Appealing Appetizers

The big flavor news in appetizers is in the sauces that accompany the appetizer. Some 44% of appetizers offered by the top 200 restaurant chains include a sauce, dip or dressing. Sauces are moving away from the old standards to new varieties like citrus mustard, tangy tropical, spicy plum tomato, chipotle sauce, sweet hot chili sauce and even a pina colada sauce.

Dips

Chain operators are adding dips in a range of flavors that are distinctly theirs, to create signature items. Recent examples include:
Queso Dip - Sausage and cheese dip with a kick, served hot with tortilla chips (Ale House, Jupiter, Fla., $5.45)
Spicy Cheddar Dip - With chopped red and jalapeno peppers and spices. Served with warm tortilla chips (Cooker Bar & Grille, Nashville, Tenn., $3.99)
Shrimp and Crab Fondue - Hot dip made with Parmesan cheese, shrimp and crabmeat. Served with slices of toasted French bread (Uno, W. Roxbury, Mass., $7.99)

“Roll” Appetizers

“Roll” appetizers of varying types, from lettuce wraps to egg rolls, have been growing in popularity. Some of the newer roll appetizers on chain menus include:
Dynamite Sticks - Three Southwest egg rolls stuffed with smoked chicken and spicy cheeses. Served with chipotle ranch dressing (Tumbleweed Southwest Grill, Louisville, Ken., $5.99)
Firecracker Crab Rolls - Three seasoned crab cakes in crisp spring roll wrappers with Cajun dipping sauce (T.G.I. Friday's, Dallas, $6.99)
Crispy Chicken Spring Rolls - With chicken, salsa, Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese, wrapped in flour tortillas and fried crisp (Charlie Brown's Steakhouse, Mountainside, N.J., $4.99)

Seafood Appetizers

Other noteworthy new appetizers include the increased use of seafood, especially shrimp, and spinach/artichoke combinations (as the following examples demonstrate):
Coconut Shrimp - With an orange ginger marmalade (Legal Sea Foods, Allston, Mass., $9.95)
Gulf Coast Shrimp Bake - With shrimp, crabmeat, spinach, artichokes and cheese topped with a buttery cracker crumble (Eat 'n' Park, Pittsburgh, $3.99)

Some 44% of appetizers offered by the top 200 restaurant chains include a sauce, dip or dressing.

Emerging Entrée Salads

The “composed” salad (those with a specified dressing, that is, dressings pre-determined by the restaurant) continues to account for the majority of entrée salads (58%) on chain menus. The composed salad tends to appear more frequently in dinner houses, while a salad in which the customer is given a choice of dressing has a higher incidence of being featured in the family dining and QSR segments.

One of the ongoing menu trends in entrée salads is the use of a mixed variety of greens. Another trend in flavor and texture components is the increased use of “crisp” ingredients such as noodles, fried tortilla strips, wontons and nuts. Nuts often are further prepared including being candied, seasoned or caramelized.

Seafood Caesars

In composed salads, Caesar continues in popularity with a number of newer items showcasing seafood as the protein:
Shrimp Caesar (Ground Round, Braintree, Mass., $8.99)
Shrimp Caesar (Uno, W. Roxbury, Mass., $8.99)
Grilled Salmon Caesar which includes diced eggs (Copeland's, Metairie, La., $11.95)
Grilled Salmon Caesar (Damon's Grill, Columbus, $10.49)

Chicken-Based Salads

Chicken as the characterizing ingredient in a composed entrée salad is being paired more frequently with fruits.
Raspberry Grilled Chicken Salad - Grilled chicken, strawberries and pineapple tossed with crisp greens and topped with crumbled Bleu cheese, red onions, scallions and bacon. Served with raspberry vinaigrette (Bob Evans, Columbus, $6.79)
Luau Salad - Fresh slices of chicken breast layered with mixed greens, cucumbers, green onions, red and yellow peppers, green beans, mango and crisp wontons (Cheesecake Factory, Calabasas Hills, Calif., $10.95)
Honey Lime Salad with Grilled Chicken - Warm, tender chicken scattered on tossed greens and fruit…loads of mandarin oranges, fresh pineapple and strawberries, plus cucumbers, tomatoes, crunchy salad toppings and a sweet honey lime dressing (Damon's Grill, Columbus, $8.99) Mandarin Chicken Salad (Wendy's, Dublin, Ohio, $3.99)

