From New York to Vancouver, Omaha to Miami, upscale restaurant customers are deciding what the next big fast-casual dining trends will be. They vote with their credit cards and with their wallets. In every American city, “small plates” are big hits. What was once only the first course is rapidly becoming the main event.

Amuse? Hors d'oeuvre? Appetizer? Tapa?

As Starbucks (Seattle) did for “gourmet” coffee, savvy menu marketers are creating a new lexicon for appetizers. Trendy diners now know the difference between an amuse bouche (literally “amusement for the mouth”…the tiny free teaser of taste served immediately before you order) and a small plate or a tapa. And just as customers flocked to Starbucks to pay $3.00 for a cup of gourmet coffee, people are now ordering three, four or even more gourmet appetizers at a meal. At Chicago's TRU restaurant, chef Rick Tramonto's signature appetizer--the Crystal Caviar Staircase--costs $75. TRU makes a three- to four-hour event out of every dinner. With wine, dinner for two at TRU might easily cost $400. And, that gourmet experience is made up entirely of tiny small plates, exquisite little works of culinary art!

Low-carb Leads to Small Plates

Customers trying to stay on the popular Atkins Diet have discovered a delightful coincidence. Many of the deliciously rich meats, cheeses and shellfish used to create the most popular classic hors d'oeuvres just happen to be high in protein and low in carbs.

Bacon? Lobster? Paté? Dig in! It is all diet food now, since it is all low-carb. So long as the portions are small, the low-carb fans can enjoy rich gourmet meals. Meals entirely made up of small plates.

Charcuterie is the traditional culinary art of creating sausages, forcemeats, patés, smoked fish or meats, and other gourmet, high-protein delicacies. For hundreds of years, this specialty of the culinary arts was a mainstay of every grand hotel kitchen.

Unilever's (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.) certified master chef (CMC), Steve Jilleba, passed his CMC examination in no small part because of his expert knowledge of charcuterie. During his grueling weeklong practical examination, he repeatedly was required to demonstrate his skills in this area.

The Houston's Restaurant (Phoenix) chain features a signature smoked salmon appetizer. Another example of a low-carb small plate, this wonderful item is actually smoked in-house.

Chef Kurt Aebi, certified research chef (CRC), international corporate chef, McDonald's (Oak Brook, Ill.), has praised this item as one of his favorites. It is amazing that a fast casual restaurant is smoking its own salmon in each individual unit. A national chain restaurant practicing the classic art of charcuterie! And customers are making it one of the chain's most popular items. From Andouille (spicy, Cajun smoked pork sausage) to Weisswurst (mild German veal sausage) and from Sujuk (Lebanese beef) to smoked salmon, charcuterie is becoming a hot item on upscale menus.

John M. Wills, vice president of sales, Great American Appetizers Inc. (Nampa, Idaho), says he is seeing a “definite trend toward Asian flavors in hors d'oeuvres. Of course, Mexican items are still a hot trend. Mexican appetizers will continue to grow as a category. In fact, last year's biggest seller and fastest grower (nationwide) was the Stuffed Jalapeño Pepper.”

Wills believes the low-carb trend has had little impact on the development of new appetizers. “People go out to eat to treat themselves…not to diet. Plus, many appetizers are high-protein/low-carb already.” However, people are beginning to seek healthier alternatives to deep fried items like French fries, cheese sticks or calamari. “We are looking for new, healthier alternatives. Cheese items have been growing rapidly in popularity. We now have a special Foccacia breading system and Mozzarella, Provolone and Gouda items that use it and are selling very well. Our hottest and newest appetizers are Garlic, Herb Cream Cheese Artichokes and Hot/Buffalo Battered Cheese Sticks. To stay in front of the developing Asian appetizer trend, we have created the Edamame Snap,” he concludes.

