In 2018, fast-casual eateries continued to dominate restaurant openings in Boston. There was more pizza. More poke. More tiki. All in all, nothing wowed us in the way of trends.
But, you know: New Year, New You. In the spirit of looking forward, we talked to a handful of restaurant and bar industry professionals who have noticed some new fads and innovations start to take off this year, ones that give an indication of what 2019 might hold for Boston’s dining scene.
Trend No. 1: Restaurant technology will improve hospitality
It comes as little surprise that in a city as tech-savvy as Boston, technology is propelling restaurant ingenuity.
Lauren Abda is the founder of Branchfood, a networking hub for food entrepreneurs, and Branch Venture Group, a network of investors in the food innovation sphere, and has seen an uptick in new technology-driven products and services for restaurants. One of Branch Venture Group’s investments is a company called OpenCity, which builds software that allows guests to text a restaurant an inquiry — anything from, “Have I left my card at the bar?” to whether it can accommodate dietary restrictions. Frenchie Wine Bistro and Royale are among the Boston businesses that have already started using the service.
“Enhancing the hospitality experience using technology is definitely a trend,” Abda said. “I think there are more reasons to contact a restaurant these days. And on the restaurant side of things, it’s a chance to learn more about their customers, to interact with them and learn about their habits. You can have a dialogue back and forth.”
Technology is directly impacting the experience for diners on-site, too. Take Spyce as an example: Founded by four MIT grads, the restaurant opened in May with a robotic “staff” behind the counter that assembles bowls for customers. The founders recently made Forbes’s 30 under 30 list and have given Boston diners a look at what’s possible when tech takes over a kitchen.
One stalwart in Boston’s food technology corner is Clover founder Ayr Muir, who has has built his healthy, fast-casual chain around cutting-edge tech and thinks that 2019 is ripe for growth in this field.
“I think we’re on the verge of seeing more helpful [technology] emerge,” he said, explaining how he’s already seen better POS [point of sale] technology at Boston restaurants this year. “Like systems that would allow you to buy better from local farmers, logistical technology. Systems that would help you with tracking and traceability. It would have a very positive impact on both restaurants and customers.”
Trend No. 2: Food halls will become the middle ground
We may be trailing a few U.S. cities (Los Angeles, New York, Miami) in this regard, but 2019 is poised to be the year of food halls in Boston. High Street Place is scheduled to open in the Financial District in the spring with 22 vendor spaces. Time Out Market will be coming to Fenway next year as well, occupying the ground floor of 401 Park Drive with 16 food vendors, two bars, a cooking school, and shopping. And while it is currently in demolition and likely won’t open for a couple of years, The Beat food hall will open in the former Boston Globe offices.
It’s a trend that may be even more welcome in Boston, where a middle ground between fast-casual restaurants and fine dining seems to be disappearing.
“Food halls will definitely be a big thing,” Abda said. “I think it remains to be seen what roles they will play, like if they’ll take away business from fast-casual restaurants or if they’ll take away from more sit-down dining. Maybe that area in the middle includes food halls, pop-ups, the things that are a little more experiential than the average dining experience.”
Trend No. 3: Career development will be a priority
Inside the kitchen, some restaurants are striving toward improving the mental health and career development of their employees. South End bar Shore Leave offered a mindfulness class before opening in November. At Fenway’s Mei Mei, Irene Li uses open book management.
“We’re trying to teach all of our staff what running the restaurant is really like,” said Li, who uses a consulting group called ReThink Restaurants (Bar Mezzana and Juliet are also clients) to put together a curriculum in restaurant management. “Every four weeks we get together and look at our financials as a group. We get to look at revenue, how much we spend on ingredients and supplies, and how much profit we made over the last four weeks. It’s pretty unheard of.”
Li said that being completely transparent makes it easier and more empowering for the staff to do their jobs.
“We want customers to be treated well,” she said. “As we think about expanding our business, one of our deepest fears is that we become one of those places where you walk in and the worker looks unhappy. Nothing ruins your appetite like that.”
It’s a priority that Li believes will catch on even more in 2019.
“Every time we talk about [open book management] to someone else, they ask so many questions about it,” she said. “How we think about work in our industry is changing a lot, which is good. As my generation gets older, we are changing the landscape of what people want out of work in a restaurant.”
Trend No. 4: National chains will descend upon our city
Muir’s success with Clover proves that local chains can thrive here, but he has seen the writing on the wall when it comes to national fast-casual businesses and coffee shops fixing their sights on Boston.
“There are so many out-of-towners descending on Boston versus two or five years ago,” he said, citing Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, and David Chang’s Fuku as a few examples of imports that have opened this past year. “In 2019 people are going to look around and say, ‘How did this happen?'”
Consider the recent shuttering of Crema Cafe: After thriving in Harvard Square for 10 years, the cafe was unable to reach an agreement with its new building owners, and closed on Dec. 17. Bluestone Lane Coffee, a chain with locations in New York and Los Angeles, will take its place sometime next year.
Christina Tosi’s runaway hit Milk Bar, which has locations in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and Toronto, also will open in early 2019, partnering with the D.C.-based chain &pizza to open a space in Harvard Square.
“I’m curious to see how our city responds to this,” Muir said, acknowledging that these chains have the potential to “swamp people out” here. “I think it’s getting to a boiling point.”
Trend No. 5: Collaboration in unlikely places will be key
Restaurants have long been places of community and collaboration — guest chef dinners are still a regular occurrence — but some chefs are tapping into unlikely resources to push their food in new directions.
PAGU chef Tracy Chang sees collaboration as a necessity within her kitchen, whether that’s hosting dinner parties where restaurateurs, scientists, and artists collide, or tapping into the minds of Boston undergrads. Since 2012, Chang has been involved in Harvard’s Science and Cooking program, where she invites students into the PAGU kitchen to tackle projects like making gluten-free bao or creating a healthier soft serve recipe using ingredients like yam and coconut milk. The most recent class was asked to come up with a gluten-free version of PAGU’s popular cheesy wafflato, and successfully developed a recipe that uses rice flour in place of all-purpose flour and half the amount of olive oil. Chang said she’ll be implementing this recipe on PAGU’s menu soon.
“I will give you my time, recipes, resources,” she said. “That’s what makes me a better chef. If I’m not able to be in the kitchen all the time, how do I lead people?”
She thinks that chefs like herself — ones who aren’t part of a large restaurant group and only own one business — will start collaborating more with resources outside of their restaurants if they want to remain ahead of the curve.
That could extend to bars as well. Jackson Cannon, owner and bar director of The Hawthorne, predicted that bars will continue to join together and serve as incubators for upcoming projects. Bartender Ryan Lotz held tiki nights at The Hawthorne as practice runs before opening Shore Leave, while Naomi Levy ran pop-up nights at bars around the city before debuting Better Sorts Social Club earlier this year.
Cannon also thinks that cocktail culture is going to start moving away from the stuffiness that it has exhibited in recent years.
“I think a little more comedy is going to be in the industry,” he said. “Everything’s so serious now.”