Across the U.S., restaurant patrons are demanding high-quality ingredients not only in fine dining establishments, but also at their local burger hangout. The reaction by restaurateurs has been to scale-up their menus. It has also resulted in competition between restaurant categories. As “upscaling” or “premiumization” increases, quick service (QSR), limited service (LSR), Full Service (FSR) and fine dining restaurants wind up competing for the same customers. LSRs are transforming traditional plated entrées normally found in casual dining restaurants, into lower cost, more portable formats. Likewise, QSRs have started serving fresh, gourmet ingredients usually found at LSRs.

The use of common marketing claims such as fresh, natural, organic and gourmet can elevate menu items to premium status. Premiumization also is accomplished through ethnic flavoring additions and creative alterations to common menu items. The National Restaurant Association reports that two out of three consumers agree that their favorite restaurant foods provide flavor and taste sensations that cannot easily be duplicated in their home kitchen.

“Foodservice suppliers have to become more sophisticated because the consumers are more sophisticated,” explains chef Robert Danhi, a consultant for manufacturers, restaurant chains and educational institutes and organizations. Manufacturers can reignite a “boring” entrée, appetizer or sandwich by adding a non-traditional cheese such as Pecorino or Asiago, he says.

When trying to establish menu items as premium or gourmet there can be no “cutting corners,” advises Michael Joy, vice president of Culinary Services at the Original Soup Man Company and past president of the Research Chefs Association. He suggests that instead of using frozen vegetables in a soup, manufacturers use fresh cut vegetables and adjust processes accordingly. It also helps to qualify an ingredient so consumers know it originates from a notable source, like specifying that a soup contains “100% North Atlantic” lobster. Such designations imply premium quality.

Once a major foodservice restaurant integrates an unfamiliar or premium ranked ingredient, it encourages other manufacturers to source that item. Danhi notes that McDonald's spurred the market by adding edamame (parboiled soybeans) to its menu. As a result, the reliability and safety of sourcing that ingredient increased.

The Original SoupMan stores offer 45 varieties of soups, including chilled soups, as well as gourmet salads and sandwiches. They are all original recipes from Al Yaganeh, the renowned New York City-based soup man who inspired the famous soup episode on Seinfeld.

Appetizers on the Fence

Calamari, spinach dips, Buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks are still the top choices in the appetizer category. (See “Top 5 Appetizers” chart.) However, food marketers increasingly are using the basic appeal of appetizers to fashion new main course dishes.

Appetizers have always been shareable—mostly because of their size. That characteristic once relegated them to optional item status but now is the reason for their growing popularity as entrées. Miniature, bite-sized and popcorn selections (as in shrimp and chicken) allow diners to more accurately identify and control the size of their portions. They also are portable, usually do not require utensils and generally are easier to customize than large entrées.

Restaurants are offering more snacks or grazing items as well. McDonald's recently released the Snack Wrap, a chicken tender wrapped in a tortilla. For more than a year, KFC® has been selling mini chicken sandwiches called Snackers.

There are numerous ways to transform a traditionally plated entrée into a pizza, salad, sandwich or miniature sampler. “Deep Fried Mac-and-Cheese Balls at the Cheesecake Factory is an example of a favorite old entrée that has come back in a new way as an appetizer,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a foodservice research and consulting firm.

Many LSRs and QSRs are scaling down casual and fine dining entrées or scaling-up their own menus, depending upon one's perspective. Pizza Hut now has its Sicilian Lasagna Pizza, and Quizno's offers a prime rib sandwich. “These are items that were traditionally entrees but morphed by giving an old favorite a new look,” observes Tristano.

Mingling of greater options with customization in smaller packages is another trend, according to Tristano. Greater variety and choice can create options like the “Build-Your-Own Variety Bucket” at KFC. When customers order the bucket, they can choose between boneless breaded chicken, wings, traditional chicken or a combination of all three.

During the summer of 2005, GQ magazine published a list of the “20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die,” and Oprah Winfrey piggybacked on the editorial with a whole segment dedicated to the list. This Grilled California Avocado BLT Burger with Caramelized Chipotle Onions was not on the list, but its inventor took home $50,000 for the recipe in the Sutter Home Winery “Build a Better Burger” contest.

The Burgeoning Burger

According to Tristano, burgers are trending upward in the sandwich and appetizer category. He believes operators are reinventing the burger concept by making it a premium option with better-quality meat and non-standard toppings.

Many establishments are looking for ways to crank up the flavor profiles of their burgers, like the garlic cheeseburger that was offered for a limited time at White Castle. Applebee's teamed up with Tyler Florence, a popular Food Network host, to create the Bruschetta Burger, which mimics the bruschetta appetizer.

