of consumers seeking out new/unique dining experiences and nearly 80% of people willing to try a new food or beverage once—it may be a better time than ever if you’re a business or chef looking to offer an experimental, labor light, social media rich experience to grow your brand. And gone are the days when the end game for a food truck was to land a brick and mortar presence on the side of a busy, hungry street. While still a worthy pursuit, today’s food trucks are leaning into growing consumer appetites for new dining experiences by serving up innovative ways to keep their trucks more relevant than ever. Moving beyond the role of feeding crowds of fair-goers and office workers—we highlight 3 food trucks that embrace all a food truck can be in 2019. But first, let’s dive into the data behind where the industry is headed.

WHAT’S HAPPENING

  • Food trucks reached an estimated $2.7 billion in revenue in 2017, a 24-percent increase from 2014.
    Source: According to a December 2017 report produced by Food Truck Nation under the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
  • Food truck industry revenues have grown 7.3 percent at an annualized rate from 2012 to 2017.
    Source: IBISWorld

Food Truck Showcase

Farmers and Foragers
Bringing more awareness to your plate.

Once upon a time, a food truck was known as a one-stop indulgent spot, where you may have thought little about where the food came from. You just wanted it to taste really good and be on your way, right? (It’s OK if that’s still the case, too). Founded in 2014, Burlington, Vt.-based Farmers and Foragers brought a new perspective to the table, literally. Partnering with local farms to source the ingredients for a diverse menu of American comfort food—form Goi Ga, a Vietnamese Chicken Salad to Duck Wontons and Crispy Squash Blossoms. Some of the menu even features foraged produce from Vermont’s very own backyard. “When you go to a food truck rally, everything tastes amazing, but you don’t know where the food comes from,” he said. “I think we brought some level of consciousness to that.” This truck proves the care and quality you may typically expect only in a restaurant can be embraced by food on the move as well.

Hot Indian
Building a better, brighter brand.

Founded in 2013, this brightly hued, highly Instagrammable food truck (and now in multiple brick and mortar locations across the Twin Cities including a residence at Midtown Global Market), Hot Indian plays a role in changing the dining experience by providing memorable branding moments at every touch point — enticing consumers to enjoy more than just delicious food like their famous Indurrito: An Indian burrito made with house made roti, a round Indian flatbread. From showing consumers how to give a proper high five to big, bold graphics, Hot Indian has proven its sustainability in the mobile food space by embracing a truly Instagrammable, shareable experience.

Finnegan’s Reverse Food Truck
No food served here.

It may look like an ordinary food truck, but there’s no food served here. The (501(c)3) Minnesota-based brewery Finnegan’s Brewery has been doing good by its community since day one, with 100% of its profits going directly back to serving areas in need. So in true local-oriented fashion, their Reverse Food Truck (RFT) follows suit. Launched with one simple mission—We Don’t Make Food. We Take Food—The donation-based menu positions it as an innovative twist on the classic truck that’s in the business of cooking and serving up food. Through a partnership with The Food Group’s Harvest for the Hungry program, the RFT allows events to activate this giving back program where food is accepted and loaded into the truck to be donated to food shelves in the community. Their website even offers a contact to help others start their own RFT or volunteer with this one. A beautiful blend of entrepreneurship and philanthropy, this mission-based truck stands for a lot more than driving sales.

WHAT’S NEXT?

While there is no single roadmap for mobile food success, it’s clear there is a nearly endless runway for what a food truck can be—and stand for—today. When rooted in a solid business plan and a lens of sustainable thinking — chances of launch, engagement and a shot at longevity are favorable. Regardless of how a truck comes to be, it always starts with a focused business strategy and clear objectives – in order to create  a solution that makes sense for your business and the needs of consumers or in many of these cases, an entire entity or community. Through it all, one cannot underestimate the role of a strong brand at every touch point – from your logo, look and feel, voice and tone, website and social efforts, community outreach and beyond. Working with partners that share and foster a holistic view of your brand experience — that is always key to success.

