Keeping the menu fresh has always been the way to customers’ hearts and repeat business, and this has never been more so than in difficult economic times. Data from Technomic Information Services’ MenuMonitor service shows top chains are emphasizing menu updates to satisfy consumer demands and build excitement.
Today, more sophisticated, better-educated, well-traveled consumers are steering changes across the foodservice landscape, with demands for more flavorful, bolder, fresher, natural, organic, local and sustainably sourced fare. In addition, aging Baby Boomers are finding their palates to be less sensitive, so they are demanding spicier, bolder flavors.
As restaurant operators look for ways to adopt and adapt on-trend flavors, foods and beverages, several new flavor and ingredient trends are emerging. Among these are:
* Fruit in unexpected combinations
* Chili peppers
* Retro-French flavors
* Gluten-free options
Bringing the Bacon
It is not just for breakfast anymore: bacon burst onto menus this year in a wide variety of applications, from the obvious (complementing salads, sandwiches and baked potatoes) to the odd (such as Benton’s Old Fashioned, a bourbon drink at New York bar Please Don’t Tell, flavored with a dollop of smoky bacon fat).
Some bacon applications are complicated. At Channel 4 restaurant in New York, chef David Conn serves a $9.95 “Bacon Explosion,” wrapping a sausage-and-pulled-pork log with a latticework of bacon flavored with paprika, cumin, chili powder, cinnamon, brown sugar and garlic. Others applications are simpler. For example, Chili’s offers three Smokehouse Bacon Big Mouth burgers, in Jalapeño, Southern and Triple-the-Cheese variations, and the Golden Corral reintroduced its Applewood Grill promotion, a dinner buffet option offering any of three popular items--a sirloin filet, grilled chicken and grilled pork--wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon. While bacon is traditional as a sandwich ingredient, Subway introduced a new twist, using it in a Steak & Bacon flatbread sandwich this year.
Cutting the sweetness of chocolate with a salty, savory note, bacon is even popping up in desserts. Pastry offerings featuring bacon include cupcakes at Chicago’s More cupcake shop and bread pudding with bacon brittle at Manhattan’s Dovetail, reports Time magazine. Das Foods rolled out a maple bacon lollipop at this year’s Specialty Food Show.
Salt of the Earth
Also playing an unexpected starring role in desserts is salt--the very “villain” that has been linked to high blood pressure and recently inspired a Center for Science in the Public Interest lawsuit against Denny’s. But, research conducted by Technomic in 2008 revealed consumers are more concerned about salt consumption when eating at home than they are when dining out.
Opportunities for growth seem evident for a variety of salt formats. Technomic notes that sweet caramel paired with “fancy” salt--French fleur de sel, sea salt from British marshes, smoked salt or red Hawaiian salt--has migrated from Parisian pastry shops to U.S. dessert menus. Some examples follow:
* Häagen-Dazs offered a Fleur de Sel Caramel ice cream LTO, combining a caramel ice cream base with a ribbon of caramel sauce and chocolate-dipped fleur de sel caramels.
* Chocolate Budino Tartlets with Sea Salt and Olive Oil are on the menu at San Francisco’s A16 restaurant, which highlights the cuisine of Italy’s Campania region.
* Boston’s Ten Tables dishes up a chocolate terrine with Thai basil ice cream and sea salt--a fitting combination, as sweet-and-salty flavor pairings are a classic feature of Thai cuisine.
The Fruits of Their Labors
Even as salt shows up in desserts, sweet fruits are migrating to other parts of the menu, turning up in unexpected combinations this year. Strawberries were evident in Au Bon Pain’s Turkey & Strawberry Salad, with almonds, alfalfa sprouts, romaine lettuce, field greens and cucumbers. They also turned up marinated in balsamic vinegar in Burgerville’s Balsamic Strawberry and Goat Cheese Panino. Chef Ron Suhanosky offers a spaghetti sauce with strawberries at his Sfoglia restaurants in New York City and Nantucket.
Peaches were found this summer at the James Beard House in Manhattan, and chef Jason Rady of San Antonio’s Castle Hills prepared mini-grilled cheese sandwiches with goat cheese and pickled peaches.
Peppers Pep Up Menus
Consumer demand for bolder flavors, as well as authentic ethnic cuisines, has brought more types of peppers onto more menus. The heat of both ancho and jalapeño peppers is found in Chili’s Big Mouth Bites mini-beef burgers, served with home-style fries and jalapeño ranch dressing. Chili’s Jalapeño Steak, made with jalapeño Jack cheese, jalapeños, grilled onions and an ancho chili ranch dressing, joins a new line of fire-grilled items. Ancho peppers also star in Southwest Ancho Chicken Salad at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, and Taco Bell introduced a Fully Loaded Taco Salad with Chipotle Steak. Finally, Charley’s Grilled Subs reintroduced its Chipotle Chicken Sandwich for a limited time.
Ooh-la-la! The Return of Retro-French
The recent release of Julie & Julia, a movie tribute to Julia Child--whose iconic 1961 cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, introduced Americans to the world of classic French cuisine--is inspiring high-end restaurateurs to return to French recipes that bring back memories of the 1960s. Whether this now-exotic enthusiasm finds its way to mainstream chain restaurants remains to be seen.
* Nostalgic Julia Child fare, such as lobster Thermidor, quiche Lorraine and salmon mousse, inspired PrintWorks in Greensboro, N.C., to do a dinner tie-in package with the movie.
* Bryan Moscatello, executive chef for Stir Food Group, created a special French menu for a “Dining with Bryan and Julia” event held at Zola restaurant in Washington; it was co-sponsored by the International Spy Museum to recognize the multi-talented Child’s World War II-era spy work for the OSS.
Gluten be Gone
High on operators’ radars is a heightened awareness of the need to offer options for guests who cannot, or prefer not, to eat items containing gluten, a type of protein found in wheat and some other foods. In addition to those who suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, a larger and more important market is consumers who have adopted the “gluten-free” trend and are convinced they feel better for it. In response, a host of restaurant chains, from QSRs to casual dining operations, have developed gluten-free menu items.
Not Your Average Joe’s rolled out initiatives two years ago to deal with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities, in response to e-mails from customers. Outback Steakhouse, P.F. Chang’s, Haru, Mitchell’s Fish House and Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger were other early adopters of gluten-free menu alternatives. But today, gluten-free options are available everywhere--from QSR giants Burger King, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Chipotle and Carl’s Jr., to casual-dining leaders Applebee’s and Olive Garden, to regional chains, such as Massachusetts-based Burtons Grill.
* This year, Uno Chicago Grill expanded its gluten-free lineup with a new Veggie Pizza; it now offers more than 20 gluten-free dishes, from appetizers to desserts.
* Eight-unit, mid-Atlantic chain Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant created a separate gluten-free menu with more than 40 modified dishes, including Brabant Mussels with white wine, leeks, garlic, parsley and cream, as well as Voodoo Shrimp with honey barbecue sauce, white rice, sour cream and green onion.
Whether gluten-free menus are a long-term trend--or quickly go the way of the low-carb menus of a few years ago--remains to be seen. The same could be said of any of this year’s menu trends, the experiments with standard ingredients from bacon and salt to chili peppers and fruits, or this year’s new fascination with classics of French cuisine.
But, two predictions are safe: consumers will continue to seek out menus that offer them a “wow” factor in flavor, freshness and the unexpected; and operators and chefs will continue to use every ounce of creativity they can muster—and borrow ideas wherever they can--in order to please consumers’ palates and build their sales and traffic. pf
For more information about Technomic industry data, contact Patrick Noone at Technomic at 312-506-3852.