Industry Insights & Trends

Restaurant Food Trends Lifecycle (Menu Adoptions and Buying Behaviors)


Pea protein and pea milk are two up and coming dairy alternatives in the food industry today. To introduce them into the mass market successfully, great care will need to be taken in testing out the product before moving forward full force. As a means to understand this in greater detail, we have done research to fully comprehend the process by which foods become trendy in the restaurant marketplace and why, as well as identifying two case studies of this being done successfully. While our research shows that food trends typically start with fine dining restaurants and grow to independently owned businesses before being implemented by large chains, there are a few instances in which the process has been reversed (i.e. trends were implemented by chains first and then taken on by smaller restaurants). One of the case studies located is a specific reference to a meat protein alternative, which aligns with the introduction of pea protein and pea milk into the market.
In addition, we have compiled insights that delve into how and why pea milk is being marketed as a dairy alternative, what makes it attractive to consumers, and some key points to consider addressing in future marketing initiatives. This includes potential use cases, nutrition points, and manufacturing process that make it an all around better option. This information was derived from a number of industry reports and research studies surrounding the pea protein and pea milk market, as well as news articles from industry experts and players.

Restaurant Food Trends Lifecycle

Food Trend Origins

  • The “Menu Adoption Cycle” (MAC) is the primary structure used by experts to determine the existence of a food trend in the restaurant industry and its expected growth over time.
  • This cycle has four key stages that help predict upcoming food trends and how/when they will be implemented by restaurants of different scales. These stages are: 1) Inception, 2) Adoption, 3) Proliferation, and 4) Ubiquity.
  • A food trend typically revolves around something that is original and unique in its flavor, preparation, and presentation.
  • Foods that are both unique and offer consumers a relatable purchase intent (wanting to buy it) often have the most success at becoming trendy according to the MAC.
  • The most common sources to identify a potential food trend include chefs, food experts/researchers, and consumers. Chefs, particularly those that have successfully initiated multiple restaurants, often initiate food trends with new takes on familiar or unique flavors. Food experts can use hard data to identify potential trends that other restaurants can then source from. Consumers, including their purchase habits and social media engagement, can act as a great source to understand what it is interesting and what has the potential for growth.

Stage 1: Inception

  • In the restaurant industry, food trends often start in finer dining restaurants, or independent establishments with global or ethnic cuisines. The focus on cuisines in this stage is to maintain authenticity and traditional preparation methods.
  • On average, only 30%-40% of food trends grow out of this stage and are implemented by casual independent, gastropubs, chef-casual, and upper casual restaurants in the adoption stage.
  • Examples of foods that are currently in this stage of the food trends cycle include bone marrow, yuzu, and gochujang, among others.

Stage 2: Adoption

  • Food trends that make it to the adoption stage are typically put into practice by gastropubs, chef- and upper-casual restaurants, casual independent restaurants, and sometimes even trendy food trucks. Many food trends excel here because of the creative takes on preparation, despite the common abandonment of tradition.
  • Approximately 60%-70% of foods that are successful in this stage will propel forward into the proliferation stage.
  • Examples of food that are currently in this stage of the food trends cycle include avocado toasts, giardinara, harissa, and mezcal, among others.

Stage 3: Proliferation

  • In this stage of the food trends lifecycle, food is beginning to make a presence in casual restaurant chains, quick service restaurants (QSRs), colleges, and grocery delis. Food trends in this stage are commonly diluted to satisfy mass consumers, but remain popular due to the ease of access to the item.
  • Anywhere from 80%-90% of food trends that excel to this stage of the cycle will progress into the final stage, ubiquity.
  • Examples of food that are currently in this stage of the food trends cycle include fried pickles, Greek yogurt, and fresh mozzarella, among others.

Stage 4: Ubiquity

  • The final stage of the food trends lifecycle, ubiquity, is identified by foods that find a position in convenience stores, family restaurants, healthcare, and schools.
  • At this stage, the food item that initially started the trend tends to not look or taste like it did in the first stage due to mass production. They are often considered by restaurateurs to have lost their character and are officially mainstream.
  • Examples of food that are currently in this stage of the food trends cycle include mimosas, mac & cheese, pesto, and cupcakes, among others.

Food Trend Growth

  • Historically, food trends have taken nearly 12 years to progress through these stages. In recent years, however, the growth rate has been cut in half to only 6 years as the result of cultural diversity, urbanization, and mobile technology, among other things.
  • A food trend can be differentiated from a fad by analyzing its growth rate, underlying need, use cases, how it is growing (media vs. restaurants), and product availability. From a consumer perspective, 70% of Americans report that their food preferences are derived from what they experience with a restaurant’s menu.
  • Foods that are more versatile in their use cases are more likely to grow into food trends faster than those that have only one or two uses. The same goes for foods that are easier to come by and work with. These items often come off as “familiar” but new to consumers, which is what makes them so popular.
  • Foods that have the taste and preparation capabilities to be popular enough to progress as a food trend but have limited availability are less likely to grow and be used by chains due to supply chain issues.
  • When an item is marketed as a “limited time offer,” it often provides restaurants the opportunity to test the viability of a food trend and determine if its worth implementing or not.
  • In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, food trends associated with nutrition and health, a sense of community, variety, and convenience are expected to be the primary growth factors for future food trends.

