Samplers are key value-added trends, when it comes to appetizers.

While just about everybody enjoys beginning a restaurant meal with a starter of their choice, the tight economy means consumers often are foregoing their favorite appetizers to lower the check total. That means that, to jump-start interest in appetizers, operators have to up the ante on variety, flavor, health and uniqueness. Fun finger foods that enhance the overall dining experience can help consumers justify the higher cost associated with purchasing starters before the meal.

Technomic’s latest appetizer study, part of its recent “Left Side of the Menu” series, uncovered some interesting findings about what restaurant-goers are looking for to kick off their meals. Samplers, small plates, ethnic options, healthful attributes, promotional bar menus and flavorful dips are key value-added trends, when it comes to appetizers.

Creative Samplers
Offering variety in the form of appetizer samplers may be a clear way to signal value to guests. When a group visits a restaurant, the members of the dining party expect not only food that tastes great, but also, an experience that is unique and enjoyable. Appetizer samplers--shareable offerings that promote interactivity--fulfill both needs. Offering a little of this and a little of that, samplers on the menu get guests talking with one another, deciding what to order and then what to taste. Samplers boost diners’ interest in trying something new at little risk.

Customer favorites are hard for a dining party to resist, so operators use samplers to showcase a variety all at once. The Best Beginnings Appetizer Combo at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, for instance, features Avocado Egg Rolls, Santa Fe Spring Rolls, Spinach & Artichoke Dip and Mozzarella Sticks. A mix of proteins on one platter--variety--is highlighted with a mix of meat, chicken and seafood; the Ribs King Sampler Platter at Montgomery Inn at the Boathouse features Gulf Shrimp Cantonese, Crab Cakes, Spicy Chicken Wings and Meatballs.

It should also be noted that, while bountiful sampler plates are increasingly popular, there is also a counter-trend to amuse bouche appetizers--tiny, bite-sized offerings that whet the appetite. Big Bowl Asian Kitchen listed bite-sized baby-back teriyaki spareribs. Other examples include Marinated Quail or Steak Bites at Taste of Texas and the BBQ Pork Ravioli Bites listed at T.G.I. Friday’s.

New Territories in Ethnic Appetizers
Exploring edgier cuisines on appetizer menus gives operators the chance to test-drive new flavors and ingredients before debuting such items on the broader menu. Even cautious consumers with less adventurous palates may be tempted to try the flavors of an unfamiliar ethnic cuisine, if served in a bite-sized presentation at modest cost.

Regional flavors from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean increasingly appeal to consumers and are highly craveable, when it comes to snacks. Operators and manufacturers are responding to the demand for bolder, more unusual ethnic flavors with a variety of ethnic-inspired finger foods.

In the latest annual “What’s Hot Chef’s Survey,” from the National Restaurant Association, chefs nationwide identified Asian-style appetizers as a top trend for 2010. Mainstream operators are menuing more appetizers with Asian accents in the form of sauces or garnishments on the plate--the easiest way to add ethnic appeal. Soy, ginger, lemongrass, hoisin and wasabi are just some of the ingredients of note. Asian slaws add crunchy textures, while sauces highlight fruity flavor profiles of plum and orange. There are also a number of Indian-style starters with curry spices, as well as Vietnamese wraps and South Asian chicken and beef satays to kick off the meal. Some Asian-accented, finger-food highlights recently offered at major chains are:
* Asian Pot Stickers--Sautéed pork pot stickers sprinkled with sesame seeds and green onions, served on a bed of cabbage and carrots, accompanied by an Asian dipping sauce (Coco’s Bakery Restaurant).
* Asian Cross-Cut Beef Ribs--Served with a hoisin-ginger sauce (McCormick & Schmick’s).
* Thai Phoon Shrimp--Golden-brown fried shrimp tossed in a sweet and fiery chili sauce (Ruby Tuesday’s).

Operators looking to inject the latest ethnic ideas onto the left side of their menus could perhaps take some cues from the hot new food-truck concepts seen in and around big-city markets. Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles, for example, fuses Korean flavor with a traditional Mexican presentation, resulting in its signature Korean-style tacos. Classic Mexican-style carne asada tacos are the top-selling item from the Calexico food truck in New York City. MMMpanadas, a popular food-truck concept in Austin, Texas, offers stuffed empanadas, a traditional handheld food from Latin America with plenty of spicy flavor.

What are the characteristics that make these ethnic offerings so appealing? They carry bold punches of flavor and are easy to eat, hold and dip. Toppings and housemade sauces add interest and convey authenticity and quality. Additionally, these fun and flavorful foods are affordable and are new to many consumers.

