Changing attitudes, consumer acceptance and widespread legalization all have moved the conversation about cannabis-related products from antiquated, stereotypical perspectives to an entirely new world of corporate investment.

One of the biggest opportunities is with cannabidiol (CBD), an ingredient you’ve no doubt seen in food industry news quite a bit this year. But just what is it, how can it be used, why is it so popular and what are the implications for the restaurant industry?


Big Picture Possibilities

Cannabis contains the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive cannabis component that results in a “high” when decarboxylated and consumed. Cannabis plants grown as “industrial hemp” are bred to have almost non-existent THC levels, but often high CBD (cannabidiol) levels—a compound that is growing extremely popular for its reported medical and overall health benefits, such as pain relief, help with anxiety, inflammation relief, help in coping with cancer treatments, and more.

What accounts for this sudden interest? Due to the public’s demand, more and more states have legalized medical and/or recreational cannabis sales. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. states now have legalized some form of cannabis. And increasingly, U.S. lawmakers see that success and want it for their states.

CBD-infused product sales have skyrocketed, appealing to those who want the beneficial effects without the high. Consumers are looking for easier, tastier and more-healthful ways to reap the rewards of cannabis and CBD, which has increased the appeal of legal cannabis edibles and beverages. The recently passed 2018 Farm Bill has legalized the production of industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity, removed it from the controlled substances list and approved it as a covered commodity under crop insurance.

The CBD market is exploding, as hemp-derived cannabinoids are showing up in just about every consumer packaged-good product (even though the current legality of CBD in foods and beverages varies from state to state). The Brightfield Group, a leading predictive analytics and market research firm for the legal cannabis industry, has projected that the CBD market will approach $5.7 billion this year, potentially developing a market worth of $22 billion by 2022.


Menu Maneuvers

Although new legal cannabis edibles and beverages available at retail garner most of the headlines, there’s just as much interest and activity on restaurant menus.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) conducted a survey of chefs across the country for its annual “What’s Hot” culinary forecast for 2019. Results showed nearly 77 percent of those chefs identified cannabis-infused beverages as the No. 1 trend for 2019. Coming in at a close second at 76 percent was cannabis-infused food.

Those numbers speak to the intense consumer interest in the mainstreaming of once-forbidden ingredients. Chefs are responding to their customers, and food manufacturers serving the foodservice market are—or should be—paying attention to this burgeoning major trend.

CBD-infused food and beverages are available across the country in many venues. Consumers can order a CBD-infused mojito or dessert at an upscale hotel in Los Angeles, or a doughnut topped with a deep-fried hemp leaf and CBD-infused coffee in Denver. Seattle restaurants also are hosting dinners with cannabis pairings.

This spring, national QSR chain Carl’s Jr. (CKE Restaurants) tested its latest menu innovation, The Rocky Mountain High CheeseBurger Delight, made with CBD, for one day only on April 20 at a Carl’s Jr. restaurant location in Denver.

The Rocky Mountain High CheeseBurger Delight features two charbroiled beef patties paired with Carl’s Jr. signature Santa Fe Sauce infused with CBD oil, pickled jalapeños, pepper jack cheese and CrissCut fries to give the burger extra crunch, and was sold for $4.20. It’s reportedly the first fast-food item to include CBD. 

“The new Rocky Mountain High CheeseBurger Delight ties back to our core strategy of being the first to bring bold and unexpected flavors that are at the forefront of hot restaurant trends to a quick-service menu,” says Patty Trevino, senior vice president, brand marketing, Carl’s Jr.

Reports indicate that more than 2,200 burgers were sold that day, until the location ran out of supply. Sales of the burgers alone topped Carl’s Jr.’s average nationwide daily per-unit sales.

Healthy fast-casual concept Protein Bar & Kitchen, Chicago, offers CBD oil as a boost on its menu.

“We’re constantly making upgrades to our menu and evolving based on what appeals to our guests,” says Jeff Drake, CEO. “Protein Bar & Kitchen has a long history of being ahead of the curve on trends such as collagen, riced cauliflower, quinoa and the very idea of healthy fast-casual dining.” 

Protein Bar & Kitchen’s CBD oil can be added to items like shakes or coffee for $2.99. Making CBD an optional addition, with an upcharge, offers flexibility.

The Milwaukee Brat House, with locations in Milwaukee and Shorewood, WI, has infused brats, beer mustard and sauerkraut with CBD. The CBD-infused mustard and sauerkraut can be added to a variety of other menu items. The CBD used in the items comes from Wisconsin-grown industrial hemp. Drew Retherford, event and promotions manager, has noted that if customers respond favorably to the items, more will follow.

