What’s cooking on the North American culinary scene for groups? Sustainability and healthy options are here to stay, while traditional sit-down dining is taking a back seat to experiential-driven eating.

From Oregon to Ontario, here is a coast-to-coast view of trends shaping the North American F&B landscape for groups.

Rebecca Mackenzie, President & CEO, Culinary Tourism Alliance, Toronto

Developing consumer awareness of food tourism experiences around the Canadian province since 2011, the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance is now the Culinary Tourism Alliance (CTA), helping destinations across the globe to grow their food tourism offerings. CTA’s proprietary Experience Assessment Tool, which geo-maps and geo-tags businesses along the Food Tourism Value chain, allows destinations to determine their market-readiness relative to delivering a “taste of place” experience.

Staying current with trends through participation in the UNWTO Gastronomic Network and other means, Rebecca Mackenzie, who has led the nonprofit CTA since inception, sees several leading trends.

“Food tours will remain an area of interest for meeting and convention groups as it relates to companion programming and small teambuilding activities,” she said. “Growing in interest are food markets [more prepared foods than a farmers market] and craft beer and spirit tours. Local ingredients on meetings and conventions menus will grow, as destinations aim to add a point of interest and economic impact to their footprint.”

Recent CTA research in partnership with Ryerson University found a compelling case for F&B tasting, tour and takeaway opportunities.

“When choosing a destination, 43 percent of respondents look for guided culinary tours,” Mackenzie said. “For culinary activities, 81 percent want to be able to try locally sourced products, while for 67 percent, it is important to have take-home products.”

Delivering a great taste of place experience can further ensure that delegates become ambassadors of a destination and are likelier to return, she added.

Stephan Pyles, Celebrity Chef, Cookbook Author, Entrepreneur, Philanthropist and Educator, Dallas
One of the founding fathers of Southwestern cuisine in the 1980s and a pioneering force behind New American cuisine, Stephan Pyles is a true culinary trendsetter. Over the last 30 years, the fifth-generation Texan has opened 22 restaurants in five cities, including his base of Dallas. In partnership with Woodlands, Texas-based Benchmark, a global hospitality company, Pyles is now leading a far-reaching initiative focused on culinary innovation at Benchmark’s 70 luxury properties under its Benchmark Resorts & Hotels and Gemstone Collection brands.

“The scope of this new initiative is international and must address a growing variety of consumer demands,” Pyles stated in a release. “Our guests are far more conscious of wellness, environmental issues, animal welfare and the origins of the food they consume.”

He also noted that “hoteliers must meet a clear demand for quality and innovation on every level, from a corporate event to room service.”

Words to the wise, along with other trends.

“Regional American cooking, emphasizing the local, seasonal and organic, will continue to be important,” Pyles said. “Pride in American products from a generation ago created strong interest in regional local spirits and the ‘craft cocktail’ phenomenon, trends that show no sign of dissipating anytime soon.”
With globalization, however, Pyles added that international influences such as the ever-growing Hispanic and Asian populations in the U.S. will also be key.

“Bold flavors, chiles and wood-fired kitchens have awakened consumers’ palates and will become more common,” he said. “There is no turning back to bland or ordinary.”

Pyles holds true to a dominant trend nowadays that he anticipated and has been fashioning now for three decades—execute a unique experience through dining.

“It’s given that the food, cocktails and wine list have to be superior,” Pyles said. “The design, ambiance and service should be, too. Arriving diners should immediately feel an energy that promises delivery of an exclusive experience, with the decor, lighting, music, servers’ apparel and kitchen smells all part of the DNA.”