The Cheeseburger Revolution at Bennigan's was a successful campaign that allowed customers to vote on the addition of “burgeresque” appetizers to the menu. Cheeseburger Egg Rolls won the coveted spot. According to Technomic, mini-burgers are appearing on menus by the score, as is the case with Claim Jumper Restaurants.

The burger mania may not have started with Oprah Winfrey, but it definitely influenced the success of The Counter. Winfrey proclaimed on her show that this Los Angeles-based gourmet burger joint is her go-to spot for the perfect burger. At The Counter, patrons can order high-quality beef burgers topped with arugula, Danish blue cheese, spicy pepperoncinis, honey cured bacon and ginger soy sauce. The toppings available at this burgeoning build-your-burger franchise resemble the contents of a gourmet grocer. Some venues even offer ahi tuna and turkey burgers.

Five Guys and a Burger is another new restaurant that promotes premium ingredients served fresh from local farms. The franchise has doubled to 50 units in the past year and for the past five years has been voted the restaurant with the city's best burgers by Washingtonian Magazine.

Crispani, Panera Bread's new handcrafted, artisan pizza with select all-natural and organic toppings, is available nationally and comes in six different varieties.

Identifying Ethnic

For a variety of reasons, consumers are becoming savvier when choosing ethnic cuisine. “Ethnic foods are appetizing because of the multiple layers of flavor that attract the palate,” explains Joy. He notes that because people travel more, their palates are becoming more educated about different regions. “The human palate is capable of 'tasting' different temperatures, textures and flavors, which is a much documented theory called 'dynamic contrast.'”

For example, when eating chili, one first tastes the tomato, then the meat and finally the heat of the peppers at the back of the mouth. “As the food [changes in the mouth], it is very exciting to the human palate,” Joy says.

“Indian food is the most complexly layered spice-based cuisine,” exhorts Danhi. A fascination with spicy and vibrant Indian food is a natural progression for Americans who are beginning to crave bolder spices.

Dahni says that people are becoming more intrigued with Indian flat breads and suspects they will increasingly be found on menus as a vehicle for other ethnic foods. Tortillas, which originally began as a staple of Hispanic cooking, are now used with French, Italian and American cuisines. Naan (Indian flat bread) has not yet made it into that realm, but it will likely take a similar route, Danhi predicts. In fact, FGF Brands walked away with the 2006 Spirit of Innovation retail award for authentic, all-natural naan (See this magazine's October 2006 article: “'Naan' too Soon.”)

The Indian Bread Company, a highly acclaimed New York-based Indian restaurant, familiarized its fare by using a play on the word panini to describe its own naanini. The word play gives patrons a point of reference about what to expect when they eat a naanini, which consists of a grilled Indian flat bread filled with the customer's choice of Indian ingredients like lamb vindaloo, saag paneer and vegetable tandoori.

Although Italian, Chinese and Mexican cuisines have become mainstays of the American diet, more regional ethnic cuisines now are coming into their own. “Each separate country is coming to the U.S. with their [distinctive] flavor profiles,” says Joy. “People are starting to realize that all of Mexico doesn't taste the same.”

The growth of international chains like Pollo Campero is proof that Americans want ethnic fare. The Guatemalan-based chicken shack is reminiscent of a quick casual KFC, except that it serves spicy coleslaw and plantains as side dishes. It is different from a Mexican restaurant but not quite a chicken restaurant either, explains Tristano.

Newly created appetizers often have an Asian theme. Pot stickers and egg rolls have become the impetus for many appetizer designs. “Asian flavors also are [dominating] the appetizer category,” states Joy.

Americans have become familiar with Thai and Vietnamese cuisines, and entrées with noodles have become more popular with the growth of chains like Noodles Etc. and Noodles and Company. Dahni reports there is a lot of activity involving ingredients and dishes from Malaysia and Singapore. Emerging cuisines in QSR by number of new menu introductions include Cuban, Moroccan and Greek, reports Mintel's Menu Insights (Mintel International Group, Chicago).

The influence of ethnic cuisines combined with America's desire to try distinctive, premium ingredients helped to rally the growth of pork products. Mentions of Serrano ham, roasted pork, porchetta and Chinese char siu pork seem to be occurring more frequently on menus.

Tristano advises that in order to stay ahead of the curve, manufacturers should aggressively track what is going on outside the U.S. for innovation. “The Cheesecake Factory is one of the best restaurants in terms of menu development,” he says. The menu is updated every six months and includes ideas from 50-60 countries.

Wendy's new Frescata Italiana sandwich, launched in April 2006, joins the line of fresh, premium deli sandwiches. The sandwich is a menu item made with Black Forest ham, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, Romaine lettuce, roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomato vinaigrette dressing on freshly-baked artisan bread. It will be offered for only a limited time.

Old Flames

Meat cooking methods also have become more diverse. Many operations are using fire-grilled, roasted, sautéed or flat iron preparations to give meat dishes greater distinction, and Technomic has noted that the term “USDA quality” meat is mentioned on menus more often than before.

