Appetizers featuring meat, such as these lamb kabobs with a choice of sauces, remain popular appetizer menu items. PHOTO COURTESY OF

Every meal is a culinary journey, and appetizers represent the first step. Restaurant operators who focus on infusing their appetizer menus with “craveable” items can expect to gain additional consumer traffic, according to Technomic’s Appetizer Category Report.

Findings show appetizers that satisfy a craving are particularly important (especially to women) in differentiating and selecting one restaurant over another. Special regional items can be showcased as appetizers, while sampling platters permit operators and manufacturers to test new products. Serving appetizer items with various sauces allows the guest to customize his choices to his liking. Finally, offering sampler platters of appetizers to customers gives them the opportunity for new taste experiences and to discover the new flavors that they crave.

Meeting the need created by a craving can mean presenting items with new, interesting flavor profiles. Ethnic flavors, in particular, play an important role, and ethnic flavor fusions are also popular. For example, pairing traditional Asian flavor profiles with spicy Latino- or Southwest-inspired sauces and salsas enhances the consumer’s experience.

Consumers also are highly attracted to appetizer samplers, for less obvious reasons. Sampler platters, like all appetizers, are typically shared. But the primary appeal behind appetizer samplers is the way they satisfy a desire for variety and new taste experiences. Consumers can count on a few known items, while also experimenting with some new and unfamiliar foods. Likewise, samplers give restaurant operators and their suppliers an important opportunity to test new appetizer items for consumer appeal.

Some chains have taken their appetizer samplers one step further, adding special regional items and letting customers pick and choose from a longer list of appetizers and related sauces, effectively assembling their own customized sampler platter. Overall, restaurant operators and foodservice suppliers need to take consumer insights into consideration when building new items for the appetizer category.

Global Influence is Key to Appetizer Innovation

One item that is beginning to gain popularity on several menus nationwide such as Papagus in Oak Brook, Ill., is lamb ribs, which the restaurant marinates for 12 hours or more in fresh herbs and a blend of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. The ribs are broiled and sauced, served with potato wedges. Chef Adam Mali of Montecito in Denver braises lamb ribs in red wine and veal stock for hours before grilling the ribs and then saucing them with a lavender-infused honey. The lamb ribs are paired with roasted red peppers and Spanish olive oil.

Different cuts of steak no longer are used just in main course dishes, but are being incorporated into appetizers. At Black Angus Steakhouse locations, guests can order Grilled Filet & Blue-Cheese Flatbread prepared with sliced, char-grilled filet on grilled flatbread, basted with garlic butter and topped with green onions, caramelized onions and Jack, cheddar and blue cheeses. The Metropolitan Club in Chestnut Hill, Mass., has created Crispy Steak Bomb Snacks, a dish with riced potatoes and thinly sliced, medium-rare sirloin with sautéed poblano peppers, onions, white cheddar, mozzarella and Compte cheeses, as well as wasabi mayonnaise and steak sauce mayo.

In Atlanta, chef Josh Perkins of The Globe prepares Steak Asado, a flat iron steak covered with smoked paprika, cayenne pepper and coriander, paired with sweet red-onion marmalade and cilantro pesto with garlic and Thai chilies. Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, St. Helena, Calif., lets diners start off with Stuffed Piquillo Peppers made with roasted Spanish Piquillo peppers with sautéed hanger steak, onions, garlic, oregano and cumin, served with charred-tomato sauce with guajillo and jalapeño chilies and garnished with almonds and lime crème fraîche.

Indonesian satays, typically served as appetizers, add spice to the menu at David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago, where guests can dine on Bacon Satay with applewood-smoked bacon that is drizzled with maple syrup and honey glaze. In Las Vegas, Red 8 offers guests Malaysian Satay, grilled flank steak and chicken thighs marinated in corn oil, lemongrass, red onion, ginger, turmeric, cumin and black pepper and paired with a chunky peanut sauce flavored with coconut milk, red chilies, shrimp paste and lemongrass. Minneapolis’ Chino Latino patrons snack on the Satay Sampler, with four choices of satays and sauces including spicy peanut for curry-lime chicken, sweet-and-sour for soy-marinated beef, Vietnamese nuoc cham for scallops and garlic-black vinegar for Portobello mushrooms. The dish comes with sides of Thai sticky rice and pickled cucumbers.

Latino influences also are making their way onto appetizer menus. At Finz, a dinnerhouse with units in Saugus and Dedham, Mass. specializing in fresh, seasonal seafood, appetizers include a blackened catfish tostada served with cilantro crème fraiche and a scallop ceviche with four mini tacos.

Successful Sauces

Dipping sauces can function as a useful barometer for gauging new flavor success. New flavor profiles observed in appetizers indicate that ethnic—particularly Asian and Latino—characteristics and the hotter, spicier sauces are gaining in popularity. Some examples of dipping sauces served on the side include:
  • Fried onion peels with creamy horseradish dipping sauce (Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar—systemwide).
  • Fire-roasted artichoke marinated, halved and served with tomato relish and garlic mayonnaise (Claim Jumper—systemwide).
  • Steak and Chicken Combo Mambo (grilled skewered steak and quarter chicken marinated in mojo sauce) with side of house-made chimichurri sauce (Pollo Tropical—systemwide).
  • Fried jumbo shrimp with a shredded coconut crust with side of sweet, hot ginger sauce (Ruby Tuesday—systemwide).

