You’re either IN or you’re OUT.
Heidi Klum was talking about the fashion industry when she uttered those famous lines over and over again for 16 seasons (and counting!) of Project Runway.
But the German-American supermodel could have easily been talking about the cutthroat world of food and beverage.
If you’re not cooking the food people want to eat, then you could find yourself out of business quicker than Conor McGregor’s boxing career — minus the 100 million dollar payday of course.
But don’t count yourself out, just yet — try figure out what the next big food trend is going to be.
It won’t be easy — forecasting food trends comes more from intuition than numbers.
There’s good news. You can always glance at what’s making waves in other countries.
BLOOD, SWEAT, AND UNICORN TEARS
“I do think that there is a way to predict, or at least make an intelligent guess on the next food trend,” says Christine Seah, owner of Dapper Coffee in Singapore.
If the name Dapper Coffee sounds familiar — it’s probably because you’ve heard of Unicorn Tears.
This sparkling blue concoction, with a lemon-like taste, went international earlier this year after it was featured in Cosmopolitan.
Overnight the Amoy Street-based cafe gained 400 new followers and a bucketload of emails from all over the world. People wanted to know how they could get their hands on this Instagrammable drink with a hipster name.
Unicorn Tears didn’t happen by accident.
“Firstly, you have to understand your market, and how trends make its way to us,” Christine tells The Scoop.
“Singapore is a media savvy first-world country, but it often takes its cues from bigger first-world countries like the US, UK, Japan, and very strongly these days Korea.
“There is a ‘trickle-down’ effect, and what’s big in [those] countries will usually only start picking up in Singapore about four to five months later.”
When cold brew — coffee brewed with room temperature or cold water for 12 to 24 hours — blew up in the United States and Korea a few years ago, Dapper Coffee saw the perfect opportunity to put this into practice.
They created Gold Brew.
Dapper’s response to the cold brew phenomenon included a dash of glitter — because plain iced black coffee does look boring in a food selfie.
Gold Brew became a cultish secret menu item. Then, customers then started demanding the cafe produce an equally attractive-looking alternative — without the caffeine.
Christine recalls: “After experimenting with quite a few revisions of flavours and colours, and after a very, very alcohol-fuelled brain storming session for a name, we all agreed on ‘Unicorn Tears’, and then we passed out.”
FAD OR TREND?
Unicorn Tears was born by observing the cold brew revolution, and influenced by the rainbow-coloured drinks craze.
Dapper was smart enough to use both events to their advantage. It’s important to recognise, though, the final product is more fad than bonafide trend.
“It’s a blue sparkly drink called Unicorn Tears for god’s sake,” remarks Christine.
She adds: “But on a more serious note, once copycats start to emerge, you have to find other markets to sell a product like this to to keep it afloat. Once a price war starts, nobody wins.
“We’re pushing it mainly to corporate events and weddings now, but it’s a product with a very clearly defined life-cycle for sure.”
A proper food trend will excel in several of these categories: taste, looks, health, convenience, indulgence, and the environment.
Food trends also move very slowly, unlike a fad, exciting economies along the way.
“I think a real trend has a more macro effect, stimulating growth in full stalls and suppliers being introduced, rather than existing F&B owners just adding a new dish within their current capabilities,” says Seth Lui of the hugely popular SethLui.com.
Seth describes passing fads as being more “superficial in visuals and experience” and mostly driven by the types of people hungry for an social media update via Instagram-infused food selfies (see Young People).
“But they would only do it once and then move on to the next trend, rather than repeatedly visiting again,” Seth says.
With over a million unique visitors and four million page views each month, SethLui.com positions itself as the highest read food blog in Singapore.
This kind of influence means that the opinions of their writers can cement a new trend.
“Most times we would spot something interesting and try to highlight what’s the buzz about,” Seth explains.
“Given our reach, if it has viral potential then the trend is accelerated a lot faster. Based on our experience spotting trend-worthy angles, we amplify the virality a lot quicker than if it were to take its own course. But the concept first has to be interesting enough to begin with.”
Don’t just read what food people are talking about — be more proactive. If you really want to get a handle on predicting food trends then start noting down what hashtags are commonly being used.
“Yes, it is possible [to predict trends], as long as you monitor the food scene carefully,” says Kaiying Liu, editor for eatbook.sg.
“One of the ways would be to check out what Singaporeans are eating via social media hashtags such as #sgfood, and #sgcafehopping.
“Sometimes we’ll find a recurring theme among the posts and that would mark the potential start of a trend.”
Eatbook is an online publication for Singapore with more than 100K followers on Facebook. It prides itself on knowledge gained from ‘undercover reviews’.
Kaiying believes Castella — a fluffy Japanese sponge cake — is one of the most recent trends in Singapore.
“They’re affordable for most Singaporeans and are mostly made without preservatives, which increases its appeal,” she says.
“In 2018, all sorts of healthier dishes might step up, as eating well is one of Singapore’s focus next year. Restaurants might come up with more creative, delicious and healthy dishes to attract health-conscious diners, so we’re really looking forward to that.”
Wednesday morning, Singapore. The time is 10.20am to be exact. The Vivo City branch of IRVINS Salted Egg hasn’t even been open for half an hour but already it’s starting to feel like the latest iPhone must be in town.
“You should see the line on weekends,” complains a lady working at the parking redemption booth opposite IRVINS.
An hour later and it’s finally my turn. I willingly part with S$80 for five large 230gm packs of IRVINS’ famous Salted Egg Fish Skin.
I have a flight to catch on Friday to visit family in Brunei — and they need their fix of salted egg yolk.
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“The salted yolk on everything trend has been going on for some time and in my opinion hasn’t died down yet,” food and travel journalist, Thanis Lim, tells The Scoop.
Thanis is no stranger to Brunei foodies. His blog — ThanisLim.com — is the go-to destination for hungry locals looking for new places to eat.
His advice? If you really want to predict what the next food trend will be in Brunei, keep your eye on what’s happening in Thailand and Indonesia.
“Coconut ice cream in coconut shells, as well as Thai teas, are currently a hit [in Brunei] and I have also seen more people opening up budget steamboat and BBQ buffets,” he says.
“For 2018, I wonder if the progressive hipster foodie movement; heart healthy smoothie bowls and farm-to-table fresh produce will catch on in Brunei, as they are a big in neighbouring countries but has not picked up here in the last two years.”
But there’s one trend happening right now in Singapore which has huge potential in Brunei.
“Nostalgia has been a more subtle trend but it’s definitely there, with many food stalls concentrating on bringing out the past history and linking their food to childhood memories of old,” reveals Seth.
Brunei does not need to have Singapore’s food court culture. It needs more home businesses like Old Klang Curry Puff and more dedicated people like Caroline Lim who is doing her part to keep the art of of making Nyonya Kueh alive.
With a little luck, and a lot of hard work, perhaps it won’t be too long before a Bruneian café creates its very own Unicorn Tears moment.
“The real secret is that they’re my tears. It’s a stressful job,” says Christine.
Marcus Chhan is a journalist from Brunei currently stuck in the Singapore rat race. You can reach him via email or Twitter.