Most of the LSR sandwich shops have added the option to grill their sandwiches. As a result, sandwiches are the second most popular grilled item behind traditional entrées, reports Maria Caranfa, RD, director of Mintel Menu Insights. One way to imply a premium service is to provide the option to grill, especially if grilling has not previously been offered or competitors do not grill.

Chipotle, BBQ and Cajun flavors are other ways to add depth to the flavor profile of meats. In fact, barbecue chains have increased or are expanding their line extensions. Adding a barbecue or grilled flavor is a safe way to extend an already popular item, observes Tristano. Brazilian churrascarias, or steakhouses, are appealing to customers by showcasing unique cuts of meat, flavoring methods and preparation techniques.

Caranfa believes that grilled fruits are becoming another popular way to enhance entrées. Mintel reports that pineapple is the top grilled fruit, followed by pear, apple, peach and lemon. Although a peripheral trend, mango and figs are two emerging flavors that are rising rapidly in the grilled fruit arena.

Cuisine within Context

A firm grasp of not just the ingredients, but also the cultural context in which those ingredients are served, is imperative if the manufacturer wishes to translate the dish and not change it, says Danhi. For example, curry is a term that Danhi describes as “polarizing.” In Asia, curry is a general term used to describe sauce and does not necessarily have to include the spices (coriander, turmeric and cumin) associated with curry powder. Curry sauce is a pan-Asian concept that can be used in Pakistani, Malaysian and Japanese cuisines as well as in East Indian cooking.

“Assembly at delivery is one of the challenges of introducing ethnic foods from around the world,” says Danhi. “It is important that food manufacturers determine how to streamline the ethnic concept, make it portable and still maintain its original identity.”

In America's fast-paced, eat-on-the-go society, dishes do not usually require much assembly. In Asia, however, restaurant goers are used to assembling Vietnamese spring rolls themselves. It is a dish that has many steps that require explanation.

But California Pizza Kitchen has been successful in transplanting spring rolls onto their menus. Danhi says they did so by eliminating the outer lettuce and herb garnish from their Singapore Shrimp spring rolls and pre-assembled the rest of the ingredients. The customer only needs to dip the roll if they so choose.

“Is it like the traditional spring roll? No, but it tastes good and people reorder it,” says Danhi. “You don't want to make something authentic if it won't sell.”

Taking Home Social Responsibility

Another way to highlight a dish is to emphasize that the ingredients are locally grown. Regional fruits and vegetables are becoming more abundant, and this gives restaurateurs greater opportunity to make these claims. Providing fresh seasonal ingredients from local farms is considered a notable attribute of the menu at Blackbird, a fine-dining restaurant in Chicago.

Many restaurants also have chosen to use organic and natural ingredients. “Natural” and “fresh” are key words that insinuate premiumization. For some, organic implies that the entrée is of a better quality. Leona's in Chicago added several natural and organic ingredients to its menu, which proclaims boldly to have “no Franken foods.”

The Leona's menu also states, “We refuse to serve the typical chain restaurant's immutable swill prepared with an eternal shelflife…” Several other restaurants such as Chipotle (a Mexican-style LSR) and Arby's join their sentiment. They both proclaim to only serve all-natural chicken.

Some restaurants such as Texas-based Jason's Deli are known for their organic ingredients, which include organic peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and organic pasta salads. Independent restaurants, as opposed to large chains, are more apt to use organic ingredients, notes Tristano.

Harboring Healthy Habits

An online survey conducted by the National Turkey Federation found that nearly all operators (95%) said they are very likely or somewhat likely to increase the number of lower fat protein items on their menus in response to the government dietary guidelines released last year. But providing low-fat meals using ethnic flavoring methods can be challenging.

Vietnamese pho is a good example of a clear broth that is low in fat and very healthy. Nevertheless, not all ethnic dishes are healthful. Some people have the misconception that many Asian dishes are better for you just because they include fresh ingredients, says Danhi. Coconut curry, for example, is high in saturated fats. However, adding a couple of ounces of coconut curry to enrich a meal that also includes a light soup, a vegetable dish and lots of rice is better. Operators should understand the context of the dish so that they do not serve 6-8oz of coconut curry by itself. “Ethnic foods are only healthy if eaten in the way that they are meant to be eaten,” says Danhi.

Meeting Consumer Desire

With all the options available to consumers, food providers need to take a long look within and outside of their niches. Joy advises entrée, appetizer and sandwich manufacturers searching for the next trend to look at all different levels of the food chain and not just their current market. “For example, the supplier for a QSR should also be looking at fine dining or at local and regional restaurants.”

The success or failure of an entrée, appetizer or sandwich has a lot to do with the quality of ingredients, flavor, execution and the marketing of the product. Staying ahead of the competition will keep them ahead in the game.

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