Additional Sources
https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizzysaxe/2018/12/12/want-to-know-the-future-of-food-trucks-in-2019-read-this-report/#34ed11aa398f

finnegans.org/reverse-food-truck

https://www.themplsegotist.com/news/2019/07/30/branding-stands-front-and-center-in-the-modern-dining-experience/

https://www.restaurant-hospitality.com/food-trends/farm-wheel

Low Alcohol by Volume

One of the latest trends in the bar scene may influence your next summer cocktail or craft beer selection – whether on a patio or in your own backyard. The “Low ABV” category is growing on all fronts, from bartenders experimenting with new recipes, to producers creating near-beers and faux spirits that provide flavor and fun.

BUT, WHY?

You might be wondering… “but why? isn’t that missing the point?” As Millennials and Boomers are trying to stay fit, a recent study by International Wines and Spirits Record found that “52% of US adults who drink alcohol are either trying now or have tried before to reduce their alcohol intake”[1]. This is right in line with the emergence of “Dry January” – the 31-day alcohol-free challenge that has become a tradition for many following the holidays. Indicative of an overall search for moderation with alcohol, restaurants and retail brands have taken note.

WHAT’S HAPPENING

In NYC, the bar scene is rising to the challenge with trendy sober bars, mocktail menus and booze-free pop-up parties. These spaces are set up to look and feel like any other hip bar in the area, offering patrons an “alternative” night out. Most claim not to be a strictly sober space but rather one that promotes being social: talks, meet-ups, music, workshops, and my personal favorite: Juicebox Heroes, a karaoke lounge split into sober and non-sober sections. I have to imagine the experience is rather different from one side to the other!

On a broader scale, bars are putting more effort into their Low ABV program, and many times calling it out as a specific section on the menu. Generally defined as containing less than 1 ounce of high proof spirit, they are often only slightly less expensive as they tout similar high quality and unique ingredients as their alcoholic counterparts.

SO, WHAT NEXT?

Consumers will continue to look for what benefits their beverage choices can provide for them, by way of both wellness and experience. With the low- and no-alcohol beverage category projected to grow roughly 32% by 2022, it’s likely that creativity will continue to be key in shaping this trend – with the addition of items like “CBD-infused lattes” and “mushroom-elixirs”, the bar scene and how we consume mood-altering beverages is going to look very different even a few years from now.[2]

[1]“Low- And No-Alcohol Beverages Are a Growing Trend Worldwide.” Forbes. Pellechia, Thomas. February 20, 2019.
[2]“Sober-ish Summer?” Vanity Fair. Bryant, Kenzie. May 24, 2019.

Sweets + Snacks Expo

We have been on the road a fair amount in 2019 to industry events and trade shows. A new one for us, Sweets and Snacks Expo, took place in Chicago May 21-23 at McCormick Place with an estimated 15,000 people in attendance. Snacking has continued to carve out its own daypart as consumers of all ages (yes, younger generations at a more significant pace) are turning toward a more frequent and convenient eating lifestyle. We saw how this is playing out in the $86 billion market of snack ($51 billion) and confectionary ($35 billion) first-hand.[1]

STAND OUT BOOTHS

A colleague with prior Sweets and Snacks Expo experience dubbed the show “like Trick or Treating for adults”. I have to agree. I also have to admit that in many cases, I’d take the “trick” over the treat if that’s what the booths were intended to deliver. The quality of the booths at this food show stood out more than any I’ve been to when it came to experience and creativity.

       

WHAT’S TRENDING?

It isn’t too surprising that many of the same trends we shared from Natural Products Expo West the past couple of years are making their way into mainstream CPG products. Plant-Based, Adventurous Flavors, and Fats + Fads (think: anti-sugar, and proliferation of Keto-friendly) were all prominent themes throughout the show. It was interesting to see how these themes showed up in both legacy products and newer formats.

         

WHAT’S NEXT

We’ll continue to expect rapid innovation from this category. Not only due to the fact that it’s quickly becoming a dominant daypart but also because it’s inherently a factor required for brands to remain relevant. When new products account for nearly 5% of sales in snacks and over 6% in confectionary as compared to 3% in overall consumer packaged goods, it’s a great place to turn for inspiration in product, format and overall brand experiences.

[1]“Top Trends at Sweets & Snacks 2019.” Watrous, Monica. Food Business News. May 21, 2019.

What’s On Your Grill?

