Sandwiches, desserts, sides/soups and salads led new item additions by chains during the latter half of 2002.
  • Ethnic foods have crept into non-ethnic chains.
  • Fruits and alcohol gain momentum.
  • Desserts continue to thrive.
  • Price is important.
Food developers watch the foodservice sector carefully, as today's restaurant entrees often inspire tomorrow's grocery store fare. In spite of the sluggish U.S. economy, consumers last year did not scale back on restaurant dining as much as scaled down the types of foods they eat and establishments they visited.

According to data provided by Food Beat™, Wheaton, Ill., which focused on the last half of 2002, restaurateurs were perceptive enough to understand that this is not a good time to raise restaurant prices. “Only 15.1% of menu items in the second half of 2002 showed a price increase. That's a smaller number when compared to 19% in the first half of 2002 and smaller still when compared to 27% during the first half of 2001,” states Diane Fox, partner, Food Beat. Conversely, 1.3% of menu items tracked in the database experienced a price decrease, suggesting operators recognize that cutting prices is not the way to build business. “Questions such as how to increase check averages and how to attract more people to an establishment continue to be important,” she notes.

The bread used to make sandwiches is becoming more important, as operators search for ways to distinguish their offerings.

Flavor and Fruit Trends

While prices decreased, the number of ethnic offerings on menus increased. For many Americans, their first exposure to ethnic foods occurs in restaurants. However, today's Generation Y has grown up in a world that has experienced more food diversity than generations past, and this demographic has adopted many ethnic foods as regular fare. “Consumers are looking for these choices wherever they eat. Chains are jumping on the global bandwagon to deliver those expectations,” explains Fox.

For example, Mexican and Thai foods can be found in chains that do not specialize in those cuisines. A Morning Quesadilla, a flour tortilla stuffed with scrambled eggs, bacon, peppers, onions, black beans, cilantro, cheddar and jack cheeses, and tomatillo sauce, was available at Cheesecake Factory, Calabasas Hills, Calif., $8.95; and a Thai Peanut Sandwich, chicken chunks, light plain cream cheese, Thai peanut sauce, lettuce, cucumber and sprouts, was on the menu at Bruegger's Bagel Bakery, Burlington, Vt., $4.29. The Hispanic dessert, dulce de leche, showed up under its namesake at T.G.I. Friday's, Dallas, $3.99.

Tropical fruits also had their day in the second half of 2002—both fruits that are well established such as banana and pineapple, and newer ones such as mango. All in all, bananas tended to be part of a dessert or smoothie, and their usage increased by 18%; pineapple was up by 16%, and mango soared by 21%. Another trend Fox notes is that tropical fruits often were blended together. Some examples: Groovie Smoothie with bananas, strawberries and vanilla ice cream at Red Robin, Englewood, Col., $3.49; Pineapple Mango Banana Smoothie at Atlanta Bread, Smyrna, Ga., $3.59; and BananaBerry Freeze at LongHorn Steakhouse, Atlanta, $1.99.

Pineapple appeared over a wide range of meal parts and included Thai Chicken Buffalitos Topped with Pineapple at Buffalo Wild Wings, Minneapolis, $5.49; Jamaican Chicken Marinated in Pineapple Soy and Ginger at Hops, Madison, Ga., $10.00; and Grilled Citrus Chicken with Pineapple Mango Citrus Salsa at T.G.I. Friday's, Dallas, $8.49.

Mango experienced a usage pattern similar to pineapple, as an ingredient in sauces and salsas. Case in point: Jamaican Jerk Pork with Apple Mango Salsa at Bahama Breeze, Orlando, Fla., $10.95; Ham Almondine Sandwich with Mango Chutney Cream Cheese at La Madeleine, Dallas, $6.79; and Mango Chicken Stir Fry Chicken Breast with mangoes, onions, bean sprouts and carrots at P.F. Chang's, Scottsdale, Ariz., $10.95.

Riding on antioxidant appeal, berry flavors are being incorporated into many mainstream products, such as ConAgra’s, Omaha, Neb., Healthy Choice brand strawberry crème bars.

Distinguished Soups and Sandwiches

The sandwich is a tasty, filling meal that continues to be offered inexpensively, and sales in this area experienced significant growth, with a 27% increase during the second half of 2002. In addition to traditional meat-based offerings, there were meatless additions such as Leonardo de Veggie, made up of light herb garlic cream cheese, roasted red pepper, muenster cheese, lettuce, tomato and red onion at Bruegger's Bagel Bakery, Burlington, Vt., $3.79. Also new was a Mediterranean Roasted Portabella Sandwich, with a roasted portabella mushroom cap, lettuce and Swiss cheese on a focaccia roll with roasted garlic olive oil tapenade, at La Madeleine, Dallas, $6.99.

