How food trend tours can inspire product innovation

A conversation with Dan Follese, founder of FoodTrendTranslator

Remember pub hopping? Probably not, right? Or you wish you didn’t…

Restaurant hopping is probably not something that many of us do because it’s a lot more complex (and filling) than getting a drink and moving on to the next pub. 

But if you’re in the business of food and drink innovation, there’s no better place to be than in restaurants to see what’s new and trendy – and profitable. More often than not, lasting food trends start in food service before becoming shelf stable products. 

To better understand how to leverage the food service industry for innovation, we talked to GourmetPro expert Dan Follese and founder of FoodTrendTranslator. Dan also curates food trend tours (the classier, more refined cousin of the pub crawl) and helped us understand their integral role in inspiring innovation. His expertise lies not only in deciphering what's in, but also in translating these trends into practical solutions.


  • 📰 In The News: The Pizza Cupcake, jackfruit lager, a Thanksgiving conundrum solved, and more…

  • 📱Trending with Gen Z: Farming, with the tech bells and whistles

  • 🚀 Innovation Deep Dive: Dan Follese, Founder of FoodTrendTranslator, gives us the rundown of how food trend tours can help suss out emerging F&B trends.

📰 In The News

A curation of our favorite F&B innovation stories from the week. Can be read in less than a 🧻 break.

  • Have you ever thought that pizzas have a really inconvenient shape? 🍕That the pie or pie section is not an ideal hand-held format? Well, have no fear – the Pizza Cupcake is here. 

  • Four brewers of South Asian heritage in the US are honoring their heritage by creating lagers featuring a fruit native to the region – jackfruit. Apparently, no one has tried to make a brew with jackfruit, which has become popular due to its utility in the plant-based meat alternative space. Gee, I wonder why… 🍺

  • Want to improve your mood? The prebiotic chicory root fiber oligofructose may be the key. According to new research, the fiber promotes the growth of Bifidobacteria in the gut, which plays an important role in regulating mood. 😑 🦠🦠 🥳

  • And for those celebrating Thanksgiving this week, here’s a mystery solved for you. 🦃 Why are cranberry sauce cans upside down? You’re welcome. Now, be thankful for GourmetPro… and to the good folks who actually answered the question.

Crunch killer

Doritos just dropped a game-changing innovation for gamers who are tired of munching noises ruining their virtual battles. Doritos Silent is the ultimate crunch cancellation software that uses AI to identify and filter out over 5,000 crunching sounds, ensuring that no one hears you scarfing down those Doritos – or maybe even stealthily snacking on carrot sticks 🥕 (which might earn you a one-way ticket to gamers’ purgatory). 

A silent toast to the weirdo/genius who identified this pain point and did something about it! 🥂

Image source: Doritos Silent

📱Trending With Gen-Z

What social media is telling us about Gen-Z’s cravings! Can be enjoyed during an 🛗 ride.

“We bought a farm”

Old MacDonald had a farm… might need an update to keep with the times. 

It turns out that Gen Z is starting to show quite a bit of interest in farming – and not because their family owns one. Many are completely new to farming. In fact, “Gen Z Farmer” has over 30 million views on TikTok and “Gen Z farming” has 17 billion!

While the number of such farmers is low, it is going up. According to the US Census of Agriculture, in 2017, only about 9% of farmers were under the age of 35. In the 2022 census, this had gone up by 11%. The average age of an American farmer is around 58 (up from 56 a decade earlier).

So, why is this important? Because, as with a lot of traditional/legacy industries, there aren’t enough young people to replace the aging workforce. But Gen Z has been dubbed as “food culture disruptors”, driven by their demands for clean label, local, plant-based foods. Some are choosing to bring these features to the farm, spurred on by technologies like drones and satellite imaging. 

I thought this was a fascinating piece and a trend that is likely to resonate across countries as industrialization pushes people away from agriculture – and then brings them back again with a fresh perspective and all the mod cons.

🚀 Innovation Deep Dive: How food trend tours can ignite innovation

Weekly deep dive into an F&B trend. Can be read in less than a 🚋 ride.

Restaurants – fine dining, QSR, or the local hole-in-the-wall – are often the birthplace of food and drink innovation. Keeping an eye on the goings-on in food service could spark the next big trend across the food industry. Read our interview with Dan Follese to navigate the dynamic intersection of food trend tours and product innovation. 

GourmetPro: Could you explain to us what a trend tour is and what its purpose is in the culinary world? 

Dan Follese: The trend tour concept is designed for a lot of different things but specifically in terms of food, it’s to help inspire manufacturers. It helps them understand things such as how new foods fit into their manufacturing capabilities, how they can do something different with what they currently have and how to bring these products into the market for their specific customers. 