As we head into grilling season, what gets thrown on the BBQ might look a little different this year. While plant-based eating is certainly not a new trend in 2019, it is becoming increasingly more mainstream – particularly when it comes to the format we know and love: burgers.

HOW SIGNIFICANT IS THE SHIFT?

Many factors are contributing to the growth in the overarching trend of plant-based eating: health/nutrition benefits; animal welfare; environmental conservation, to name a few. Add to that, recent reporting that shows 61% of U.S. adults want more protein in their diets and it is no surprise that plant-based protein is the #1 growing category in NPD’s SupplyTrack research.[1]

(Plant-Based Proteins; The NPD Group/SupplyTrack)

Based on independent and micro chain reporting, plant-based burgers are the largest product type within the category. In many cases they look like, taste like, and “bleed” like meat. With descriptors like “Meat Lovers Vegan Burger”, the target audience is clearly a broader base than those trying to get away from the experience of animal protein. All of these factors contribute to the rapidly evolving landscape of beef alternatives.

WHO’S MAKING IT INTERESTING?

This continues to be a topic we see and read about on a daily basis in the industry. So what – and who – makes it interesting? The innovation in the space is interesting. Impossible Burger, the burger that goes directly after meat lovers and recently launched a new recipe that “rivals beef in the attributes that matter the most: nutrition, versatility and, of course, taste”.[2] Truly focused on delivering a beef alternative that surpasses the “real thing” in likability, it originated in an effort to reduce overall global footprint. Beyond Burger, the pea-protein based burger that is free of GMOs, soy and gluten, rivals beef in the restaurant and retail scene. The brand has significant public spotlight as it grows its global footprint (now available in 700 stores in the Netherlands) and announced it will go public later this week.[3] Aside from these two leaders, there are many other alternatives – many coming from brands that have been in the “vegetarian” world for some time: Morning Star Farms’ “Meat Lovers Vegan Burger” and Lightlife’s plant-based burger with pea protein and beet powder.

There are 5 markets that make up 1/3 of the plant-based beef burgers in the U.S.: LA, Chicago, Atlanta, New York and Boston. [1]

WHAT’S NEXT

What makes this interesting is how operators and consumers are responding to these new offerings. I recently attended a panel of three different operators, each offering a different version of a meat-alternative burger (Impossible Burger, Beyond Burger, and a blended mushroom/beef burger). In their own way, each operator highlighted that there is a lot of room for trial and error when it comes to recipes, messaging and overall mainstream consumer education.

 [1]“2019 US FOOD SUMMIT.” NPD Group. April, 2019.
[2] “The Impossible Burger.” Impossible Foods. April 2019.
[3] “Vegan Unicorn Beyond Meat Enters Dutch Super Markets With Its Plant-Based Burger.” Banis, Davide. Forbes. April 2019.

Food Halls on the Rise

I distinctly remember excitedly sending a few messages back home from Lisbon in 2015 about a food market that was unlike anything I had seen. This is well before my official “days in the industry”. After wandering the city, I stumbled upon “Time Out Market Lisboa” – a food hall with more than 40 spaces that covered just about every category of local and global cuisine I could imagine. Today (and then, in many cities around the world), it’s a pretty well-known concept. From my personal initial “awe”, I can understand why. But what’s behind this concept that’s growing at a crazy fast speed?

“Time Out Market Lisboa” in Lisbon, Portugal

What is it?

Food halls are a gathering of independent, chef-inspired pop-up restaurants that are often housed in a repurposed urban, post-industrial setting. How’s that for an image? If you have been to one, or a few, you know that this doesn’t really capture the experience at all. Much of what makes a food hall interesting, in my opinion, is the volume of options and the ambience in which you get to make your selection(s).

Why It’s Happening 

There are a number of underlying factors that are driving the rapid expansion of Food Halls globally. From 2010 to 2017, the number increased around 700% and by the end of this year, it’s anticipated the number will double from that.[1] The concept itself is appealing to critical stakeholders: diners, developers and chefs.

