Popeye would be so happy. Spinach is one of the most popular vegetables on a la carte menus. Is it one of the “next big things”?
New flavors, bold flavors and multiple flavor combinations characterize many of the new items making their debut on menus of the nation's top 200 chains (those with annual sales roughly at $70 million or higher) during the first half of 2003. Successful operators, from quick service to fine dining establishments, have maximized the use of flavors to attract customers, improve margins and differentiate themselves from their competitors.

A sampling of menu items introduced in early 2003 appears throughout this article. It is interesting to note several of the operators are in the family coffee shop segment, not traditionally known for flavor innovations. However, as the following items show, operators across the board understand the advantages flavored items bring to the menu.

Boneless Shanghai Wings — Crispy breaded chicken breast tossed in ginger citrus sauce and topped with sesame seeds. Served with Wasabi ranch dressing (Chili's, Dallas, $5.99)

Grilled Chicken Supermelt — A delicious blend of incredible flavors. Grilled chicken breast, crisp bacon, grilled baby portobello mushrooms, roasted red pepper garlic sauce and melted Swiss cheese on grilled honey dill bread (Friendly's, Wilbraham, Mass., $7.29)

Blackened Chicken Taco Salad — A festive medley of spicy chicken breast and black olives. All atop fresh garden greens in a crispy tomato tortilla shell, served with ancho bacon dressing, Pace salsa and confetti straws (Perkins Restaurant and Bakery, Memphis, Tenn., $6.99)

Roasted Vegetable Sandwich — Marinated portobello mushrooms, roasted zucchini, squash and red bell peppers served hot on ciabatta with savory pesto mayonnaise (la Madeleine, Dallas, $6.49)

For the following overview of flavor trends, the menus of the 200 largest chains nationwide, called “The Top 200,” were studied, as well as a group labeled “Trendspotters,” made up of 50 high-profile, trendsetting and independent operators who tend to be early adapters of new ingredients and flavors. Three different menu categories—entrées, side dishes and desserts—highlight how operators use flavors to enhance customer appeal and profitability.

Describing how the main entrée is prepared (for example, using words such as “grilled” or “seared”) showcases flavor enhancement and creates greater customer appeal.

Enter the Entrées

Taking the time to enhance and describe how the center of the plate is prepared—whether it is beef, pork, chicken, fish or shellfish—provides an excellent opportunity for chain operators to showcase their menu flavors. The following menu items include marinades, glazes, crusts and other flavor descriptors, in addition to cooking techniques such as grilling and searing. As these examples demonstrate, the more information used to describe an item, the greater the customer appeal.

Baja Steak — 12-oz., center-cut sirloin marinated in a savory onion and herb vinaigrette. Served on a bed of crispy blue and red corn tortilla chips (Charlie Brown's Steakhouse, Mountainside, N.J., $13.49)

Hawaiian Steak — 8-oz. top sirloin grilled in a special island marinade and finished with a ginger glaze and green onions. Served with a grilled fresh pineapple slice, rice and fresh veggies (Chili's, Dallas, $11.99)

Rib-Eye al Chianti — This grilled 14-oz. certified Angus beef rib eye steak is topped with roasted garlic Chianti sauce. Served with garlic mashed potatoes and fresh grilled vegetables (Romano's Macaroni Grill, Dallas, $16.99)

Sizzling Sirloin & Scampi — “Good in butter. Better in your mouth.” Seared petite sirloin steak served with shrimp, broiled in white wine and citrus butter sauce. Accompanied by Ruby's signature baked potato, onion straws and steamed broccoli (Ruby Tuesday, Marysville, Tenn., $14.99)

Yucatan Chicken — “More 'bueno' than ever!” Fresh cilantro-citrus marinated chicken roasted and served on a skillet with potato wedges, sautéed fresh vegetables, rice and “salsa quemada,” with warm tortillas (Acapulco, Long Beach, Calif., $7.99)

Char Grilled Ancho Chicken Breast — Marinated in citrus juices and fresh herbs, then flame grilled; served with roasted ancho pepper sauce, crisp fried yucca, fresh steamed asparagus and vine ripened tomato salsa (Bahama Breeze, Orlando, Fla., $9.95)

