A better system of tipping? Interactive wall art? Ice cream sandwiches? Get ready to eat out in 2014.
That's according to hospitality and restaurant consultant Andrew Freeman & Co., whose report into 2014 trends in the industry has highlighted a range of upcoming initiatives in both restaurant decor and what diners should expect to see on their plates in the coming year.
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Andrew Freeman said in the report that "as technology continues to infuse every aspect of our lives, clientèle are looking for deeper personal connections as the barriers between what is private and public become increasingly blurred."
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Dining out venues
The restaurant sector is important part of the U.S. economy. The National Restaurant Association states that U.S. restaurant-industry sales are projected to total $660.5 billion for the whole of 2013, and equal 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).
Andrew Freeman & Co.'s survey points to some changes in the restaurant world that many may already be aware of — notably establishments merging the kitchen and diner to provide some tableside entertainment, as well as Asian food becoming much more high-end. For example, the famous Hakkasan restaurant, originally from London, has expanded into multiple markets, including a large complex with a nightclub in Las Vegas.
However, the report does point to three key changes. Firstly, the idea of "split personalities" will become more prevalent, with daytime cafes turning into night-time restaurants,as well as sharing their spaces with retail outlets. Houston has The Pass and Provisions, two restaurants in one, with one providing fine dining and the other catering to a more casual crowd.
Secondly, live art will become a new experience in restaurants, with wall projections becoming more popular, a seemingly cheap way to offer a different background every evening, something which has been adopted already in some restaurants in Dallas and San Francisco.
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Perhaps the biggest and most welcome change is a reform of the way diners deal with tipping their server. Andrew Freeman & Co. believes it is time for a change to tipping culture in the U.S. and said there could be a move towards pooled tips and service charges on bills, rather than at the discretion of the customer.
For example, at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, tips are pooled and shared out between all staff, while Staffan Terje, a chef, told the report:"I think the fire is lit and is starting to smolder. Maybe not next year, but soon we will see a shift to service charges and service included."
Possible changes to tipping practise are crucial in an industry that currently employs 13.1 million people (10 percent of the U.S. workforce), up from 11.6 million in 2003. The National Restaurant Association forecasts the number of restaurant-industry employees to reach 14.4 million in 2023, and says restaurant-industry jobs growth outpaced the overall economy for 13 consecutive years between 2000 to 2012.
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An interesting development in restaurants is how they are embracing social media and smartphones. While the report stressed that establishments should utilize Instagram and "clever hashtags" to attract new customers,there is also a trend to shun the texting culture that now dominates dining tables and is the bane of free-flowing conversations.
Bucato in Los Angeles limits phone use to areas outside of the restaurant, while Washington, D.C.'s Rogue24 makes diners sign a no-cell-phone-use contract before dining there.
In a similar vein, restaurants should also take note of developments at Pizza Hut, which launched an Xbox 360 app in 2013. The company has revealed that in the four months since its launch, the app provided the firm with more than $1 million in business through Xbox Live.
Bethany Wall, a U.S.-based food service analyst at Mintel Research, agreed that technology was a key factor in the restaurant business in 2014.
"We see technology playing an increasingly important role with consumers, providing an experience beyond standard operational efficiencies," she told CNBC via email. "Technology is being used more and more to connect consumers with brands in new ways to make their lives better. This spans from QR codes on kids menus that lead to additional stories and games accessible via smartphone, as well as brands using tech to create health and wellness challenges."
Learning from the cronut craze
Aside from restaurant décor and practises, the report also detailed food trends. Hot on the heels of Dominique Ansel and her infamous cronut (half donut, half croissant) and Keizo Shimamoto's ramen burger, the report said that more hybrid creations will be sprouting up across the U.S. Scala's Bistro in San Franciso, for instance, has a "Nutella Pizza" on its dessert menu, which consists of caramelized pizza, bananas, nutmeg marshmallows and toasted hazelnuts.
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On a similar note, restaurants are increasingly interested in the science of cooking, with new flavors, techniques and textures being sampled. The Momofuku Culinary Lab in New York City collaborates with Harvard and UCLA scientists to devise its menu, while Chicago's Grant Achatz incubates new dishes in a custom culinary laboratory before he serves them up at his restaurant, Alinea.
Ice cream sandwiches
While Andrew Freeman & Co.'s report said that cupcakes, Korean tacos and fried chicken were now out of fashion, ice cream sandwiches will apparently lead the way in culinary crazes.
California already has some interesting ice cream sandwiches on offer: Hardwater in San Francisco offers diners a milk chocolate and malt ice cream sandwich, while the Ramen Shop in Oakland offers an Asian take on the delicacy, with combinations such as ginger and black sesame.
The report also claims that as restaurateurs become more experimental, a chicken dish will not always be on the menu, and there will be plenty of room for sustainable ingredients from the ocean — not just fish. "Picklers are venturing into marine vegetables to bring new texture and tastes," wrote Sarah Weiner, the director of the Good Food Awards, Seedling Projects.
As Freeman said in his company's report: "This year's trends are about the experiential."
—By CNBC's Kiran Moodley. Follow him on Twitter @kirancmoodley