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updated: 6/12/2013 2:50 PM

National dining trends reveal alcohol industry needs hasty makeover

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  • Shady Lane riesling from Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula

      Shady Lane riesling from Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula

 
 

If you're not in the hospitality business, you probably didn't notice it, except for the near impossibility of booking a table in downtown Chicago.

If you are in the biz, it's hard-wired into your DNA: the third week in May when more than 60,000 restaurateurs, hoteliers, chefs, cafeteria operators and every ilk of dining professional descend on McCormick Place to eat, drink, survey and negotiate with 1,800 suppliers of food, equipment, furniture, supplies, uniforms and technology. This year, folks representing every state and more than 100 countries flocked in for the 94th Annual National Restaurant Association Show.

Seminars are standard at conventions, but hospitality is one of the few industries to offer a three-course breakfast and several cocktails along with your panel discussion.

According to "On-Premise Trends and Outlook," here's who's drinking what today, how, why and what they (and probably we) will drink next:

• Baby Boomers inspired the wine boom of the 1960s, but Gen X was late to the table. The Millennials bellied up to the wine bar early, with 51 percent of those aged 19 through 36 drinking wine at least once per week. While underemployed, Millennials are educated, curious, demanding and generally "a pain in the (bleep)," according to Donna Hood Crecca of Technomic Inc., an international food industry research and consulting firm. Without access to detailed back story, Millennials lose interest.

Watch for: Quick Response (QR) codes on wine bottle back labels link smartphones to producers' websites will feed that interest, as will wine lists presented on interactive screens and iPads for wine descriptions, food pairings and up-to-the-picosecond market price.

This reporter was gladdened to hear of the continued importance of service, with informed restaurant personnel offering enthusiastic guidance, even though it seems so last century by comparison.

• Americans crave elevated culinary experience, but with no jacket required. Instead of the white tablecloth and grand tables of yore, today's dining meccas are gourmet food trucks, international BYOs and the important subset of casual -- the fast-casual restaurant.

Watch for: Casual spots to upgrade adult beverages, especially in craft brews and -- while not sophisticated but often drinkable -- wine. Formerly elegant spots will de-fuss, dropping fine dining to one or two courses with wine lists switching from bottles to premium wines by the glass to satisfy shorter dining times.

• It's "very important" to nearly 40 percent of Americans to "eat local," according to Technomic's Dave Henke. T.J. Callahan, owner of Chicago's Farmhouse restaurant, concurs. "I'm a small, local business, and I support small, local businesses," including Midwest farms and distilleries. Whether for economics, food flavor or health, customers respond to Callahan's diligent foraging, quizzing servers about Farmhouse's Midwest foodstuff, from the heirloom apples and grass-fed beef to the 27 craft beers on tap and regional wines.

Watch for: Regional, if not national, recognition of our Midwest vineyard. I'm especially excited about the brilliant riesling grown in Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula. (See Ross' Choice.) Also watch for Callahan's new Farmhouse location in the Hilton Orrington Hotel, in Evanston.

• We enjoy basically the same flavors, but each with specialty niches. Beer is the leader in restaurant alcohol sales, shifting from major brands to craft beers and cider. Callahan laughs, "Production is so small, you have to be really nice to these brewers or you don't get any." Vodka leads spirits, with the surge in flavored vodka. Tequila has seen growth in the aged anejo style.

At Chicago's ZED451, specialty cocktails account for 40 percent of the bar business, according to Mike Hanley, beverage director for ZED451's parent company, Tavistock Restaurants.

"We give people emotional connection with their cocktails, a sense of discovery. We want people to see a cocktail and say, "Ooh, what's that?" Then, when the server explains the drink, they generally say, "Ooh I want it!"

Watch for: Combining trends, Technomics' blog reports vodka and other white spirits infused with homegrown garden herbs, in cocktails such as the Rosemary Bramble, gin and homegrown rosemary with blackberry, lime and sugar. See other garden-fresh cocktails at blogs.technomic.com.

Contact advanced sommelier and certified wine educator Mary Ross at food@dailyherald.com.

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