Small Salads, Big Flavor
Many consumers who order appetizers go straight for the breaded, fried or cheesy options that satisfy a craving for something indulgent. However, other guests find these offerings less appealing. Technomic consumer research found more than half of the diners who never order appetizers avoid them because they do not want to be too full to eat their entree. Almost half of the appetizer abstainers said ordering appetizers would cause them to overeat.

To drive interest in the left side of the menu among guests like these, operators are putting more emphasis on fresh, flavorful, “better-for-you” appetizer-sized salads. The National Restaurant Association’s annual “What’s Hot Chef Survey” named starter salads a top trend for 2010.

Beyond the standard garden or house salad, innovative small salads present opportunities for differentiation in both the ingredient mix and accompanying dressings. Less-expected greens beyond iceberg or romaine lettuce can signal quality and variety--so can unique, housemade dressings. Seasonal and local produce can underline the freshness message and strengthen the “better-for-you” positioning of a premium salad. Some innovative side salads that have shown up on menus this year:
* Specialty side salads--Mediterranean Salad, Spicy Buffalo Chicken Salad, Warm Bacon Spinach Salad and Roasted Veggie Salad (Bakers Square).
*  Pasta side salads--Snappy Sesame Noodle Salad and Mediterranean Medley Salad (Jamba Juice).
* Mandarin garden side salad--Fresh greens, Mandarin oranges and sunflower seeds, topped with Chinese croutons (Pick Up Stix).

Big Flavors at the Bar
Over the past year, an influx of new happy hour and bar menus has allowed upscale restaurants to promote a lower priced, appetizer-centric dining option to guests, without devaluing their luxurious dining room experience. These new appetizer menus, often served at the bar only and available during a specific time period, give operators the chance to highlight flavor, craveability and a low price point, while they promote experience value in the form of adult social interaction and fun at the bar.

Here are some top full-service restaurant chains that have successfully marketed happy hour/bar appetizer menus over the past year:
* 99 Restaurant debuted a new bar menu featuring snack-sized appetizers priced at $3.99 each. Menu items include Nachos, Baked Stuffed Clams, Steakburger Minis, Cheese Pizza, Sweet & Spicy Boneless Wings, Bone-In Buffalo Wings and Crab Rangoon.
* Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar launched a happy hour bar menu nationwide. Available at the bar every day until 7 p.m., the bar menu offers five appetizers, five cocktails and five wines by the glass, each for $6. The happy hour items include such upscale, craveable offerings as Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes, Sweet Chili Calamari and Wicked Cajun Barbecue Shrimp.
* P.F. Chang’s China Bistro has launched its new happy hour promotional menu at select locations nationwide. The appetizer menu includes spring rolls, crispy green beans, crab wontons, Szechwan chicken flatbread, or pork or vegetable dumplings for $4; chicken or vegetarian lettuce wraps, salt-and-pepper calamari or shrimp dumplings for $5; and seared ahi tuna, Northern-style spare ribs, Chang’s spare ribs or dynamite shrimp for $6.

At the bar, guests can make meals out of food and drink flights, with mini-sized versions of entrees and alcoholic beverages. Spanish tapas could pair with mojito or sangria flights; Kobe beef or shrimp appetizers could complement a martini flight; regional Italian small plates would enhance wine flights; and tiny fish or lobster tacos would match up with a festive tequila flight.

Flavor Jolts: Dips and Condiments
In mainstream restaurants, the overwhelming majority of appetizer samplers continues to feature staples like onion rings, fried cheese sticks, chicken wings and chicken tenders, or Tex-Mex items, such as quesadillas, nachos, taquitos and Southwestern egg rolls. Paired with more variety in the form of dipping sauces, these items become increasingly appealing to adventurous diners and can set a concept and menu apart from the competition.
* Dipping sauces--From creamy, pungent bleu cheese dips to sharp, spicy Buffalo and Asian wasabi sauces, dipping sauces add another layer of flavor and texture to an appetizer.
* Housemade preparations--A focus on quality extends to housemade versions of condiments. These more housemade ketchups, aïolis and barbecue sauces can lend signature, artisan attributes to the appetizer menu.
* Ethnic and spicy--The inspiration is coming mainly from Mexico (black bean-and-corn salsas, chipotle and ancho-flavored salsas and dips) and Asia (Indian chutneys, as well as Asian dips for spring rolls, egg rolls or other appetizers, accented by teriyaki, sesame oil, plum, wasabi and soy).

Becoming Part of the Value Equation
Even when consumers’ dining-out budgets are tighter, appetizers can maintain their natural appeal, if operators and suppliers work together to create craveable, unique options that customers see as worth the money. pf