Edamame is the entire soybean, including the pod (which is eaten). A very popular snack in Japan and Asia, this item is rapidly catching on in larger U.S. cities. A very wholesome vegetable, its protein quality is very high. Edamame has a nearly perfect balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat. This makes it an extremely appealing appetizer to those hoping to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Vegetarian Appetizers, Vegan Dieters and Raw Foods

A true vegan eats no animal products whatsoever. While many vegetarians actually do eat some types of animal protein, many eat eggs, and some also eat fish. Many, if not most, do include cheese and other dairy products in their meals. There are many varieties among vegetarian diets. However, one fact is universal in the veggie “foodie” community. Everyone who has decided to limit or eliminate animal protein from his or her menu believes that it is a much healthier way to eat. And this segment is one of the fastest growing in the U.S. The Vegetarian Resource Group (Baltimore, Md.) reports that more than half of all restaurant diners sometimes ordered a vegetarian item last year. And, among college and university students, more than 25% claim to be vegetarian. Again, this is a segment that continues to grow. Interestingly enough, the majority of vegetarians are not concerned about watching carbs or counting calories. (The elimination of animal fats and proteins also provides an overall reduction in calories and a corresponding weight loss.)

One of the trendiest variations on the vegetarian theme is the culinary technique now being called “un-cooking” or “raw cooking.” Internationally famous chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller have put raw items on the menu. Charlie Trotter has even written an award-winning book on the subject. At MOTO Restaurant (Chicago), chef Homaro Cantu creates vegetarian small plates following this new style of un-cooking. Homaro says, “We take the highest-quality fruits and vegetables possible and prepare them in ways that never raise the temperature above 108° F. The theory is that this prevents active enzymes and heat-sensitive, natural compounds from being destroyed by the preparation process. Our menu items prove that beautiful, delicious appetizers and entrées can be created while still following this rule.” Certainly the textures, flavors, colors and aromas of the natural foods are protected. While this cutting-edge trend likely will never become mainstream, the underlying customer's desire for healthy, wholesome items that focus on vegetables and fruits is a growing trend that is here to stay. Appetizers that address this need likely will see success.

Last Year's Trends and This Year's Hits

Caren Messina-Hirsch, Food Beat (Wheaton, Ill.), operates a national database that tracks restaurant menus, menu items and sales trends. Messina-Hirsch says her data shows a continuing increase in ethnic items. Appetizers featuring Mexican flavor profiles were the big winners, followed by Asian and then Italian items in 2003. Two of the top three fastest-growing appetizer items in 2003 were Mexican products: nachos and quesadillas. Amazingly enough, four of the top 10 were vegetarian items! These were cheese sticks, spinach/artichoke dip, onion rings and potato skins. Clearly, the customers are indicating that “meatless appetizers” are a growing trend. Food Beat tells us that the fastest-growing style of appetizer is a “shared plate” or combo/sampler platter. Many fast casual chain restaurants have added new appetizer menu items to be shared, and they sell well. Among seafood, shrimp remains the all-time champion hors d'oeuvre. In second place, but catching up, is calamari. Crab cakes are beginning to make an appearance on many menus. However, the grand champion protein (as far as appetizers go) is still chicken. Chicken wings, buffalo style, Asian or good old barbecue are America's favorite. Only nachos were a more popular first course.

South American, Indian, Caribbean and Beyond

The many countries of South America share at least one thing: a true passion for delicious food! Pinchos are tiny pinches of intense flavor. These mini appetizers are a Latino version of the amuse bouche. Salgados are savory Brazilian snacks. A research chef needs only to spend a few days in Rio or Santiago to discover dozens of “new” Latin products. A weekend in Miami--with perhaps a day in Key West--will show a food scientist Jamaican jerk chicken, conch fritters and a world of Caribbean flavors and foods that all can be applied to tomorrow's appetizers. The fast-growing South Florida quick service restaurant chain, Pollo Tropical (Carrols Corporation, Syracuse, N.Y.), is proving that customers are ready for Caribbean chicken! Cuban cuisine is one of the hottest trends in fine dining. Of course, the flavors and spices of Indian cooking provide a rich source of ideas for any product developer. Chef Maneet Chauhan of Vermilion restaurant (Chicago) has successfully blended Indian flavors and spices with Latin products and techniques. This Indian-Latin fusion may very well be the “next big thing.” Menu items look Mexican but taste Indian, or vice versa. Truly, some are new flavors and textures created by combining the two.

Research chefs know that tomorrow's mainstream products start on the menus of fine dining restaurants. Smart product developers stay current, and keep an eye on those trendy menus.