Food Trend Case Studies


  • Franktuary is a local hot dog shop in Pittsburgh, PA. This restaurant offers both dine-in and take-out services, in addition to a traveling food truck. This restaurant could be said to haven take a stab at the trend of spicing up franks to make them more attractive to new diners by offering creativity and variety.
  • This trend was attempted by a number of chain restaurants, including Pizza Hut in 2015, Burger King in 2016, and even KFC and Wayback Burgers.
  • Most often, these are attempts by chain restaurants to do food mashups that don’t work well because of the speed of the market and quality of the ingredients.
  • The Franktuary brand, however, was more successful with these mashups, possibly because of the higher quality ingredients, recommended combinations, and the option for consumers to create their own variations.
  • To make things more interesting, Franktuary reached children with their food by serving up creative variations on the already kid-friendly hot dog, such as hot dogs cut into shapes, on sandwiches, and plated in the form of a story.
  • Even though other brands, including fast food restaurants, have attempted to take a stance on the hot dog trend by selling 100% beef franks, the overall quality and variety offered by Franktuary outdoes these attempts.

Impossible Sausage & Little Caesar’s

  • The Impossible brand of meatless proteins has been growing in popularity around the U.S. in chains and local restaurants alike. However, Little Caesers Pizza was offered the chance in May 2019 to lead the testing of a new product, Impossible Sausage, on their Supreme pizza.
  • The Impossible Sausage was used on Little Caeser’s Supreme pizzas in Washington, Florida, and New Mexico before being offered to local restaurants, other chains, and grocery stores. This product was even custom seasoned by Impossible Foods, the parent brand of Impossible Sausage, for Little Caeser’s during their one-month testing period.
  • Impossible Sausage became available to other larger chains prior to being rolled out for local restaurants. Starbucks and Burger King also had access to the product in January 2020.
  • As of June 2020, the Impossible Sausage product has now been made available for local restaurants to use. Local restaurants across the U.S. that are now working to implement the Impossible Sausage into their menu include but are not limited to Little Anthony’s Diner in Tuscon, AZ, Oxbow Diner in Bliss, Idaho, and the Canal Street Diner in Bolivar, Ohio.

General Notes

  • Chain restaurants that implement ingredients from local markets are more likely to be noticed by consumers in the wake of trends from independent restaurants.
  • Social media engagement that promotes locations on a more personal level (i.e. engaging employees, showcasing specials, etc.) are often more effective with reaching patrons and engaging them with the restaurant.

Adoption of Pea Protein as a Dairy Alternative

  • From a production standpoint, pea protein and pea milk is attractive due to the fact that it requires 25 times less water to produce than traditional dairy milk and 1,000 times less water than almond milk, making it an all around cheaper product to manufacture.
  • Pea protein milk contains more protein and calcium than traditional cow’s milk, too. Pea milk has upwards of 465 mg of calcium and 10 grams of protein per serving, compared to only 300 mg of calcium and 8 grams of protein in cows milk.
  • Pea protein can be especially attractive to those with iron deficiencies for one reason or another (i.e. athletes, vegetarians, females). This protein offers 5-7.5g mg of iron per serving, which is between 28%-42% of the daily recommended intake for premenopausal women and 62%-94% of the daily recommended intake for men and postmenopausal women.
  • A research study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) determined that one serving of 20 g of pea protein consumed 30 minutes prior to consuming unhealthy foods helped consumer reduce their caloric intake by almost 12%. Pea protein has also been found to lower systolic blood pressure and cholesterol levels in regular users, and offered the same muscle building capabilities compared to whey protein.
  • Compared to other non-dairy milks such as nut, oat, and rice milks, pea milk is considered favorable due to its compatibility with a variety of diets, lack of allergens, and protein content. More specifically, pea milk doesn’t contain any of the top 8 most common food allergens, including peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish, shellfish, cow’s milk, wheat, or soy.

Marketing Pea Protein as a Dairy Alternative

  • Pea protein milk is commonly marketed towards individuals that are lactose intolerant, as the product is dairy free, lactose free, gluten free, cholesterol free, soy free, nut free, non-GMO, vegan, and kosher.
  • As a dairy alternative, pea protein is successfully used in smoothies, cream sauces, and desserts. Due to its low fat capacity, however, the product sometimes needs to be combined with other plant-based fats such as coconut milk to get the desired consistency. Regardless, the product has been said to offer a creamy and rich texture compared to other plant-based milks, making it a favorable swap.
  • A key marketing point for using pea milk as an alternative to cow’s milk is that the product does not taste like peas. Many consumers are wary to try the product out in fear that it will taste like the vegetable or leave a dry aftertaste on the tongue. However, many have reported that the product is flavorless yet creamy, making it a great addition to cereals, drinks, and other foods.
Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at Simple Manifestation with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.

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