To differentiate their menus from those of competitors, operators of ethnic restaurants are introducing more focused regional ethnic cuisine, such as Italian entrées from specific regions.

Technomic has identified 10 of the biggest trends on restaurant menus today. Based on company research, it is believed these trends are likely to have strong implications not just for the restaurant industry, but for the prepared foods sector, also. Here is a closer look at each of these trends and why they are likely to impact developers and manufacturers in the foreseeable future. 

1. Ethnic foods and flavors go mainstream.Forget bland food. When consumers dine away from home, they want food with unique flavors and profiles they cannot easily recreate in their kitchens. Often, these strong and distinctive flavors are based on ethnic ingredients and cooking techniques. Asian, Mexican and Italian influences have migrated to mainstream restaurants. To differentiate their menus from those of competitors, operators of ethnic restaurants are introducing more focused regional ethnic cuisine, such as Italian entrées from specific regions, Jalisco-style Mexican fare, or Korean or Vietnamese items instead of just “Asian.” Restaurants that are differentiating themselves with bold tastes and exciting ethnic flavors on their menus include the following:
* Ling & Louie’s Asian Bar and Grill in Scottsdale, Ariz., uses gravy made with oyster sauce, brown sugar and chili paste to give its meat loaf a bold kick.
* Ruby’s Diner recently introduced the Baja Burger, which features chipotle mayonnaise, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, two slices of pepper Jack cheese and sliced avocado, all on a toasted King’s Hawaiian bun.
* Wei Fun, in East Hampton, N.Y., uses Hunan-style black vinegar and chili-bean sauce in a cucumber salad and also offers a tea-smoked pork entrée.
* T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants offer a Chicken Tostada Salad, which features an ancho-honey-glazed chicken breast atop a bed of romaine, corn salsa, tortilla strips and mixed cheeses, tossed with an avocado-chipotle-ranch dressing and pineapplepico de gallo.

2. Organic foods provide a point of differentiation.The trend toward all-natural and organic ingredients has really taken off in recent years. Customers are increasingly concerned about the use of pesticides, growth hormones and other chemicals in the foods they eat and are responding by demanding naturally grown foods they can feel virtuous about putting into their bodies.
* One good example of a restaurant that bases its positioning on organic and natural fare is emerging chain Pizza Fusion, which offers a menu that is 75% organic. Its pizzas are made with a 100% certified organic sauce, organic white crust and all-natural and organic ingredients, such as free-range chicken, portobello mushrooms and soy cheese.

3. Restaurants strive for local sourcing.A related, yet distinct, trend is the rising consumer preference for locally sourced food--both produce and proteins. Today’s consumers are cognizant about their carbon footprints, and, when they purchase food, they want to know their purchase does not have an outside effect on the environment. This emphasis on local fare has implications for restaurants that are challenged to find reliable, adequate supplies of locally sourced and sustainably produced ingredients at a cost that allows them to make a profit. Given that the issue is now firmly on the minds of consumers, smart restaurant operators are responding appropriately. A case in point is Corner Bakery Café informing customers it planned on “staying local” over the summer growing season with its BBLT Sandwich LTO, which featured a double portion of locally grown tomatoes. 

4. Rethinking and reformulating fried foods.A proportion of today’s consumers are more health-conscious than the restaurant diners of yesteryear. Some of these consumers are shunning fried foods, viewing them as greasy and calorie-laden, and substituting grilled foods they see as more in line with a healthy lifestyle. A number of restaurants, particularly chicken concepts, are rushing to accommodate this trend.

In one of the most notable examples of menu expansion from fried to grilled proteins, KFC in April launched its Kentucky Grilled Chicken program, which the chain is calling its most successful new product launch of all time. The chicken is still marinated with the chain’s signature recipe of herbs and spices, but since it is grilled rather than fried, it has fewer calories, fat grams and sodium levels than KFC’s Original Recipe Chicken.

However, Technomic’s “Future of Fried Foods Consumer Trend Report” found no significant migration away from fried foods--millions of consumers continue to enjoy fried foods they find tasty, satisfying, filling and craveable. Many diners like to order deep-fried foods at restaurants, because they do not normally prepare them at home. So, while restaurants still offer fried foods in great quantity and variety to satisfy customer cravings, they are increasingly switching to healthier, trans fat-free cooking oils. For example, KFC announced early this year that its entire menu is now free of artificial trans fats. The chain began transitioning two years ago to cooking oils with zero grams of trans fat for fried chicken and potato wedges.

