"The American palate has become much more sophisticated," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for research and knowledge management for the National Restaurant Association, which is holding its annual trade show in Chicago.
"Restaurants play a critical role in that more sophisticated palate. Consumers go to restaurants … and like to experiment with items and preparations they may not be familiar with."
The restaurant business is a $580 billion industry, with 13 million employees at 1 million locations. Table service makes up the top segment at $184 billion and quick-service is a close second at $165 billion. Even fast-food has felt the impact of heightened consumer awareness.
"If you look at traditional quick-service offerings compared to 10 to 20 years ago, there's a greater variety," Riehle said, noting the differences in portion size, beverage offerings and expanded menus to appeal to different demographic groups.
Riehle said baby boomers represent the "most sophisticated generation of restaurant users ever" and their offspring are expected to be even more savvy.
"With the proliferation now of cooking shows on television, it really has resulted in more Americans being exposed to the restaurant industry," Riehle said. "If you think about the restaurant industry now, it really has become much more professionalized ... .
"The development and expansion of food preparation programs obviously serves to bolster that growth of the individual coming into the industry. If you just think back 20 years ago, the number of Americans who could name a professional chef would have been minimal."
That interest wasn't tamped down substantially by the recession although 2009 was the weakest year for the industry in several decades, Riehle said.
"While demand dampened at restaurants, sales volume has continued to move ahead," he said.
The result is that consumers have become much more discriminating in their spending.
"When you look at what drives restaurant demand, part of that driver is convenience. Another important driver is socialization -- a social oasis where individuals can get together with family and friends … and then growth in income," he said.
A survey of 1,800 chefs in advance of the NRA show, which began Saturday and runs through Tuesday at McCormick Place, finds locally grown produce and local sources of meat and seafood the top industry trends, followed by sustainability, bite-size or mini desserts, locally produced wine and beer and nutritionally balanced children's meals. Consumers also are going for half or smaller portions with a like reduction in price although mini-burgers or sliders have definitely fallen out of favor.
Also on the passe list are cocktails made with energy drinks, energy drinks period, beer-based cocktails and flavor-enhanced waters. Couscous, seaweed, Mexican appetizers, cupcakes, boxed wine and pre-blended cocktail mixers also have seen their day.
"What this illustrates is consumers today really are much more interested in knowing the story behind their food," Riehle said. "There's heightened interest now in knowing not only the sourcing, but also preparation and a lot of this information is available on restaurant Web sites and communicated on menus. As consumer knowledge has been heightened, commonsense is they're also interested in knowing more."