Blackened Chicken Pesto Pasta — Blackened chicken strips are tossed with al dente penne pasta and simmered in a flavorful cheese and red pepper pesto cream sauce with a hint of garlic, capers, cilantro, sun-dried tomato and a pinch of Parmesan cheese (Champps, Greenwood, Colo., $12.95)

Herb Chicken — Tender chicken baked in a citrus herb rub, topped with a tomato basil salsa (The Keg Steakhouse & Bar, Bellevue, Wash., $13.95)

Flaherty's Famous Fish — A lightly dusted and pan-seared mild, flaky white fish filet served over pesto orzo, then drizzled with a savory lemon butter sauce. Topped with capers and fried onions and served with fresh green beans (Bennigan's, Plano, Texas, $12.99)

Cajun, as much a concept as a flavor, adds appeal to a variety of items.
Fresh Halibut — Served in season. Crumb-crusted, fresh Northern Halibut with tomatoes, artichokes, capers, basil and balsamic vinaigrette. Served over mashed potatoes (Cheesecake Factory, Calabasas Hills, Calif., $17.95)

Pan Seared Tilapia — Tilapia is a mild fish. Pan-seared to get a glaze crust and served over a bowl of white Italian beans cooked in a broth with fresh basil and other herbs (Houlihan's, Kansas City, Mo., $13.99, lunch $9.99)

Scallops A Cappella Dinner — Half a pound of sweet Atlantic scallops brick oven-broiled with extra virgin olive oil. Accented by roasted garlic and a hint of rosemary, topped with crispy crumbs (Bertucci's, Northborough, Mass. $12.99)

For an operator, not merchandising flavors and ingredients to their customer represents lost sales opportunities. As these entrées illustrate, “If you've got it flaunt it.” This can be a good rule of thumb for operators interested in creating a unique identity and, ultimately, increasing their profitability.

Distinctive Side Dishes

Surprisingly, chain menus are somewhat limited in their flavor applications on side dishes. However, the Trendspotter group features numerous flavor additions to common center-of-the plate accompaniments. The following examples include the restaurant name as well as the chef/proprietor.

Flavored mashed potatoes make up 75% of mashed potato menu mentions. Frequently, the flavor enhancers used in these examples are pantry items, but are not commonly used to flavor mashed potatoes. However, using these flavors is a simple way to make mashed potatoes an even more interesting complement to the entrée.

Smoked bacon whipped potatoes (Charleston Grill, Charleston, S.C., Robert Waggoner, $4.50)

Olive oil mashed potatoes (LuLu, San Francisco, Reed Hearon, $3.95)

Black olive mashed potatoes (Rosemary's, Las Vegas, Michael and Wendy Jordan, $4.50)

Sun-dried tomato mashed potatoes (Strings, Denver, Noel Cunningham)

Consumers are attracted to restaurant items with bold distinctive flavors detailed on the menu.
Trendspotter menus featuring a la carte side dishes also use flavor as a way to create signature items. Spinach is one of the most popular vegetables offered on an a la carte basis. The following examples highlight ingredients used to create a flavor-oriented point of difference.

Crispy spinach (Baang Café & Bar, Greenwich, Conn., Restaurant Group, $8.00)

Spinach fondue, artisan Manchego (Chef Allen's, Miami Beach, Allen Susser, $8.95)

Spinach with garlic, olive oil and lemon (LuLu, San Francisco, Reed Hearon, $4.25)

Creamed spinach and leeks (Park Avenue Café, New York, Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, $8.50)

Though most often featured as a flavoring agent, several Trendspotter operators offer onions as a side dish, with flavor and preparation upgrades that go beyond conventional onion rings; the result is a creative, signature item.

