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We Don't Need Another Cronut

Food trends aren't what you think they are


I

t's been just over two years since Dominique Ansel unleashed the Cronut, his improbable and wildly successful croissant-doughnut hybrid, on humanity. Almost since the moment his press release hit an inbox, bakers and patissiers the world over have been scrambling to create its successor. From the "mallomac" (when mallomar meets macaron) to the "waffogato" (Ansel's own waffle-shaped affogato), the internet teems with declarations that this or that random dessert pastiche is, for real this time, "the new Cronut."

Of course, it never turns out to be true. There's already a Cronut. We don't need a new one.

Most trend forecasting, whether well-funded corporate reports or idle journalistic speculation, focuses on the what, rather than the why. Any real work that goes into identifying and codifying food trends is largely in service of flagrant consumer manipulation, but it's anodyne and risk-averse, equal parts stating the obvious to out-of-touch boardroom suits, and wildly flailing puck-chasing. A report identifying that America has spent two years in thrall to a silly dessert mash-up with a silly name will only ever extrapolate that what consumers want is more silly mash-ups with silly names. But the totems of recent culinary pop culture — kale, quinoa, cupcakes, bacon, sriracha — are just symbols and signifiers. If you want to get out ahead of the next trend, you don't need to figure out what the next big product or ingredient is going to be, you need to figure out the next big social mood, the next big emotional reaction. What matters isn't the Cronut, it's the way the Cronut makes us feel.

What matters isn't the Cronut, it's the way the Cronut makes us feel

From a trademarked pastry to the entire concept of "street food," a trend follows a predictable path, one that's consistent whether applied to technology (the hype cycle identified by tech research company Gartner), youth culture (Fuse Marketing's five-point map), or gastronomy (the eleven-stage process broken down in the food-culture-skewering book Comfort Me With Offal). However detailed your drilldown, the story is the same: Something bubbles up for one reason or another, feeling right to a small group of people who are open to new ideas and who speak with loud, influential voices. More people pick up on that right-ness, and then more people pick up on the fact that people are picking up on something, ultimately reaching a critical mass of interest and awareness.

At this point, most of the early adopters tend to fall away: trends are driven at different points in their life cycles by a desire to fit in and a desire to stand out; if someone's engine is the latter, she'll cut and run when adherence to the gospel of locavorism becomes more about the former. Once Starbucks puts a flat white on their menu, cortado devotees start eyeing matcha. Once your mom buys bacon-scented hand soap for the guest bathroom, there's an unshakeable pall cast over your Benton's-washed bourbon. When something makes that leap into ultra-mass culture, showing up on t-shirts at Target and as a punchline on the Tonight Show, it's a sign that its original engine — novelty, exclusivity, difference — has worn out.

The half-life of any given backlash is directly proportionate to the footprint of the trend

Eventually a trend reaches an unsustainable apex. (Do not click this link: sexy cronut fanfic.) Like cupcakes, like bacon, like disco music, the steadily growing tsunami of any cultural phenomenon must inevitably crash. The half-life of any given backlash is directly proportionate to the footprint of the trend — negroni obsession never quite hit it big enough for it to actually become uncool to order one in a bar, but it'll be a long while still before people are ready to ask a bartender for a Cosmopolitan.

But it's that first step — the "something bubbles up for one reason or another" part — that's at the real core of trends, and what should be at the core of trend prediction. Foods and ingredients and techniques and styles are a dime a dozen; it's rare that a trend truly comes out of nowhere, especially in the food space. Kimchi's been around for a smidge longer than DIY fermenters have been freaking out about it, and your Instagram sure does prove that you were into shakshuka before it was cool, and ancient grains have the word "ancient" in there for a reason, and look, okay, isn't Soylent just another riff on Carnation Instant Breakfast? Everyone knows what a croissant is, and everyone knows what a doughnut is. So what made the Cronut so special?