Bolder Sandwiches

Sandwiches comprise a huge category on chain menus, with endless variations. In keeping with the growth of bolder flavors across most menu parts and market segments, a number of noteworthy new sandwich items have been added to menus in several QSR and family segments. Examples are as follows.

Chicken-Based Sandwiches

Chicken Parmesan Sandwich - Golden-fried chicken breast with marinara sauce, melted Swiss and shredded Parmesan cheese on grilled sourdough with lettuce and tomato (Denny's, Spartanburg, S.C., $5.79)
Chicken Caesar Sandwich - Grilled, shaved chicken breast and Caesar salad topped with Swiss cheese on a ciabatta roll (la Madeleine, Dallas, $6.49)
Honey Bourbon Chicken - Tender, all-white-meat chicken strips, lettuce, tomato, red onion, Honey-Bourbon Mustard, Grille Sauce and spices served on wheat bread (Quizno's Subs, Denver, $5.49 for regular size)
Grilled Teriyaki Chicken - Grilled Teriyaki Chicken Breast, topped with a ring of Grilled Pineapple, chopped Green Onions & Sesame Mayonnaise on a Homestyle Round Bun (Boston Market, Golden, Col., $4.99)

The Burger Business

The emphasis in burgers on chain menus has shifted from plain hamburgers to specialty burgers. Two contrasting ideas have surfaced—spicy and cool—in new burger offerings. Examples in the spicy category are as follows.
5-Alarm Burger - All-beef burger topped with pepper jack cheese, jalapenos, tangy salsa, tomato, lettuce and chipotle mayo (Red Robin, Englewood, Col., $7.49)
Colossal Mexican Burger - With spicy Ranchero con Queso, special fajita seasonings, chunky salsa and melted Pepper Jack cheese (Friendly's, Wilbraham, Mass., $6.99) Other operators combined spicy and cool in the same burger.
Peppercorn Ranch Burger - Crushed black peppercorns topped with lettuce, tomato, crispy onion straws, pickles and ranch dressing (Cheddar's, Arlington, Texas, $4.89)
Chipotle Bleu Cheese Bacon Burger - Spicy and smoky with chipotle pepper sauce, bleu cheese crumbles, bacon, lettuce, tomato, pickle & bleu cheese dressing (Chili's, Dallas, $6.49)

Vegetarian Sandwiches

Vegetarian sandwiches have been added by a number of chains. Some of the more noteworthy offer signature breads to enhance the appeal of the sandwich.
California Grilled Vegetable Sandwich - Fresh marinated zucchini, sweet red bell peppers and yellow squash, flame-grilled and served with Merlot mushrooms, melted Monterey Jack cheese and a side of Italian dressing (Tony Roma's, Dallas, $5.99)
Roasted Veggies Sandwich - Fresh vegetables, marinated and roasted, served on a toasted garlic roll, topped with Swiss cheese and Ranch dressing (Ruby Tuesday, Maryville, Tenn., $6.99)
Village Veggie on Pesto Focaccia - Roasted red peppers, crisp leaf lettuce, green peppers, fresh tomato, sliced red onion, sliced cucumber and vegetable cream cheese, dressed with chipotle mayonnaise on freshly baked pesto focaccia bread (Manhattan Bagel, Eatontown, N.J., $5.25)

In studying menus from the top 200 chains, “bold” sums up the flavor story. Today's operators are working to offer consumers a wide variety of flavor profiles. In doing so, they reap the rewards of a more satisfied patron.

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: 630-690-8790; email: info@foodbeat.com; website: a href="http://www.foodbeat.com">www.foodbeat.com