The tours are designed to bring inspiration for concept ideation and pipeline development. Even as they think of specific customers, the tours can help understand the cooking techniques and methods and preparation and presentation. 

So the trend tours are going to bring a whole bunch of components together, but innovation and inspiration are the top two pieces that I focus on. 

GP: How do the tours contribute to the innovation process? Could you go into some more detail on that? 

Dan: I think it's really important that at least one representative from almost every department and facet of your company is on the tour. If you're doing the tour with the customer in mind specifically, make sure the chef is on the tour as well as someone from R&D, Marketing, Sales, and so on, so that everyone experiences the concept out in the real world and sees how it works. 

If you have all these folks on tour together, experiencing the same thing, they're all going to go back with a different perspective because they're wearing their departmental hats. This can help them understand the concept better and go deeper with it from different angles. R&D might focus on ingredient requirements, while Manufacturing/Plant Facilities might come at it from an equipment standpoint. 

This flow of information may not have happened organically and this is why people from different departments need to be on the tour to hear, see, think, taste, and experience it. I believe that when you get to join your fellow colleagues on an event like a food tour, you get to not only share that experience, but you have a way to reflect on what other people experienced as well. If you do it by yourself, you've got to be able to sell that story by yourself. Now that they have been a part of it, they’ll be excited and see the possibilities, which makes it easier to sell the concept. 

They’ll also be able to detail any history or challenges they faced linked to a similar product or concept, and now see an opportunity to make something concrete happen.

GP: What are the different criteria that you use to identify trends for the tour? 

Dan: It's all about the customer and what their focus is. Just because something is on trend, doesn’t mean that I'm going to explore that trend with a customer unless it makes sense to their product line. 

So the criteria for shaping up a tour is really about your product line, your capabilities, and who your target customers are. It’s also about understanding if the goal is industrial sales, in which case we'll look at different things than if we're looking at QSRs or fast casual dining operations. And even within those operations, there are further food segments to consider as well as addressing day parts for consumption. 

For example, the Jack in the Box burger chain in the US based out of California is always a little bit more willing to flex their marketing concepts and also capture that late night audience. So they've actually created an entire late night category called Munchie Meals, available from 9 pm to 5 am. 

It’s really important to understand what the customer is exploring for and this helps us shape the criteria for every tour so it is designed uniquely for that particular customer. 

Like what you’re reading?

GP: What's usually the most common starting point for a food trend, from your experience?

Dan: Just to give you some kind of context around this, historically, wars had the consequence of introducing new foods to new places. This is still true today.

However, there’s also a lot of friendly travel today – people just want to go to other locations to understand, try, and taste foods there. Some trends actually start from this global crossover and mingling of different cultures. So, as a result, what one place considers an everyday quick bite may be a premium product elsewhere. 

For example, burgers and hotdogs are staple Americana cuisine, but take on a more novelty status in other parts of the world, such as Saudi Arabia, where I was asked to create burger concepts for the local market.

In the US now, we’re exploring more African, Moroccan, Algerian cuisine and Americans are starting to understand regionality as well. This is especially true within Asian cuisine, where food differences in regions and countries are now starting to penetrate menus. And where that penetrates is typically with the independent operating chef who has traveled or worked or lived in that region and wants to share that experience. These chefs typically elevate the cuisine so it gets a little bit more accepted; they put it on a different plate, perhaps infuse a bit of a traditional French cooking technique into it or pair it with specific  ingredients. 

So, as part of the trend tours, we try to find those unique operators that are sharing certain ethnic cuisines, using and sourcing ingredients specific to that cuisine. Unlike large national chains, such operators may not be sourcing ingredients in bulk or may be drying their own herbs. 

Those small independent operators are where, I believe, these trends get recognized. They bring a higher culinary focus – not necessarily training – to elevate their cuisine to a point where people are amazed. They use unique organic ingredients that they grew up with. This makes the ingredients fresher and stronger than others and it reflects in the food. 

That's why we really try to explore such places. We did a tour in Atlanta, Georgia, and one of the first stops was in a convenience store off a highway exit. It was just this very nondescript building, but turns out there is a barbecue market there doing Korean barbecue that is off the charts. You see things like the influence of kimchi with collard greens or smoky ham with an essence of soy and depth of umaminess to it. 

These are the things that we try to uncover and share. Obviously. it's got to have a reason and a purpose for the customer but that was just one of the places that I think was really influential. It’s also one of those moments where you realize things don’t have to be in a shiny polished glass building or served on the the finest China to be a real experience. 

Images from Dan’s trend tours

GP: How did you hear about that? How would you even find places like this?

Dan: There are different ways to uncover those. Networking with colleagues is a great place to start – that one (the Korean barbeque) happened to be a recommendation from two chefs I know in the market and that area.