The circumstances that gave rise to Ansel's masterpiece were singular. On April 17, 2013, a Wall Street Journal headline declared that "the Gourmet Cupcake Market is Crashing." Ansel's ring-shaped, deep-fried flaky pastry landed in his pastry case just three weeks later, sweeping in to fill the vacuum. It's an easy, convenient narrative: out with one snazzy dessert, in with another.

But good timing is only a necessary condition of a trend's success, not a sufficient one. Seen with the clarity of hindsight, it's evident that the magic propelling the Cronut wasn't just that it came after the cupcake, but that it was the cupcake's perfect opposite, an un-cupcake, an antidote to cupcake fatigue. The name is novel. The backstory is clever. Unlike form-over-function cupcakes — beautiful often at the expense of flavor, more craft project than foodstuff — Cronuts are technique-driven, complex pastries that embody the virtues both of innovation and culinary skill. Unlike cupcakes' white-noise ubiquity, Cronuts (which Ansel savvily trademarked, only he can make and sell them under that name) are available from few locations and in limited quantities; their scarcity is part of their allure. (And, for that matter, it's part of the social media frenzy that surrounds them: the hours-long line elevated to lifestyle performance.)

The magic propelling the Cronut was that it was the cupcake's perfect opposite, an un-cupcake, an antidote to cupcake fatigue

In other words, the success of the Cronut is only half attributable to its inherent deliciousness. The other half is something much harder — if not downright impossible — to engineer. There are plenty of problems we're well aware of in the food world, ones that don't have obvious or easy fixes. And there are plenty of things that show up and try to shoehorn themselves into our lives as solutions to problems that don't actually exist. (Does the world really need iPad menu interfaces at the airport? No. No it does not.) But the thing that truly jumpstarts a trend is that it solves a problem we perhaps didn't consciously realize needed solving. It speaks to a need both emotional and social, feeds a hunger for new modes of expression for both individuality and community.

The fashion industry talks a lot about "freshness": the almost palpable sigh of surprise and relief when a designer sends out a midi hemline or voluminous silhouette that just feels correct on the heels of season after season of skinny jeans and mini-skirts. What's fresh is rarely adjacent to whatever it's replacing. Trends aren't building blocks, they're pendulum swings. And there are dozens of pendulums swinging at once.

So if you want to figure out what the next Cronut is, the wrong move is to sit down and try to dissect the pastry itself. Instead, deconstruct the precise confluence of moods, interests, motivations, and areas of fatigue that it was born into in 2013, and figure out what the analogs to all those are right now. Trends are driven by broader forces: Kale and quinoa are driven by an obsession with healthfulness and nutritional density, artisanal-everything is a backlash to the sterility of mass production, toast with fancy things on it looks incredibly pretty on Instagram. And not all these forces are consumer-side: The sudden glut of hip chicken sandwich restaurants isn't the result of some shady collusion of culinary illuminati; rather, it nails the intersection of comfort food, Southern food, and fast-casual's potential for extraordinary (and extraordinarily scalable) profits.

So, what is the new Cronut? I'll be shocked if it's anything close to a mash-up dessert or a dish with a clever portmanteau name. Still, the future is ultimately a product of the past. It stands to reason that we should be able to look around at where we are today, and figure out what's to come. Here are some predictions for the (short-term) future of food.

If you want to figure out what the next Cronut is, the wrong move is to sit down and try to dissect the pastry itself

Gen X Is So Back

Food and fashion aren't perfect cultural analogs, but they tend to walk in surprising lockstep when it comes to the core influence behind their trends. (The whole Alexander Wang-led model-off-duty ish was a cultural juggernaut at exactly the same moment that the hottest thing in restaurants was chef-off-duty dining, with its bone marrow and pork belly and oysters and endless shots of whiskey — both trends essentially a commidification of a certain professional authenticity, a pulling back of the curtain.) There's a definitive grunge-meets-austerity vibe in fashion right now, a certain 1985-1994 je ne sais quoi, and while restaurants usually aren't quite as susceptible to chronological referentialism as the runway is, this seems likely to be an exception. Brace for the forceful pan-Mediterraneanism of a certain era: goat cheese en croute, Provençal vegetables, capers and olives, balsamic vinegar, and fistfuls of arugula hither and thither.

