A perennial favorite, burgers are favored by patrons at any time--as an appetizer, as an entrée and with various dressings, such as cheese, onions, barbecue sauce, pickles, ketchup, mustard, lettuce and tomato.

As the economy squeezes household budgets, some budget-conscious restaurant patrons will let their lighter wallets guide them to less expensive menu options, such as selecting an appetizer as their main entrée. But, others simply skip “extra” courses, such as appetizers and desserts. To appeal to the first type of patron, savvy restaurant operators are offering satisfying appetizers that are essentially smaller versions of entrées. For the second type, they are introducing enticing and unusual meal starters to keep their appetizer sales from slumping.

Technomic’s exclusive MenuMonitor database shows that, from January to June this year, there has been nearly a 2.5% increase in the number and types of appetizer options at Top 500 restaurant chains, compared to the first half of 2007. The most popular added appetizer categories were the entrée-replacement items--such as salads, mini-burgers and filling quesadillas--and unusual, strongly flavored and ethnic options. Operators have also tried to keep diners’ interests by adding new twists to traditional breaded-and-fried favorites.

Appetizers as Entrées

One of the strongest appetizer trends this year is the proliferation of the mini-hamburger. It seems Americans feel that anytime is right for a burger, even before or in place of a main dish. Restaurant operators have responded by offering their own variations of White Castle’s original Slyders--miniature, square-shaped burgers topped with shredded onions and pickles. Examples of the mini-burger-as-appetizer abound, from Houlihan’s to Chicago’s Bar Louie. Some other instances include:

* Big Mouth Bites--four mini-beef burgers that are topped with applewood-smoked bacon, American cheese, sautéed onions and ranch dressing on sesame seed buns, Chili’s Grill & Bar.
* Hawaiian Sliders--mini-burgers seasoned with chorizo sausage and topped with Cheddar-Jack cheese, onions and bacon sauce on Kahuna buns, Kahunaville Island Restaurant & Party Bar.

Some chains are adding the mini-burger to an appetizer sampler platter:
* Smuggler’s Platter--mini-cheeseburgers, along with chicken wings, fried pickles and mini-chili dogs, Cheeseburger in Paradise.
* Bar Burgers & Wings Platter--served with seasoned French fries, Dave & Buster’s.

The quesadilla is another entrée living a double life on many appetizer menus. The simple cheese-melted-in-a-tortilla has been transformed into a filling appetizer option that, when pie-cut, is also ideal for sharing and sampling. For example:

* Quesadillas Cozumel--traditional quesadilla stuffed with a crabmeat blend and served with guacamole and a sour-cream topping, Pepe’s Mexican Restaurants.
* Grilled Jumbo Shrimp Quesadillas--filled with roasted peppers, onions, Monterey Jack cheese and grilled shrimp, Z’Tejas Grill.
* Parmesan-crusted Sicilian Quesadillas--a fusion cuisine appetizer featuring sautéed chicken, sausage, bacon, marinara and Monterey Jack cheese stuffed into a pan-fried, Parmesan-laced flour tortilla, T.G.I. Friday’s.

Waking Up Tastebuds

Restaurant patrons are often most willing to explore new ethnic items or unusual flavors via appetizers, which are less “risky“ in terms of both price and portion. Operators responded this year by offering a number of innovative ethnic items to build excitement into the appetizer menu. Lettuce wraps--typically self-assembled appetizers featuring a variety of fillings--were popular additions this year, many without a traditional protein:

* Wok-seared Vegetable Lettuce Wrap appetizer--a mix of vegetables, mushrooms and tofu stir-fried in oyster sauce and finished with green onions and roasted peanuts, served with lettuce for wrapping in, along with marinated cucumbers, mango salsa and a tamarind-macadamia nut sauce, Elephant Bar Restaurant.
* Lettuce Wrap with Bay Shrimp--with red bell peppers, candied pecans and toasted coconut with a citrus soy glaze, McGrath’s Fish House.
* Leaping Lizards Lettuce Wraps--appetizer designed for sharing, featuring lime-grilled chicken, marinated vegetables, sesame noodles and roasted peanuts, Rainforest Café.  

Hummus, a Middle Eastern garbanzo bean dip and a new ethnic item for many Americans, may be the new salsa. Hummus and other vegetable dips showed more than 18% growth in incidence on chain restaurants’ appetizer menus between 2007-2008. Variations on hummus include:

* Tahini Hummus--served with pita bread, celery, carrots, tomatoes and kalamata olives, Tower Oaks Lodge (Clyde’s Restaurant Group).
* Trio of Hummus--traditional hummus dip, sun-dried tomato hummus and kalamata olive hummus, all served with grilled flatbread and cucumbers, The Daily Grill.
* Tuscan Hummus--puréed white bean mixture flavored with sesame, garlic, lemon and spices, garnished with Roma tomatoes, basil and garlic and served with pita bread, California Pizza Kitchen.