Spicy chili onion rings (Buckhead Diner, Atlanta, Thomas Lee, $3.95)

Crispy battered onion rings (Fog City Diner, San Francisco, Bruce Hill, $4.95)

Cebollitas asadas — grilled green onions (Frontera Grill, Chicago, Rick Bayless, $0.95)

Grilled slices of sweet red onion (Union Square Café, New York, Danny Meyer, $3.75)

Chocolate, the most popular flavor on dessert menus, is enhanced by other flavors such as raspberry sauce.

Delivering the Desserts

Most restaurant operators and patrons alike agree that chocolate is far and away the most popular flavor on dessert menus, and Food Beat's database confirms this. Some of the newest chocolate dessert offerings finding their way onto chain menus in the first six months of 2003 include:

Chocolate Meltdown Cake (Chi-Chi's, Irvine, Calif., $5.14)

Three-Layer Chocolate Cake (Lone Star Steakhouse, Wichita, Kan., $4.49)

Chocolate Stampede — Two peaks of chocolate cake packed with six types of chocolate including chocolate mousse, fudge icing and chocolate shavings! Served with vanilla bean ice cream, fudge sauce and whipped cream (LongHorn Steakhouse, Atlanta, $5.99)

Triple Chocolate Brownie — Baked fresh daily. It's Mimi's own recipe with dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate melted into the batter, served with warm vanilla bean ice cream (Mimi's Café, Los Angeles, $4.99)

12-Layer Chocolate Cake — Layer after layer of moist chocolate cake and rich creamy frosting. Served with vanilla ice cream, drizzled with chocolate and topped with pecans. “Plan to Share!” (The Spaghetti Warehouse, Dallas, $5.99)

Chocolate Rush — Layers of rich chocolate fudge, dark chocolate mousse, white chocolate mascarpone mousse, chocolate cake and rich chocolate ganache, topped with shaved white chocolate and served with drizzled raspberry sauce. Two slices. (TGI Friday's, Dallas, $4.29)

There is just no stopping one of the most popular desserts in foodservice, which is cheesecake. Several variations of cheesecake were added to menus in early 2003.

Dulche de Leche Cheesecake (Applebee's, Overland Park, Kan., $3.99)

Pecan Praline Cheesecake — The restaurant's famous whipped cheesecake, finished in true New Orleans fashion: fresh pecans in hazelnut praline syrup! (Copeland's, Metairie, La., $5.50)

Cheesecake — Rich and creamy (IHOP Glendale, Calif., $1.99)

White Chocolate Cheesecake — Served with a raspberry sauce (J. Alexander's, Nashville, Tenn., $5.00)

Caffe Latte Cheesecake — Espresso-flavored cheesecake with warm chocolate ganache topped with fresh whipped cream (Romano's Macaroni Grill, Dallas)

Caramel Apple Cheesecake — Luscious, made-from-scratch, New York-style cheesecake with fresh apples simmered in cinnamon and spices in a rich, buttery caramel sauce (Marie Callender's Pie Shops, Aliso Viejo, Calif., $5.99)

Four Big Flavors

Examples of flavor extensions are found in the application of what Food Beat calls the Four Big Flavors: Barbecue, Buffalo, Caesar and Cajun. All four of these flavor profiles have grown from a specific menu item descriptor to applications in various menu items.

Barbecue. Barbecue, as a flavor category, has come a long way from the original slow-cooked meat and now represents a major flavor enhancer. Barbecue sauce has evolved into multiple flavors over and above the original styles of Kansas City, Memphis, St. Louis and other traditional barbecue regions, as illustrated by the following:

BBQ Ranch Dressing (Ninety-Nine Restaurant, Woburn, Mass.)

Chipotle BBQ Tenders (O'Charley's, Nashville, Tenn.)

Tamarind BBQ Sauce (El Torito Grill, Long Beach, Calif.)

Hawaiian Barbecue Sauce (Dave & Buster's, Dallas)

Buffalo. Like barbecue sauce, Buffalo sauce has grown beyond the original spicy wings application. The celery and bleu cheese accompaniments often are included as the flavor moves from appetizers to other menu parts. The following menu examples demonstrate the shift of Buffalo flavor from strictly appetizers to pizza, sandwiches and entrées.

