Produce-centric menus and restaurant concepts — with vegetables becoming the star of the plate — are among the foodservice trends to watch during the coming year, said Annika Stensson, director of research communications for the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association.

The boost in vegetable placements might be a cost management strategy, since some key protein costs have risen, as well as a push toward nutritious menu items, she said, but it’s also about “celebrating produce in and of itself — everything from staple items like carrots and beets, to less familiar items like watermelon radishes, fiddleheads and kohlrabi.”

She sees a trend toward a wider variety of house-made and artisan pickles in many varieties beyond cucumbers.

Stensson also expects to see restaurants selling raw high-quality ingredients in their stores in the near future, including fresh produce items that chefs use in restaurant dishes.

Other growing menu trends in 2016 include African flavors, authentic ethnic cuisine and condiments, she said.

Kale salads and gluten-free cuisine will be slowing as trends, though they’re both likely to move toward becoming menu staples rather than disappear as fads, she said. 

Meanwhile, local sourcing likely will gain even more momentum, and environmental sustainability will be a “strong culinary theme that reflects other areas of consumers’ lives, as well as chefs’ attitudes,” Stensson said.

The restaurant industry continued to post modest growth in 2015, along with the gradual improvement of the U.S. economy.

Industry sales topped $709 billion and grew at a 3.8% rate — or 1.5% when adjusted for inflation — she said, marking the sixth year of positive sales growth after the Great Recession.

Checking out individual foodservice segments, the trend continues with limited-service sales growth outpacing table service, she said.

“Sub-segments that also emphasize off-premise traffic and flexible dayparts are the fastest growing when it comes to sales,” Stensson said.

“Next year, we’ll see continued moderate growth throughout the industry, with many of the same long-term trends in effect when it comes to sales growth,” she said.

“But a range of challenges also face restaurant operators in the year ahead, she said, “including government in the form of increasing regulatory burdens and complex issues with unclear guidance.”

Recruitment and retention also is making its way back as a top challenge, as restaurants hire at a fast pace, and the overall unemployment rates trend downward, she said.