5. Comfort foods get new twists.During tough economic times, comfort foods resonate particularly strongly with consumers. As the turbulent economy continues to shed jobs, shrink savings and diminish consumer confidence, people crave foods that are soothing or just bring a smile to their faces. Customers, especially Baby Boomers, are inclined to view comfort foods through the lens of nostalgia. Their comfort foods are favorites from their childhood--foods such as macaroni and cheese, French toast, meatloaf and slow-roasted meats. But these old favorites are getting new twists on today’s restaurant menus.“Nothing conjures up the memories of youth and the comforts of home quite like a classic bologna sandwich,” Hardee’s declared, when it added an Oscar Mayer Fried Bologna Biscuit to its breakfast menu. The breakfast sandwich features egg, cheese and a folded slice of fried Oscar Mayer bologna between halves of a sliced scratch-made biscuit. In a variation on the classic mac-and-cheese, Arby’s offers a bite-sized, triangle-shaped, battered and fried macaroni and Cheddar item called Mac & Cheezers. Finally, independent restaurant Nu Cuisine & Lounge in Little Rock, Ark., is reinvigorating macaroni and cheese by tossing penne pasta with white truffle-infused cream sauce, serving it with grilled shrimp, asparagus and scallions, and finishing it with black-truffle butter.

Some restaurants have even rolled out special “comfort food” menus. Mimi’s Café last year introduced a seasonal “Comfort Foods with a Twist” menu, offering Banana Chocolate Chip Pancake Breakfast, Tender Pork Shank and Mimi’s S’mores. At the CBS Scene sports/entertainment restaurant and bar at Patriot Place in Foxboro, Mass., the “comfort food” section of the menu lists fresh cascarecce pasta with portobello mushrooms, baby spinach and shaved Parmesan cheese for $16.50.

6. Menus lighten up. As the U.S. faces an ever-growing obesity crisis and more people become afflicted with food-related health problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, the need for Americans to eat healthier has become a paramount concern. Restaurant operators are responding by making concerted efforts to improve the nutritional quality of their foods by lowering sodium levels and offering their customers more options. 

Subway, one of the most health-focused quick-service chains, has had success with its line of Fresh Fit Meals. Customers can select from one of eight subs with 6g of fat or less, along with a healthy side from a list that includes Baked Lay’s Original Potato Crisps, raisins, apple slices or Dannon yogurt. Beverage options are low-fat milk, diet soda and water. Also, casual-dining chain Romano’s Macaroni Grill recently unveiled an Italian-Mediterranean menu of lighter dishes at select restaurants. The menu features new dishes, as well as old dishes that have been reformulated with less calories, saturated fat and sodium. Calories were reduced by 25-69%, and saturated fat was reduced by more than 70%. Selections included Roasted Vegetable Antipasti, Grilled Chicken Spiedini and Pollo Caprese.

7. Better burgers feed customers’ cravings. One of the biggest trends in the resurgent burger category has been upscale “better burgers.” The “better” descriptor can mean many things. Some operators brag about the use of fresh Angus beef, premium ingredients or a signature sauce. In many cases, restaurants are going beyond the standard burger toppings--lettuce, tomatoes and ketchup--to offer more imaginative high-quality toppers. The “better burger” trend is evident across the foodservice industry, in segments from fine dining and casual dining to fast casual and quick service.
* Fast casual chain Smashburger offers add-ons, such as fried eggs, guacamole and sautéed garlic mushrooms, for its 100% Angus beef burgers.
* QSR giant McDonald’s has gotten in on the action, unveiling a line of Angus Third Pounder burgers with 100% Angus beef on premium buns in deluxe, bacon and cheese, and mushroom and Swiss varieties. McDonald’s also offers a snack-wrap take on the classic Big Mac, wrapping it in a flour tortilla to give it a new look.
* Burger King, too, has new burger variations, such as mini-BK Burger Shots.
* In full service, Johnny Rockets has introduced mini-burgers with ancho-chipotle or bleu cheese mayonnaise toppings.
* Atlanta’s new FLIP Burger Boutique is flipping “upscale yet affordable burgers,” ranging from a $6.50 basic burger to the ultimate in decadence, a Kobe burger served with foie gras, shaved truffles, bread and butter, pickles and red wine syrup for $45.
* Chef Bobby Flay, better known as a high-end chef, recently opened a fourth fast casual Bobby’s Burger Bar at the Mohegan Sun casino resort in Connecticut. The concept, he says, is his tribute to American regional flavors and traditions with Certified Angus beef burgers on a potato bun.

The “better burger” trend goes far beyond burger-focused concepts.
* Buffalo Wild Wings, known for its chicken wings, recently expanded its line of burgers.
* At Friendly’s, three new Big Beef Burgers with USDA Choice 100% Black Angus patties are served on toasted ciabatta rolls.
* Boston’s upscale Radius, not typically known as a takeout place, is offering a signature 18oz Schlow Burger (named for chef Michael Schlow) for $19. 
* Proving the new upscale burgers do not even need to include beef, varied-menu casual dining chain Ruby Tuesday offers a Jumbo Lump Crab Burger, a seared premium crab cake topped with a sweet and spicy chile sauce.