We do some other research to understand and find such places. Social media makes a huge difference to researching what people are saying about these places. Platforms like Yelp, Twitter, Instagram are very useful as foodies are posting about exploring unique cuisine all the time. And they love to share! 

But it's just not the same to watch a 10-second video of someone biting into this amazing looking sandwich. It's so much better to go out and explore it yourself. That's the power of the food tour – the experience of trying it yourself. 

GP: What is it that actually makes a trend long-lasting or sustainable versus these flash in the pan fads? Because it seems like the fad has become the trend at this point. 

Dan: The fad has become the trend but like everything else, the pendulum will swing. And it'll come back to more of the opposite of that. And I believe that food trends that become sustainable and make it from that inceptive point of menus to ubiquitous is because everyone gets it. Everyone's tried it, they know it. 

What takes a product from that initial perspective to ubiquity is a couple of things. One is the way the operators prepare it. It's got to taste good. Just because it's trendy doesn’t mean it tastes good. 

It's also got to look good. Aesthetics are important; you have to appeal to all the senses. 

Then it becomes a matter of consumer desire, purchase intent, consumer demand, and marketing as well. 

I was recently exploring rainbow colors in food. I had for comparison a slice of grilled cheese that had been colored red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and a rainbow colored ice cream sundae. I wasn’t too sure about the rainbow cheese, but the ice cream looked fantastic and I would eat it. So the right trend in the right place in the right product is also crucial. 

I also think why we’re seeing such a flip-flop over trends now is that a lot of them are just things people can just do themselves. A lot of TikTok trends are just things you can make yourself using an air fryer, because frying isn't a desirable cooking technique at home. In this regard, the air fryer is the trend.

In food service, trends are things that are more revenue generating because they're doing something that you can't do at home. They’re innovative and taste great. Most people go out to eat for the experience of things that can’t be done easily at home or for that social sharing aspect. 

GP: When it comes to curating and conducting food tours, what are some of the challenges and what are some of the interesting opportunities that you find? 

Dan: The challenge around curating the tours is not identifying the places to go, but finding the places that are open on the dates that you want to go. You would be surprised at how many places are closed on a Tuesday. Some of it because you're going to smaller operations, some of it is cultural, linked to religious beliefs and so on. A lot of it is linked to staff shortages .

This was probably one of the biggest surprises in terms of challenges. But it’s also an easy challenge to solve. I always pre-tour double-check and make sure that what we're going to try is really worth the visit. We also talk to the group we’re taking out and either change the date or check if private events are possible.

For opportunities, even in the smallest towns, you can find great places to explore and dine even though they're not really known for their cuisine. If you just look a little bit deeper, there's a history around things and you can find unique combinations. 

For example, there’s a burger joint in Green Bay (Wisconsin) that has been there since 1926. They have a “Tailgating Burger” which has beer-simmered brats covered in cheese. So you're eating what is basically a hot dog on a burger bun. It’s one of those things you have to stop and try, and it shows there are discoveries to be made everywhere. 

GP: How do you measure the effectiveness of the food tour? 

Dan:There are some interesting ways to do this. I think the most obvious way is when you actually get into production, launch it for a customer, and they take it all the way onto their menu. 

Also, like I said earlier, if you can have someone from those different departments in your company join on the tour, I believe the impact is companywide. You're not just affecting one particular product; you’re opening up everyone's perspective on the process of innovation, the process of being able to explore. 

I think there are also some smaller indirect ROI that you really can't put a number on because it comes in after the fact. The ultimate goal of a food tour, if you're manufacturing a new product, is that you’re creating something that's specifically to go to market.

But not all food tours are designed just for products. Sometimes, it's a board of directors and they just want to see who's selling their products. Or it's just a thank you or a team building exercise. It's just great to bring the team out and let them understand a different perspective of cuisine and explore cuisine, to understand its relevance to what they're doing. 

In this sense, the tours are sometimes just motivational or inspirational and then product development can happen from that. 

Ideally, we're focused on product development, but it's not always the case. 

GP: Is there anything that you have experienced through the participants’ experience that has shaped how you conduct the tours? 

Dan: The most surprising things don't happen right away. I would say some of the things that we do upfront – the leg work and the planning – has impacted the guest experience. And they've always been kind of surprised to some degree about how smooth it goes and that's not by chance. It is a lot of upfront conversations and planning and having team members going forward to make sure that the next stop is ready for us. There's the prefixed menu planning and ordering, so when the tour walks in, they’re not waiting. 

Probably the biggest takeaway after the fact is when guests tell you much later on about the positive and profound impact that the tour had on their work. That tells me that all that work we did was the right work and it's going to continue to resonate and inspire others. 

I often think about what's the one such food you've tried, experienced, and what made it special? 

