It works for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even a snack. It suits almost any cuisine across the globe. It can be lingered over or eaten on the go. In fact, entire restaurants have been built around this concept.
Such is the power of the food bowl—a trend that hit its stride in recent years and whose momentum will only increase in 2020.
Here we dig into the food bowl phenomenon and what it means for our industry.
What It Is
Food bowls are beautiful in their simplicity: An array of colors, flavors, and textures in a handheld vessel, typically requiring only one utensil. Start with a base, add some protein, sprinkle on selected toppings, then tie it together with a sauce.
Sometimes, what’s good on a plate is even better in a bowl. But what defines a food bowl?
“It’s heartier than a salad, but still can be quite healthful,” explains Janette Lopez, Director of Menu Innovation and Product Development. “And it’s not the same as a soup or a stew, because the ingredients are customized at the time of service.”
Popular variations include acai breakfast bowls, burrito bowls, noodle bowls, even overnight oats—but the format is anything but new. “This idea goes way back and can be found in cultural mainstays such as Mexican huevos rancheros and Korean bibimbap,” Lopez adds.
Culinary Development Chef Mike Coble, a 21-year veteran of Aramark, agrees that food bowls shine because of their portability and way of showcasing international flavors: “It’s photographable, Instagram-worthy street food at your fingertips.”
Why it Works
The food bowl trend has taken hold, Coble believes, because how consumers eat is so often a reflection of what they want to eat. “People don’t sit down to a 20-ounce T-bone with a pile of mashed potatoes anymore,” he says. “They want to see, smell, and taste their food differently. Today’s consumers are content with two, three ounces of protein with lots of complementary vegetables and legumes.”
Indeed, food bowls succeed because they are the confluence of other marketplace trends, namely convenience and personalization. A typical food bowl concept might have four bases, 10 or 15 toppings, three sauces, and four “crunch” options like nuts or seeds—yielding seemingly endless combinations.
“With food bowls, you’re able to sample each ingredient individually, but also mix it up,” notes Lopez. “With each ingredient, the consumer is making their mark—whether they choose it for its functional benefits, taste, or indulgence.”
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For restaurants and food providers, the food bowl concept is easy to understand, build, and execute. The packaging is simple, and many of the base ingredients (from rice and pasta to zoodles and lettuce) can be repurposed for other menu items.
Food bowls cut across dayparts, and as some restaurants are offering small versions, they can also satisfy the consumer in search of something more than a snack but less than a full meal. What’s more, they elevate the service level of your associates, because of the high degree of consumer interaction during ordering.
“There really is no better food concept that touches on quality, health, convenience, and personalization—the features we know matter most to consumers,” Coble asserts. “That’s why I don’t see it going away anytime soon.”
What We Learned
We recently piloted a poke bowl concept called Laki Bowl at our global headquarters in Philadelphia.
“Poke bowls were a natural choice not only because they are very popular right now, but because we know people like to dine out on Asian cuisine,” Lopez explains. “Think of all those sushi lovers—a food bowl can unpack sushi ingredients in new ways.” Indeed, consumers at Laki Bowl could build their meals with poke tuna, rice, assorted vegetables, and choice of toppings and sauces.
Coble emphasizes the need for authenticity. “If we are going to do a poke bowl, the recipe needs to include things you would see at a poke shop in Hawaii—like candlenuts for texture,” he says, referring to the macadamia nut relative. “As for the Japanese influence, we combined togarashi spice with mayonnaise for a creamy drizzle, making it more approachable.”
He also mentions the need for high-quality ingredients, especially when it comes to raw fish. “As a chef, I need to get the flavor profile right, handle it right, have the right suppliers and partners, and deliver the best quality I can,” Coble adds.
The Laki Bowl results? Station sales increased an average of 134% over those two days, with an 18% increase in entrees sold. And most consumers wanted that authentic experience: 76% ordered the ahi tuna in our pilot, with some even opting for a second helping of the protein. (Less adventurous eaters could enjoy it with chicken, tofu, or crab salad.)
How to Bring it to Life
Time to try your hand at food bowls? You might start by converting items already on the menu. Burritos, sandwiches, and breakfast foods all easily translate into the food bowl format. For this reason, most new Aramark concepts feature at least one bowl alternative.
“For example, with our breakfast menu concepts we always ensure we have a hand-held option because so many people are on the go and may want to eat with one hand,” says Lopez. “But then we take that flavor profile and make it available in a bowl for anyone who wants to enjoy it that way.”
To test the food bowl concept, you might try a limited-time offering or pop-up like Laki Bowl, which will roll out to several Aramark locations in December 2019. Not only can a two-day test drive provide proof of concept, but it will surprise and delight your regular customers, achieving that significant sales lift. “You want to build on those two days of positive buzz,” says Coble.
Heading into 2020, we expect that food bowls will continue to catch consumer interest. It’s yet another way to deliver the personalized, globally inspired food experience they crave—right in the palm of their hand.