Buffalo Zinger Pizza — with grilled chicken covered in hot sauce (Miller's Ale House, Jupiter, Fla.)

Buffalo Chicken Sandwich — with bleu cheese dressing (Logan's Roadhouse, Nashville, Tenn.)

Buffalo Chicken Fajitas — Tortilla-crusted chicken strips coated with Buffalo Hot Sauce (Chi-Chi's, Irvine, Calif.)

Buffalo Popcorn Chicken Dinner — Chunks of breaded and fried chicken breast, tossed in Buffalo sauce, served with blue cheese dressing, celery sticks, French fries and toasted garlic bread (Flying J Travel Plazas/Country Market, Ogden, Utah)

Caesar. For years, the Caesar salad—with its various protein options—has been a popular mainstay on chain menus across America, as well as a frequently featured salad dressing. But the Caesar flavor now has expanded to other parts of the menu and can be used to enhance profitability. Which sounds more flavorful and can, ultimately, command a higher price—a grilled chicken sandwich with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, or a grilled chicken Caesar sandwich with creamy Caesar dressing, crisp romaine and shaved Parmesan on a crusty ciabatta roll? Here are some examples of recently introduced menu items that take Caesar beyond a salad.

Caesar Chicken Salad Pizza (Jillian's, Louisville, Ky.)

Turkey and Spin Dip Sandwich — Sliced, oven-roasted turkey layered with Swiss cheese, red onions and tomatoes. Served on a Ciabatta roll with Caesar dressing and topped with spinach and artichoke spread (Applebee's, Overland Park, Kan.)

Chicken Caesar Calzonetto — with tomato, fresh spinach, mozzarella and Caesar dressing (Romano's Macaroni Grill, Dallas)

Cajun. Cajun—as much a concept as a flavor—has the widest application across meal parts of any of the four big flavors. Cajun connotes some heat, which blends well with other flavors and ingredients. It is paired with all center-of-the-plate proteins including beef, pork, chicken, fish and shellfish, and enhances appetizers, salads, sandwiches, burgers, pizza, sides and even breakfast items. As the following menu items indicate, Cajun adds appeal to a variety of foods.

Black and Bleu Chicken Quesadilla — Grilled flour tortilla stuffed with blackened chicken, Jack cheese, bacon, tomatoes, green onions and just a sprinkle of bleu cheese (Mimi's Café, Los Angeles)

Cajun Chicken Caesar Salad (Marie Callender's Pie Shops, Aliso Viejo, Calif.)

Grilled New Orleans Style Catfish — Two tender southern catfish fillets grilled with a touch of Cajun spices (Bob Evans, Columbus, Ohio)

Cajun Chicken Pasta — Seasoned with Cajun spices served on linguini tossed with Alfredo sauce and topped with Parmesan cheese (O'Charley's Nashville, Tenn.)

Whether it's an entrée, a side dish or dessert, or a new twist on an old familiar flavoring, the sampling of menu descriptions highlighted here illustrates how various operators are using flavor to create a point of difference in their menu offerings and deliver customer appeal. Bon Appetit!

Food Beat™ Inc., located in 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: 630-580-5112; email: info@foodbeat.com; website: www.foodbeat.com.

Website Resources

www.restaurant.org/ — Home page of the National Restaurant Association
www.porktimes.org/Barbecue.cfm — BBQ recipes from the National Pork Board

Sidebar: Do You Want to Know More?

A food company's survival depends, in part, on its ability to track new product trends. Diane Fox, author of this article, will speak at Prepared Foods' New Products Conference at the Four Seasons Resort, Palm Beach, Fla., on Wednesday morning, September 17, 2003. Her presentation, “Moving to the Foodservice Beat,” analyzes creative measures taken by chain operators to bring together flavors, ingredients and cooking techniques. An analysis will be made of new menu items by chain, market segment and meal parts. Fox's presentation will be in addition to case studies by R&D speakers from Starbucks, Tyson Foods and Cadbury Schweppes…plus many more.

For more information, contact Marge Whalen at 630-694-4347 or whalenm@bnp.com.