Some of the more innovative ethnic appetizers this year reflected Asian and Caribbean influences, including the use of tropical fruits. Varied examples include:

* Pineapple Cheese Wontons--fried wontons filled with cream cheese, scallions and pineapple, served with roasted pineapple dipping sauce, RA Sushi Bar.
* Mongolian Egg Rolls--a combination of pork, beef, mushrooms and Asian vegetables sautéed in sesame oil, wrapped and fried, then served on a bed of Thai peanut slaw, Champps Americana.
* West Indies Patties--crispy, fried pastry with a savory beef filling, served with seasoned sour cream and an apple-mango salsa, Bahama Breeze.

Just Bread It and Fry It, Please

Bahama Breeze is on to something; Americans have traditionally enjoyed appetizers that are breaded and deep fried. To continue to please customers’ palates without boring them, restaurant operators are striving to add new twists on classic, breaded favorites. For instance:

* Texas Cheese Fries--seasoned fries smothered in chili with three melted cheeses, hickory-smoked bacon and jalapeño slices, LongHorn Steakhouse.
* Crispy Polenta--served with wild mushrooms and a balsamic glaze, Harry Caray’s.
* Fried Macaroni & Cheese--crispy, crumb-coated mac-and-cheese balls fried and served over a creamy marinara sauce, The Cheesecake Factory.
* Caribbean Coconut Shrimp--hand-breaded shrimp served with spicy and sweet orange marmalade dipping sauce, Tony Roma’s.
* Fried Pickle--hand-breaded, fried and served with Thousand Island and ranch dressings, Mimi’s Café.  

The Many Meanings of the Appetizer Menu

As observed, the appetizer menu serves many needstates of restaurant patrons. Perhaps most important is the fact that, compared to entrées, appetizers generally offer smaller portions at a smaller price point--so they appeal to those looking to save money or select lighter fare. On other occasions, patrons order appetizer plates to share with others in their party. The influence of a group and special offerings greatly affects appetizer purchases. In any case, appetizers are ideal for snack occasions, which represent an ever-greater proportion of restaurant dining occasions.

Snacks, with their relatively bold and adventurous flavor profiles, are great for experimentation--on the part of both chefs and customers. They often are the first place where new ethnic flavors and foods make their appearance on mainstream menus. Incorporating ethnic flavor profiles into more traditional, American-style appetizers is a growing trend, especially in the appetizer category. Even without revamping an appetizer menu, restaurants can offer new dips or add-ons to current offerings to increase their appeal. Successful appetizer specials may later show up on the permanent menu either as appetizers or entrées.

When Technomic surveyed more than 1,000 consumers for a recent category report on appetizers, respondents indicated that there were three things that would tempt them to purchase appetizers more frequently: better prices, variety and value.  

The characteristics that make appetizers appealing depend on the type of restaurant, as each segment is recognized for different strengths. For instance, consumers expressed an interest in greater availability of healthier, fresh appetizers at quick-service and family-style restaurants--which tend to be known for their fried or high-fat items. Within the family-style segment, customers expect both variety and value. Here, a strong value proposition can also be emphasized through the variety offered.

Non-ethnic, casual-dining restaurants find great success with appetizers, because they have the freedom to menu a wide variety of items and flavors. American-style finger foods and fried appetizers are consumer favorites, yet more and more patrons are interested in bolder flavor profiles and experimenting with unfamiliar appetizers. Consumers said they would order an appetizer more frequently at a casual-dining, varied-menu restaurant, if it was an item for which they had a craving, so the key for casual-dining, varied-menu restaurants is to offer craveable appetizers that are unique to that establishment. Consumers associate such appetizers with the concept and know they cannot get the item elsewhere.

At ethnic and fine-dining restaurants, consumers are looking for unfamiliar or seasonal appetizers--both of which are major draws in such specialty restaurants. These restaurants leverage the authenticity of their concepts with a value proposition focused on a unique experience and menu items. Ethnic and fine-dining restaurants are well aware that restaurants down the price scale are encroaching on their turf with more adaptations of ethnic fare, but they will continue to leverage the authenticity and uniqueness of their concepts and exclusivity of their appetizer offerings.

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