Much like trendy food trucks or street food vendors, food halls allow diners to access numerous independent restaurants all in one place, and at a full range of price points. In addition, the ambience works well for solo diners, large groups, or families. Developers are on board in a big way as this concept allows them to repurpose abandoned spaces – plus, they typically draw a crowd and are popular with Gen Z and Millennials.[2] Last, but certainly not least, food halls allow chefs to open an independent concept with some critical built-in benefits: foot traffic (if done right) and lower operating costs.

What’s Next

In our own backyard and across the country, what’s next is more food halls with varying twists! In Minneapolis alone, there are a number of projects underway and many of the “originals” are getting more attention from the buzz alone. The Midtown Global Market has been around since 2006 and offers cuisine from all around the world. Now, there are at least two significant developments underway downtown that will house food halls in our own backyard. In Manhattan, Mercado Little Spain will open as a Spanish-themed food hall with support from renowned chefs and restaurateurs.[2] This rapid growth certainly raises the question around saturation. While food and retail are changing rapidly, the verdict is out as to the longevity of this concept and its ability to meet the ever-changing consumer who demands novelty at every turn.

[1]“The Origins of the Food Hall and Its Booming Popularity.” Hautzinger, Daniel. February 15, 2019.
[2] “What if Food was the New Rock’N’Roll and Food Halls were the New Stages?” Brennan, James. January 3, 2019.

Expo West 2019

This was our third year of traveling to Anaheim for Expo West and each time it has been inspiring in its own way. The energy of 86,000 people from 136 countries gathered in one place to partake in the world’s largest natural, organic and healthy products event is contagious. Aside from sharing the enthusiasm (which is critical!), the trends that emerged this year are important for many reasons – and will likely shape much of the dialogue and direction of the CPG space in months to come.

First: The Smarts

This year, the education sessions really stood out in both content quality and relevance. One of the most informative was hosted by NEXT and shared findings from recent consumer research. The research captured a broad spectrum of buyers that identify with different attitudes and behaviors and established five consumer segments. Each of these segments are unique in many ways but what really shaped the dialogue around the presentation was a key finding: that the segments agree on what the most important issues are in the industry: Waste Reduction, Sourcing Responsibly, and Regenerative Agriculture.[1]

Then: The Trends

Global / Environmental Responsibility. Waste Reduction, Sourcing Responsibly and Regenerative Agriculture were prominent trends at Expo West this year, in a broader umbrella trend of “Global / Environment Responsibility”. Definitely the most dialogue and energy from “the crowd”, these themes came to life through the show in a number of interesting ways. Generally, products and brands are talking about much more than the end product. More of the messaging is around the larger footprint – partners, sourcing, labor practices and sustainability efforts. Applegate Farms was acknowledged in the “Regenerative Agriculture Innovation: Humane Animal Treatment, Soil Health” category for its ecological practices, specifically for their Organic Chicken Strips.[1] The chicken is verified for animal welfare through certified programs that ensure they meet strict requirements for the treatment of animals.  

Applegate Farms was acknowledged for its ecological practices

CBD. If you’ve read any of the post-show recaps, you already know how massive a presence CBD had at Expo West this year. I won’t pretend to be an expert on this topic – in fact, as someone who attends a number of industry events that include education sessions dedicated to this very topic –I still find it pretty ambiguous. Aside from the regulatory complexities, the broad range of products and claims leave a lot to be desired when it comes to minimizing consumer confusion. What is clear is that there is a huge appetite to develop new and innovative products in this space. The sheer quantity of products with this messaging compared to a year ago proves that – along with the wide variety of formats in both food and beverage. In speaking with a number of founders at different booths, there is a high level of energy to understand, educate and adjust – which will likely be a key factor of success in upcoming months and years.

CBD had a massive a presence at Expo West 2019

Fats + Fads. As NEXT dubbed it, “sugar villainized” was a key theme at Expo West this year.[1] Alternatively, products flaunted the prominence of fat. In fact, many incorporated it in the name and messaging, and often embraced the animal-base that it was derived from. Whether a fad or here to stay, the prominence of lifestyle diets has grown over the past year – Paleo and Keto, in particular. The incidence of the use of “Protein Claim” on products exhibited this year is now in the top 10 at the show[1]. This is inline with what I saw when it came to messaging that spoke directly to being Paleo- and Keto-friendly. It will be interesting to watch how this evolves over time alongside Vegan, Kosher, Clean and Whole-30.