Fair is the New Local

Forget "Know thy farmer." Know thy line cook, and thy busser, and thy bar back, and know as well that they're probably working their butts off for hourly wages low enough to incite Eugene V. Debs to rise from the grave. American restaurant culture spent a happy decade as a blissed-out sister-wife in the cult of the chef, keeping the focus on the food and nothing but the food (with brief and occasional breaks to wave the banner for hospitality). The growing movement in support of a livable minimum wage feels like an opening salvo in an eventual cultural shift where restaurateurs consider their primary obligation to be to their employees, not their customers — and customers will like it that way, even if it means paying more for their chanterelle risotto.

YouTube Uber Alles

Or at least, YouTube Uber Bravo. Home-grown video brands in the food space are a few years behind the food-blog boom, but they're following a remarkably similar path, and it's about to hit critical mass just like blogs did in 2011-12. (And like non-food YouTubers are hitting now.) Homespun DIY jobs start bringing in major eyeballs, which bring in major advertisers, which bring in (at least for those at the top of the heap) major money. The real way this is going to play out isn't in the biodomes of YouTube/Vimeo/Vine/whatever themselves, but rather (like blogs) in how the self-made personal brands end up being courted by old-guard media. Will an extravagant talent holding deal be the new extravagant cookbook contract? Get ready for perky millennials with major social media footprints stepping into basic cable gigs that in previous eras would have gone to chefs (or foodie-lebrities like Padma), with a dedicated James Beard Award category (or several) not far behind.

Everyone Is Bored of Everything

At some point, chefs will run out of cultures to plunder, family heritages to reclaim, NASA-originated techniques, and obscure seasonal ingredients to exuberantly hitch their gastronomic wagons to. It's already happening with drinks: when was the last time you saw a bartender make herself an intricately wrought cocktail? The go-to is a two- or three-ingredient cooler, or a mass-market beer. It'll happen for chefs and restaurateurs, too: moving away from the exhausting barrage of fuss and buzzwords in favor of simplicity — a certain kind of minimalist perfection. The restaurant experience is going to be less about the food, less evidently transactional, less performative, and more about the mood, the room, a feeling of community and belonging. It's going to feel more like home cooking, top to tail, maybe to the point of actually having restaurants in people's homes.

Everything Will Be a Beer

As the craft beer scene gets bigger and bigger, brewers are finding that the fastest route to stand out is to do something stunt-driven and shock-inducing. We've already run through most of the drug puns and sex references, so what's next (according to Eater's news desk reporter Khushbu Shah, who has her ear to the ground on these things) will be beers inspired by flavors. Forget pumpkin ale — beers will start touting notes like breakfast cereal, pizza, and coconut curry. It won't just be the microbrewers, though: as chain restaurants put more of their efforts into the beer game, they'll want custom brews that promote their brand. Don't be surprised when Taco Bell (which recently started selling alcohol) debuts a Fire Sauce Ale or a Doritos Loco Lager.

Peruvian Food Still Isn't Going to Happen

Virtually every food-prediction article for the last fifteen years has spent a line or two on how this South American country is totally about to be the next big culinary thing. It isn't (or if it is, it keeps getting cut in line by fast-food chicken sandwiches, hand pies, ancient grains, childhood nostalgia, and the entire palate of the Middle East). Here's what will have its moment in the spotlight: Caribbean food, vegan food that doesn't tell you it's vegan, fussy tea sandwiches, and Laurel Canyon-lite bakeries where all the breads are inspired by the zodiac. But not Peruvian food. Peruvian food is the "fetch" of international cuisines.

Header photo: Travis Wise/Flickr

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