For me, it was a course of meals where the chef came out with one ingredient made in three different ways. It was presented on the same plate but in three different formats. I remember how impactful the first dish was – a creme brulee sea urchin. I want everyone else to have that moment and I'm hopeful that those that join the tours walk away with that moment. 

GP: What are some of the most unexpected or surprising trends that you've come across? 

Dan: That really kind of depends. I do discover certain things while I'm doing the preliminary leg work that make me think that we need to go there or we need to try this.

I think one of the things that's no longer new but is not being leveraged or marketed enough is the cooking technique of sous vide. It creates some of the most tender, delicious products and takes away a lot of the safety issues with handling raw meat, so manufacturers can deliver a sous vide product that can incorporate flavors and spices into it. It's already cooked through, so it's just a matter of just quickly retherming and flashing the meat out and it can still retain its natural juices. 

I think cooking techniques and equipment are sometimes not considered enough when innovating. People focus on the food ingredient itself but being able to deliver something that's executable is critical to the operation. So if you can save operators that step of cooking, and deliver the meat or any product in a way that retains its integrity, you’ve got something amazing.

And right now, with high costs and limited labor, being able to provide operators with something that has retained all of the things it's supposed to have and what people expect it to have when they go to dine, I think it's a win-win all around. 

On the food and beverage side, I've seen low-alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages bouncing back quickly. These were on the rise during the pandemic and then after it, they flattened a little bit as people started drinking alcohol a bit more again.

I think now people are getting smarter about their health in general and see the benefits of reducing alcohol. They also realize that they can have a good time with non-alcoholic drinks that look great and have great flavors. There are bars opening without any booze or serve low-proof spirits and that's mind-blowing to me. 

This goes back to trends and flavors, and a lot of these come from the Middle East, where drinking alcohol isn't allowed for religious and cultural reasons. They've been able to develop beautiful drinks like vinegar shrubs, with vinegar, sugar, and mixtures and concoctions that have zero alcohol in them. They taste great, are refreshing, and look cool. 

Low-alcohol or no-alcohol is one of those things that’s trending and I try to bring that into my beverage operators. I think they are going to really benefit from this trend because beverages are typically paired with food. They can be drunk on their own but are also great for pairing with food. 

Having low/no alcohol beverages that pair well with food is not just exciting for consumers to try, but it’s also an upsell for the operator. Because it’s non-alcoholic, you don’t have to get special licenses or have special age staff to handle the drinks. There’s scope to introduce some flair and showmanship as well as herbs and spices to get that bouquet. And it's much more powerful and more impactful to enhance the flavor of what you're drinking. 

I'm seeing a lot of that kind of stuff and I think it’s really fun and cool. 

GP: Final question. Consumer feedback is a really important part of anything you want to sell. The end consumer, not the company, because they have to sell it. How do you account for that? How much does it play into how you pick places for the tour or how you incorporate that into the tour? 

Dan: I alluded to this earlier. I think social listening, listening to people's reports about their experiences with food at a certain place has so much value. I created a virtual tour on flexitarian dining a few years back and it was based off of comments from social media, like “I had no idea that flexitarian dining could be so good.” or “I didn't realize that you could make that with eggplant.” 

So, I think it's really important to listen to the end consumer. There are closed focus groups, but the real test is when it goes to a test market. 

The timeline for developing a product and getting it launched and in a customer's pipeline is a long time. I was part of a national manufacturer developing a new salsa and it’s now going into a 10-store unit for a buffet dining operation here in the US. And it's a pretty forward flavor – a peach salsa with pepper. Salsa is Hispanic, peach is a very Southern fruit. It's got a special chili in it, so there’s a bit of heat to it. But there's also such a savoriness because of the tomato that it doesn't eat like a chip salsa. It's like an entrée salsa – something you put on top of protein and also something you can eat by the spoonful.

These little touches are really important and so we'll see what people say about this. It's interesting because the first restaurant group to grab this and gravitate towards it is a buffet. 

Buffets literally died during the pandemic because of the communal eating, serving themselves format. But the moment the buffet opened up, people were back. The chain felt that this is the right time to try to gain some new guests with something different. So they're adding something uniquely different to their menu and it doesn't have to be drastic innovation. The salsa is a Hispanic dish but also has a US regional fruit, and some savoriness to it.

It’s part of the regular full-time menu because their customer base is a little less ambitious in trying things like that. They're what we call steak and potatoes and I think it's a very bold move for them. 

But I also think bringing that kind of innovation to their menu is just enough to make them stand out a little bit from the others. This is a big enough fusion for this company, even though it doesn't seem like a big leap. It's salsa. Everyone eats salsa now, but this is a little bit different. 

It's sweet and spicy, which is also a trend that’s really coming up. 


That’s all, folks!

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