The bad news is that consumer taste buds are fickle and are continuously evolving. The good news? No one said your menu must be a stagnant document. Starting a restaurant featuring the latest food craze can be lucrative (think Jamba Juice or Pinkberry) and might just have staying power. The National Restaurant Association put together the What's Hot in 2012 list, after surveying almost 1,800 chefs in the country. Check out these ideas for what you should cook up this year.
The top two slots of this survey go to locally sourced and produced foods: meats, seafood, and produce. "People are more interested in what's on their plate and where it comes from," says the National Restaurant Association's Annika Stensson. "So it's not just eating to satisfy hunger, it's also an interest in what you actually ingest." Manhattan's Bell Book & Candle takes this to an extreme: The restaurant uses a pulley to bring its produce from its rooftop garden to the kitchen.
Those with food allergies may find it easier to eat out now, as 75% of chefs have indicated catering to these needs as the No. 7 trend this year. "It's not just a preference," Stensson says. "It can be a medical condition, so being in the hospitality business, we want to make sure our guests are happy, and that they have a safe and enjoyable meal." Chicago's Vinci even offers an entire gluten-free menu, from appetizers to desserts.
Of course local foods are in style, but locally produced alcohol is also gaining traction—and restaurants that serve local wine and beer feeling the boost. This movement is gaining so much traction that there are even statewide events featuring the best local spirits. Virginia announced March as the Wine & Dine Month, encouraging visitors and residents alike to drink wine produce locally.
Sustainable seafood—which has to do with how the fish are caught—and less-traditional fish, such as Branzino and Arctic Char, are making waves on menus this year. Tataki, a sustainable sushi bar, opened up in 2008 in San Francisco, selling only responsibly sourced and environmentally friendly seafood. The restaurant also participates in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch's Cooking for Solutions event, which invites restaurants and celebrity chefs to speak about how to protect the ocean.
Meals on wheels have been around for a while, but more and more chefs are now recognizing opening a food truck as a solid business venture. In fact, 61% of those surveyed by the National Restaurant Association said they would consider launching a food truck. Stensson says adopting this method is a good way to break into the industry because it's far less expensive than a full brick-and-mortar operation. It's not just for newbies, though: Consider Luke's Lobster, which has expanded to five locations in just three years. And now it's not just the lobster that's on a roll: Luke's latest location is a fully mobile truck.
The American palette has been exposed to ethnic food for several decades now—in fact, "certain cuisines have been around for so long, they're not considered ethnic anymore," Stensson says. This year, the survey identified Peruvian, Southeast Asian, and very specific regional flavors—think, Szechuan or Cantonese, for example—as hot items.
Read more about the full-service restaurant industry as part of Inc.'s 2012 Best Industries for Starting a Business coverage.