    Mediterranean dips and spreads are added to menus year-round as an appetizer or as part of an entrée at many operations. For example, at Denver-based Cherry Hill Country Club, guests dine on Grilled French Bread with Salt-Cured Olive Tapenade, Saffron Onions, White Beans and Pesto. Chef Jerry Traunfeld at The Herbfarm in Woodinville, Wash., serves Alaska King Crab in a Warm Lemon-Cilantro Sabayon, while diners at The Lunch Pail in Modesto, Calif., nibble on Roasted Mushroom Hummus. At Willow in Arlington, Va., Chef Tracey O’Grady dishes up an Eggplant Pesto, Tomato and Smoked Goat Cheese Flatbread.

    Appetizer Awareness: Sustainable Fare with Local Roots

    Seasonal fare can mean many things, depending on the industry segment serving it. In chain restaurants, it is translated into limited-time offers employing seasonal flavors to build excitement, traffic and check averages. For upscale independents, it means showcasing the freshest, rarest, most briefly available produce and proteins to create or enhance an aura of quality and exclusivity. For both, an appetizer menu that changes frequently can serve as a natural way to offer sustainable seasonal items.

    This year, with increased environmental awareness, the new hot issue is sustainability—producing, harvesting, transporting, cooking and serving food in ways that use less fuel for a smaller “carbon footprint,” contribute less to carbon dioxide levels and help to assure that our farmlands and seas will sustain us for generations to come. Increasingly, both seasonal and local products are being highlighted across all sectors of the foodservice industry in every part of the menu, from appetizers to desserts.

    Technomic research finds that overwhelmingly, the word most associated with healthy fare in consumers’ minds is “fresh.” In a recent Technomic poll, 24% of consumers named local sourcing as a key food issue that is important to them.

    Operator Profile: TASTE

    Bon Appétit Management Company is leading the way in offering local, sustainably sourced foods in its contract foodservice locations around the country, including museums. This month, Bon Appétit debuts TASTE, a new restaurant billed as “local, sustainable, custom” in the remodeled, reopened Seattle Art Museum.

    Executive chef Chris-topher Conville has forged relationships with Northwest farmers and producers to bring the best seasonal, sustainably grown foods to the table. The menu is designed for frequent changes as seasonal items become available; a late-spring menu ranges from lush produce (greens, sorrel, peas and pea vines, beans, onions, asparagus, fiddleheads and blueberries), to organic free-range chicken and eggs, to succulent seafood (wild salmon and Dungeness crab), to artisan cheeses from the region.

    Open for lunch and dinner, with a happy-hour menu served in between, TASTE serves visitors to the newly reopened museum but also has its own street entrance. The airy, contemporary 90-seat dining room sets off the simply prepared, seasonal local fare, plated and presented as works of art.

    Perhaps most interestingly, there is no rigid division between appetizers and entrées; instead, diners may choose large or small portions of menu items. Food is served from an exhibition kitchen featuring a Wood Stone stone-hearth oven, used to bake pizzas and other items.

    Some notable appetizers and sides include: Kumomoto oysters on the half shell with rhubarb-pepper mignonette; frites with rosemary & rémoulade; manchego-stuffed onion in a balsamic-honey reduction; Kalbe Korean short ribs and house kimchee; Alsatian-style flat bread with a local fromage blanc, caramelized onion & bacon; spicy mussels & frites with white wine, garlic, fennel & parsley; Wood Stone pizza with smoked paprika salami, savory goat cheese, tomato confit & arugula-pinenut toss; grilled cheese & soup shot and griddled cheese on potato bread  (seasonal soup or roasted tomato); mini organic beef burger & frites and cumin gouda, dijon aioli & pickled jalapeño; and a sampler dish of local cheeses.

    TASTE offers counter service during the busy lunch period and more relaxed table service at dinner, in addition to private dining and catering museum events. Besides the restaurant and the catering division, TASTE also has a branch at Seattle’s Asian Art Museum. A closer look at the new restaurant’s other menu offering reveals items such as Rustic Red Potato Soup with smoked albacore relish; Dungeness Crab Salad with chive-curry essence; Grilled Asparagus with frisée, La Quercia prosciutto & whole-grain mustard vinaigrette; Orecchiette Carbonara with bacon, pea vines & black pepper curado cheese; Barley & Montesano Risotto with spring peas & beans, early yellow onion & truffle; Weathervane Scallop Strudel with melted leeks, mushrooms & spiced carrot reduction; Wild Salmon Niçoise—roasted citrus thyme beets, potato, egg, spring beans & herbed vinaigrette; Chardonnay Chicken Salad Sandwich—poached organic chicken, celery & grapes on eight-grain, simple greens, half chicken salad sandwich & cup of daily soup; and Washington Asparagus & Cheese Frittata—herbed goat cheese, fontina & free-range eggs, and organic lettuces.

    As befits the family-oriented museum atmosphere, a kids’ menu is available all day. Meals cost $5 each and include peanut butter and jelly with carrot sticks; grilled cheese and creamy tomato soup; noodles and butter and cheese; mini burger and fries; organic beef hot dog and chips; and cheese or pepperoni pizza. Also available are adult beverages, including signature red and white table wines created for the restaurant by Townshend Cellars in Eastern Washington and a line of wines and beers exclusively from the Pacific Northwest. A “Flight and Bites” menu features pairings of Northwest wines and complementary bites of dishes from the current menu, including everything from grilled wild seafood and pizza.

    For more information about foodservice appetizer trends and exclusive industry data, contact Patrick Noone at Technomic at 312-506-3852.

    Technomic Information Services Editorial Staff