In fall 2018, The Mint Dispensary, Tempe, AZ, a medicinal cannabis dispensary company, launched a full-service medical cannabis kitchen called Mint Café. Now patients seeking relief through medicinal cannabis can access freshly prepared, cannabis-infused meals created by a professional chef.
The kitchen offers breakfast, lunch and dinner options, in addition to snacks. While pre-packaged, shelf-stable food items have been available at dispensaries, patients now have access to fresh foods that are prepared on-site with customized levels of cannabis.

“Our industry continues to evolve at an exponential pace,” said Eivan Shahara, CEO, The Mint Dispensary. “We saw a large unmet need from patients who were regularly visiting our dispensary. They were looking to access fresh and healthy cannabis-infused foods. We know that the right kinds of healthy foods can help people to battle a variety of illnesses, from cancer and epilepsy to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. We’re using our knowledge about food and nutrition to help patients in their search for fresh, healthy snacks and infused meals.” 

Shahara said the kitchen offers a complete menu of artisan burgers, pastas, pizza and other cannabis-infused meals that patients can order to-go. The new kitchen also features a barista, a juice bar, gelato and a wide assortment of pastries. Chef Carylann Principal, a classically trained chef and cancer survivor, created all of the recipes for the dispensary. She joined The Mint Dispensary’s team as executive chef to share her food and nutrition knowledge with other people who are facing similar battles. 

“Our kitchen is one of a kind,” Principal says. “It’s a place where art meets science. In addition to understanding the variety of flavors that different cannabis strains can add to any dish, we’re also carefully calculating customized cannabis doses. We’re not only delivering delicious and fresh foods, but we’re also meeting the often-complex nutritional needs of patients who are living with a wide range of illnesses.”

Hemp seeds are also finding an expanding role in the cannabis and CBD story. Widespread use of U.S.-grown hemp seeds was previously restricted by legislation, but the recent farm bill opens up that market.

Hemp seeds are an excellent source of plant protein. To date, they have been underutilized as a source of protein in menu items. They are used to create hemp milk, can go into smoothies, could work as a nutty topping for various menu items, and can form the basis of a finishing oil.

Since hemp is gluten-free, hemp seeds work as a substitute for breadcrumbs and in other gluten-replacement applications. Hemp seeds are also a good substitute for those who suffer from nut allergies.


Bottoms Up

The alcohol alternative market holds much promise across the cannabis industry. U.S.-based alcoholic beverage companies have made big investments in cannabis product development, starting with products for the Canadian market. Last year, Constellation Brands invested $3.9 billion in the cannabis company Canopy Growth.

Molson Coors also announced last year that its Canadian business formed a joint venture with Hydropothecary Corp. to create a portfolio of non-alcoholic, cannabis-infused drinks for sale in Canada. Molson Coors projects that the Canadian cannabis drink industry may hit $3 billion.

In California, Rebel Coast Winery has developed a cannabis-infused wine. However, in California alcohol and cannabis cannot be sold under the same roof or in the same bottle. In this instance, Rebel Coast makes the wine, removes just the alcohol, and replaces it with fast-acting THC. Each glass has 10 mg of THC. A marketable plus is that traditional wines have about 150 calories per glass while the cannabis wine has just under 50 calories per glass.

Blue Moon founder Keith Villa has also created a non-alcoholic beer with 5 mg of THC. The first beer was introduced in select states as part of his new venture CERIA Brewing.

Elsewhere, Anheuser-Busch InBev has partnered with medical cannabis firm Tilray to study cannabinoid- and THC-infused non-alcoholic drinks. They’ve invested $50 million in the project.

As cannabis and hemp laws continue to broaden in the U.S., Canada, Europe and other countries around the globe, beverage brands are increasingly committing research dollars to the use of cannabis and CBD ingredients in products. During 2018 alone, investments in the North American cannabis market topped $10 billion, and that number is expected to grow even higher this year.


Looking Ahead

CBD is still technically banned for use as a food ingredients on the federal level, even though you’ll see it widely available from health-food stores to supermarkets. Getting approval for its use would require the same procedures that pharmaceutical companies undergo to bring a new drug to market.

However, restaurant operators could get that approval to incorporate CBD into their foods and beverages. FDA announced that it would conduct a comprehensive review of the regulations currently governing use of the CBD. Gaining FDA approval for use of CBD will be a major step along the road of ensuring top food safety and quality standards.

It’s hard to overstate just how quickly CBD has become almost ubiquitous. You’ll find it in everything from pet products to coffee to candy and breath mints. And CBD’s expansion onto restaurant menus is just the latest step in the journey of cannabis from the margins of society to center stage.

Laura MacPhail, president, and Sandra Winters, director, lead Foodservice Immersion (, a Hamilton, MA consultancy that organizes and leads small group "immersion" programs. The programs help foodservice professionals better understand operator and menu trends. Foodservice Immersion will host a "Hemp & Cannabis in Food" event on September 17 to 18, 2019 in Denver.

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