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Restaurant predictions for 2012: Popcorn, pine needles, smartphones

December 19, 2011 | 12:34 pm

Popcorn

The crystal balls are out at restaurants around the country as the food industry tries to predict what’ll be cooking in 2012.

Publicis Consultants USA is pegging smaller portions and “mini-bites” to show up on plates next year. The food marketing firm also expects menus to embrace popcorn, the spice turmeric and the Australian fish barramundi.

"Economic circumstances are prompting more than the usual degree of change in the highly adaptable food and beverage business, with higher food costs and budget-minded consumers driving innovation," Publicis President Steve Bryant said in a statement.

The shaky economy will cause mom-and-pop eateries to close in droves in 2012, especially as lenders shun them and larger chains cut prices and offer more coupons, according to Baum+Whiteman. Up to 10,000 independent restaurants could close next year, the food and restaurant consultancy said.

But those that stay open will have a spurt of gastronomic creativity, the group said.

Look for a “global Mixmaster” of menu items that combine food that is “from nowhere geographically because it is from everywhere,” Baum+Whiteman said. That could include zucchini pizza topped with hummus and crunchy wasabi peas or barbecued chicken gizzards and sriracha slaw.

Sandwiches in 2012 won’t be on bread, the consultants believe. Instead the delivery mechanism will be the South American arepa, the Asian bao, waffles and more.

Also, chefs and chains will be all about balls -- cheese balls, falafel balls, meatballs and croquettes -- before they move on to Japanese snacks such as yakitori, according to Baum+Whiteman.

Meanwhile, Andrew Freeman & Co. foresees more variety in French fries, with customers being allowed to choose multiple cuts, crispness levels and sauces. The fast-casual segment -- the hazy gray area between fast food and casual sit-down dining -- is about to get much more crowded, the company said.

Chefs will also begin turning to the trees, using infusions of pine needles, Douglas fir and eucalyptus in their dishes, according to the Freeman consultancy.

Several trends that first gained traction in 2011 -- including the rise of breakfast foods, beer gardens, brick-and-mortar food truck extensions and nutritional disclosures -- will continue to grow next year, experts said. And the digital revolution in dining, featuring ordering via iPad, QR code, phone and Internet, will only expand.

"The table setting has changed," said Bryant of Publicis. "It's now knife, fork, spoon and smartphone."

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-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Food trucks as a vehicle to sit-down restaurant succes
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