[caption id="attachment_218774" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Delaware's restaurants are seeing employment rebound, but questions about artificial intelligence and training initiatives remain in the air. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JAY WENNINGTON/UNSPLASH[/caption]
WILMINGTON — With social media continuing to break down barriers with food experiences, the Delaware Restaurant Association is starting to consider what it means in a small state, and how to best leverage it as a marketing tool.The National Restaurant Association's 2024 What's Hot Culinary Forecast highlights predicted trends that range from dishes like stuffed vegetables and Nashville Hot flavors to broader interests in TikTok and regionalized menus. The survey included results from 1,500 culinary professionals across the country.Chief among the trends were comfort foods like world soups, stressing a safe way to sample different regions cuisines. But TikTok has continued to grow as a force to share food narratives around regional menus.“I think where we are is that everyone knows you need to put content out there [on social media], but there’s also the question of influencers,” DRA Senior Communications Director Karen Stauffer said. “There are some that do get hired for promotions, and should that be part of a marketing strategy now? It also raises questions about the kind of venue you are. If you’re a fine dining establishment, do you want that kind of exposure?”There are a few Delaware influencers who have shined a spotlight on the First State, like Alexis Harris, who runs First State Destinations. Her posts that featured Big Chill Cantina and Crooked Hammock Brewery have racked up scores of likes. On TikTok, she has 43,000 followers.“It’s the first time I’ve heard of a few of these influencers being based in Delaware, so that’s exciting,” Stauffer added.Social media also can raise awareness of regional cuisine, which may help boost the culinary coast initiative launched by Southern Delaware Tourism earlier this year. But while Sussex County may be grabbing interest with farm-fresh ingredients and seafood dishes, it may leave questions for the rest of the state that identifies with being within five hours from New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.“Delaware is so tight-knit but we are so unique in that we’re so close to these hot food hubs on the East Coast. There are conversations about whether Delaware has a cuisine, and if it does, what is it,” Stauffer said. “We do focus on Mid-Atlantic fare, with poultry as our staple. But we have these beautiful farms with fresh produce available and seafood too. When we see diners that want Nashville hot chicken or Korean chicken wings, it’s interesting to see which of these trends will be adopted faster in Delaware and which will take a few years.”The survey also indicates that streamlining menus, or narrowing down offered dishes to a limited list of ingredients to cut down on costs and shipping delays, will still prove to be popular with restaurants But with the rise of artificial technology, there could be an opening to use the tool as a way to create menus with streamlined ingredients or costing out dishes.Inflation has also heavily impacted restaurants over the past three years, with wholesale food prices rising 25% between February 2020 and November 2023, according to the Producer Price Index for All Foods. Signs are showing that inflation is cooling off, with prices now down 5.6% from where they were in the start of 2023. Even though those prices leveled off, some dishes were more heavily impacted than others. Beef and veal prices are 25% more than they were a year ago, and confectionary materials rose at 16%, with refined sugar up at 10% more as well.For the DRA itself in the year ahead, Stauffer said the main focus will be about workforce in hospitality and tourism. Delaware projects that there are 544,000 people who work in the hospitality and leisure sector as of November — 4,800 more jobs than November 2022, according to the Delaware Bureau of Labor Statistics. “What we’ve been hearing is that we’re mostly back to where we are, but does our staff have the training to bring their service to the next level, and possibly even beyond where we were in the pandemic,” Stauffer said. “If you have a manager that’s looking to move up, or someone looking to get into management, or if you want specialized training, there’s not many places that offer that. It would be great to see if we can address that missing piece to invest in our employees.”
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