In a parallel development, another classic American food, the hot dog, has also staged a big comeback.
* Returning to its hot dog cart roots, Carl’s Jr. brought back its Jumbo Chili Dog this year as a limited-time offer; Gold Star Chili’s Footlong Cheese Coneys returned, also. 
* At Johnny Rockets, mini-dogs and chili dogs are turning up on the appetizer menu.
* The New York Times chronicles the proliferation of hot dog vendors (or hotdogueros) in Tucson; more than 100 vendors there are peddling Sonoran-style hot dogs, wrapped in bacon and served with beans, salsa verde, chopped onions, tomatoes and other condiments. 
* Meanwhile, in California, hot dogs have gone haute. Restaurants & Institutions reports Café Rouge in Berkeley, Calif., makes its $7 hot dog in-house from heritage breeds and flavors it with smoked paprika; at Absinthe in San Francisco, a $12 house-made hot dog is prepared with Berkshire pork and Benton’s bacon.

8. Hand-crafted gourmet sandwiches rise to the level of art. Just like burgers, sandwiches have also been going upscale. The ability to take on new components is part of the sandwich’s enduring appeal; it can simultaneously offer consumers something familiar and something unexpected. Premiumization is often achieved through the use of high-quality cuts of meat, artisan breads, specialty toppings and distinctive condiments.

The trend toward hand-crafted gourmet sandwiches is especially apparent in the fast casual segment. Panera Bread Company menus a Smokehouse Turkey  Sandwich, featuring smoked turkey breast, smoked bacon, smoked Cheddar cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and ale mustard on grilled three-cheese artisan bread. Meanwhile, Au Bon Pain offers the Prosciutto & Mozzarella Sandwich, combining prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, romaine, tomatoes, mayonnaise and Mediterranean relish on a farmhouse roll.

9. Breakfasts cater to on-the-go consumers. More and more consumers are eating breakfast away from home, and restaurants have responded by augmenting their existing breakfast menus or by starting to offer breakfast items that are portable and easily meet the needs of their busy, on-the-go patrons. Breakfast sandwiches have grown tremendously in the past few years, with new offerings rolling in regularly. In addition to traditional breakfast sandwiches served on croissants, biscuits, bagels or toast, there is also a growing trend toward breakfast burritos, breakfast bowls and flatbread breakfast wraps.

Hardee’s offers the Loaded Breakfast Burrito, combining eggs, crumbled sausage, bacon, diced ham and shredded Cheddar cheese, all wrapped in a warm flour tortilla and served with salsa. In another example, Del Taco offers a line of Del Breakfast Bowls, featuring hash brown sticks, scrambled eggs and jalapeño-bacon, all topped with chili, sour cream, Cheddar cheese and cilantro.

10. Restaurants expand and scale-up kids’ menus. Restaurants are moving kids’ menus beyond the traditional mac-and-cheese comfort zone with healthier fare and items that reflect their signature cuisine, such as crab cakes on the menu of a seafood restaurant. With both kids and adults more aware of the health benefits of eating vegetables, salads are now a leading entrée item on children’s menus at the Top 250 chain restaurants. Technomic found independents leading an emerging “kid-adult” fusion trend with smaller portions of premium steaks, fresh fish, locally sourced healthy foods and bolder ethnic flavors. On the beverage side, new smoothies and specialty drinks are enhancing menus.

Some of the latest examples of innovation on children’s menus:
* Quaker Steak & Lube launched a new kids’ menu of Tweener Tunes Meals: Chicken & Cheesadilla, Double Stack Burger Midgets, V-6 Wings, Crispy Shrimp, Grilled Boneless Wings, Crispy Chicken Fenders and Double Mac & Cheese Bowl. Sidecar sides include baby carrots with ranch, rice, steamed broccoli, applesauce and fries.
* Denny’s expanded its kids’ menu with better-for-you options, including Tumbling Vanilla yogurt with strawberry topping; High Diving Veggies, carrots, celery and cucumber; Apple Dunkers, cut apples with dipping sauce; spaghetti with marinara sauce; and new dessert choices, such as pudding and Jell-O.
* The Cheesecake Factory Inc. plans to roll out its first kids’ menu. Items include two bite-sized sliders with fries; Southern fried chicken sliders with fries; mini-corn dogs with fries; pasta dishes with various sauces or butter and Parmesan; a quesadilla with chicken; cheese or pepperoni pizza; grilled cheese; and grilled chicken with vegetables and potatoes. 

Restaurant Trends, Prepared Food Implications
These 10 menu trends are making headline news in the restaurant industry, and they are likely to have great importance to the prepared foods sector, as well. Technomic research confirms that consumers are cutting down on restaurant visits during the recession, and eating and entertaining at home more. But they are not going back to scratch cooking. Instead, they are making heavy use of prepared foods and convenience foods, including restaurant-brand items sold in retail stores. Customers may just turn to manufacturer products to satisfy their cravings for foods that duplicate the trends they have encountered and fulfill the new cravings they have acquired while dining out.  pf

For more information about Technomic industry data, contact Patrick Noone at Technomic at 312-506-3852.