Many products embraced the animal-base that it was derived from

Final Thoughts

Expo West continues to grow each year – not only in the number of exhibitors and attendees but also in content and conversation. Based on what we saw this year, there is going to be a continued focus in the natural food space on how products fit into a more integrated lifestyle that incorporates values, functional ingredients and the ongoing pursuit of healthy living.

[1] “Connecting with the Changing Consumer” NEXT, Data & Insights division of New Hope Network. Expo West: 2019. March 2019.

Immersing in local culture through food

There is a good chance that this post will either inspire you to find the best local representation of Southeast Asian food, or possibly just leave you really hungry. I recently spent time in Southeast Asia, traveling around Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. I have had the “travel bug” since college and ventured to a number of incredible places around the globe. It’s in my DNA to appreciate a region through the people, the natural setting, and the food. And wow, the food in SE Asia. Green Curry, Bun Cha, Kao Soi, Kebabs, Spring Rolls, Papaya Salads, Pho, Cocount Rice, Morning Glory. This was my first personal international trip since joining the “food world,” and I was amazed at the different lens that I viewed my experience through with having spent time in this incredible industry.

WHAT STOOD OUT

This entire blog could be dedicated to the different flavors and dishes that I experienced throughout the different regions, but more compelling are the themes that emerged through that time — and in recent weeks of post-trip reflection.

“Regional”
Perhaps this is something I should have expected going into the trip. But one of the things that surprised me right out of the gate was just how different regional food and beverage specialties were within a relatively short distance. This first dawned on me when traveling from Hanoi to Hoi An in Vietnam. A night train ride away and suddenly, Bun Cha (an incredible Hanoian lunch noodle dish) was no longer available at every corner — and not for the going rate of $1.75. I hadn’t been prepared to have experienced “my last bowl of Bun Cha” in Vietnam! While I was immediately blown away by the local Ban Xeo (a Hoi An crispy pancake), it made me realize how much I needed to savor each flavor experience, since in many cases it wouldn’t be offered even a few hours away. While there were some commonalities, it was eye-opening to see how much the dishes, eating habits and international influences varied by both regions and countries.

Bun Cha, an Hanoian lunch noodle dish as featured on "Parts Unknown"
For those of you familiar with Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”, Bun Cha was the meal he shared with Barack Obama in his Hanoi episode.

Bun Cha, an Hanoian lunch noodle dish

“Fresh”
At each new location, the food market was always a highlight. Wandering through the narrow aisles of various sections (produce, meat, seafood, spices, etc.) provided an instant glimpse of the local ingredient influences. A wonderful opportunity to connect with locals, the market was always a significant center that the city revolved around throughout the day. It truly captured the meaning of “fresh”. Each stall (mostly run by local women) was set up before dawn with new product for the day. Without refridgeration on-site and a very low “shelf life”, it made its way into the hands of restaurant owners, street food vendors and local residents throughout the day. In many cases, these markets are visited by locals not weekly or daily — but twice a day or more! Each meal prep included a stop at the market to gather ingredients and is often reliant on what is available and fresh. No matter the daypart, convenience was served up in the format of “meal kits”. A handful of vendors at each market I visited could be found bundling common ingredients in a ready-to-prepare kit that required just a step or two to make the local cuisine at home. I took advantage of this in a number of instances and loved encountering such a familiar “trend” with a different customer experience across the globe.

A noodle soup with fresh herb meal kit found in Laos.
A noodle soup with fresh herb meal kit found in Laos.
Local produce market in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Local protein market in Hoi An, Vietnam.
Local markets with produce and protein in Hoi An, Vietnam.

WHAT TO TAKE AWAY

One of the best things about traveling far away from familiar settings is a reminder of how both big and small the world is — and food is a perfect reflection of that. The diversity of customs and ingredients within a single region is mind-blowing. It’s exciting to think about how many of these global flavors are making their way to US menus, and the opportunities to expand are never-ending. Simultaneously, the familiarity of food trends halfway across the globe is a reminder that this industry is truly unique, in that it is one of shared human experience.


Questions, comments or want to learn more? Let's connect! weshouldtalk@jtmega.com

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