Vegetarians have become pickier about the quality of their foods. Kraft’s, Glenview, Ill., Boca Burger brand recently introduced a re-formulated vegan patty.
One observation has been that sandwich operators are using specialty breads to distinguish their products. Fox notes, “Unspecified bread mentions decreased by 25% over the past four years. More attention is being paid to the type of bread. It's a simple way to improve the perceived value of the sandwich.” Breads gaining mention on menus included: lavashe, brioche, focaccia, rustic ciabatta, Cuban bread, toasted potato rye bread, sourdough bread and hardy French roll.

Last year was a watershed year for the combination of citrus and alcohol flavors. Tyson, Springdale, Ark., hops onto the bandwagon with its tequila lime chicken wings.
Moved by global forces and bold flavors, the soup sector offered regionally-inspired items such as Tortilla, Gumbo, Cuban Black Bean, Gazpacho and other soups described with adjectives such as rich, hearty, tarragon-seasoned, spicy and flavorful. While Food Beat did not register any new soups with the name “vegetarian,” two notable meatless additions were: Monterrey Mushroom Soup, consisting of shiitake, portabella and button mushrooms in a tarragon seasoned cream base, at J. Alexander's, Nashville, Tenn., $4.00; and Vedalia Onion Soup, with a three-cheese gratinee and tobacco onion straws, at Allie's American Grille, Washington, D.C., $4.95.

New vegetables also appeared as healthful steamed or stir fried side dishes (including spinach or broccoli) at Jerry's Famous Deli, Studio City, Calif. Other offerings included asparagus with cardamom butter and seaweed salad at Legal Seafoods, Allston, Mass., $2.95 each.

Delicious Desserts

The dessert segment continued to boom, as patrons decidedly abandoned concern about their figures for emotional gratification. Chocolate is still the most popular flavor on menus, as evidenced by the following mentions: The Great Wall of Chocolate, a rich chocolate cake at P.F. Chang's, Scottsdale, Ariz., $6.95; and Lava Cake, a chocolate cake with hot fudge at Tumbleweed Southwest Grille, Louisville, Ky., $4.99.

Several varieties of cheesecake and apple pie also were added, as were alcohol-infused desserts. Those worth mentioning in the latter category include: Captivating Carrot Cake, pecan carrot cake with cream cheese icing and a sauce featuring Southern Comfort, at Jillian's, Louisville, Ky., $4.99; and a flan with almonds and Amaretto at Bice, New York, $7.50.

Foodservice operators interested in attracting new business would do well in increasing their ethnic food offerings, upgrading sandwich options and enhancing their dessert menus to include both indulgent and fruit-based products. Long-term, these strategies bode well in helping to expand their customer base and build repeat business.

Food Beat™ Inc., Wheaton, Ill., tracks product usage and menu activity at the nation's top 200 restaurant chains, as well as at up-and-coming chains and high-profile, trend-setting independents. Phone: 630-690-8790; e-mail: info@foodbeat.com; website: www.foodbeat.com.

Sidebar: Going Global

As in other food-related areas, the foodservice sector has been dominated by global influences that blur the line between mainstream and ethnic cuisines. In a report titled “Ethnic Cuisines II,” released by the National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C., last year, the organization notes that Mexican, Italian and Chinese (Cantonese) foods no longer are considered foreign foods, as they are part of the mainstream American menu.

Articles presented in previous issues of this magazine note the move toward bold, more exotic flavors continues, and that up-and-coming cuisines include African, Indian, Caribbean (Floribbean), and South American flavors.

Launches in 2002 that confirm Hispanic foods continue to remain strong include Egg Custard and Coconut Custard pies by Country Home Bakers, Shelton, Conn. The same company introduced breads such as Bolillos, Semas and Pan Cookies. Atlanta Foods, Atlanta, presented a shelf-stable cheese dip under the Queso Melt brand. Also in the same year, ConAgra Food's, Omaha, Neb., Rosarita brand introduced Chicken and Vegetables in Southwest Style Sauce that contains “fire roasted onions, strips of red and green peppers, sliced chicken breast strips, black beans and corn, all in a Southwest sauce.”

Grains from other countries continued to be intriguing. Don's Food Products, Philadelphia, presented seven new ready-to-serve Grain Salads, with varieties such as Wheatberry Salad, Wild Ride Medley and Vegetable Hummus.

The information in this article was derived from Mintel International's Global New Products Database, www.gnpd.com, 312-932-0400.

Website Resources

www.foodservice.com/news — Good source of foodservice industry news
www.restaurant.org/frameindex.cfm — National Restaurant Association home page
www.PreparedFoods.com/archives/2003/2003_2/0203future.htm — International foodservice feature
www.technomic.com — Food industry consulting firm