November 2011/Prepared Foods -- Browsing through the appetizer menu and socializing over small bites of food can help set the stage for a memorable meal--while giving operators the chance to boost the check. But, the economic recession has meant serious cutbacks in ordering extras like appetizers--meaning operators have had to get creative in promoting full-bodied flavors, variety and value to entice consumers to make an appetizer purchase.
For appetizers, the migration of global flavors to the left side of the menu continues, with newly emerging, ethnic “street foods” and starter salads with an Asian influence. Value is highlighted through low-priced meal deals featuring shareable appetizers, and mini-foods and “bites” offer big flavors through a small taste of something craveable. Finally, more operators are developing late-night snacks that delight restaurant guests with price specials on small-portioned food well into the night.
Technomic research, including findings from its online trend-tracking resource, MenuMonitor, reveals several of the trends and preferences that are impacting menu development for the appetizer category.
From the Street to the Plate
One of the hottest trends in foodservice is “street food,” which calls for an interpretation of a beloved culinary staple that is typically sold curbside from stands, food trucks or carts. Usually simple in preparation and featuring fresh, rustic ingredients, street foods are easily portable and eaten on the go. These small, handheld foods are a good match for appetizer menus--and are especially appealing to consumers who are curious about international cuisines.
Mexican street tacos and Mediterranean mini-pita wraps were added to several chain menus in 2011 and were specifically described as street foods or snacks:
* Street Pitas--Available in Gyros, Grilled Chicken or Mix-and-Match varieties; featuring two mini-pitas with Roma tomatoes, diced cucumbers, creamy Daphne’s sauce, feta cheese and tzatziki sauce (Daphne’s California Greek).
* Street Taco--A snack-size taco in a simple preparation of guacamole, cilantro and onion on a corn tortilla (Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill).
* Leo’s Street Taco--Seared beef tenderloin, diced cucumbers, avocado and cotija cheese, drizzled with a chipotle-cream sauce (Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill).

Independent restaurants are the breeding ground for truly exotic, global appetizers to emerge. For example, chaat, a popular street food in India and Pakistan, is being featured on Washington, D.C., menus as an appetizer. Chaat, which means “to lick” in Hindi, can be served hot or cold and traditionally has three components: a main ingredient, such as chickpeas, diced potato, mixed fruit or a vegetable; a spice blend or seasoning called chaat masala; and condiments, such as yogurt with mint, cilantro and sweet tamarind, or date chutney.
Masala Art in Needham, Mass., offers several chaats as appetizers. Selections include Dahi Bhalla, which are deep-fried balls of puréed black lentils bathed in seasoned yogurt and drizzled with chutneys. At Rasika, the signature dish is Palak Chaat--crisp, flash-fried, whole spinach leaves seasoned with roasted cumin powder, black salt, red chili powder, tamarind and date chutney. In Chevy Chase, Md., Indique Heights offers a “street-snacks” menu with each menu description listing the dish’s city of origin in India. Appetizer selections include Papri Chaat from New Delhi, made with potato, crispy flour, chickpeas, yogurt and tamarind chutney; and Bhel Puri from Mumbai, featuring puffed rice, crispy gram flour noodles, cilantro and tamarind chutney.

An Asian Accent on Side Salads
For years, Asian cuisines have been widely discussed in industry circles as the next wave of global flavors to make a splash on restaurant-chain menus in the U.S. Crispy fried favorites, like egg rolls and shrimp tempura, are, of course, solidly in the mainstream--as are spicy, sweet and fruit-tinged, Asian-style dipping sauces for everything from dumplings to chicken strips.
Those seeking proof of Asian flavors’ entrenched acceptance at the chain level need look no further than McDonald’s, which now boasts Sweet Chili dipping sauce (think of duck sauce spiked with red pepper flakes) as an accompaniment for its signature Chicken McNuggets. McDonald’s nod to Thai influences reflects a consumer preference for pan-Asian flavors and a willingness on the part of the customer to try these ingredients, when they appear on the menu.
With appetizer dipping sauces reflecting plenty of Asian preparations, the next step operators are now taking calls for Asian-inspired vinaigrettes and dressings for starter salads. While most appetizer salads fall into the standard house or garden variety, Technomic has seen activity around small salads with Japanese, Thai and other Asian ingredients and dressings. Standout flavors for Asian-accented appetizer salads include soy, ginger, peanuts, chilies, lime, lemongrass, sesame and cilantro. These examples show operators merely applying a hint of an Asian flavor (such as the addition of Asian vinaigrette to a simple spinach salad) or fully promoting the appetizer as an Asian salad offering:
* Thai Spiced Salad--With avocado, shredded coconut, orange segments and Asian greens, with a hot-and-sour dressing (Asia de Cuba).
* Spinach Salad--With walnuts, cranberries, crumbled bleu cheese and an Asian vinaigrette (Asqew Grill).
* Side Salad--With lettuce, Napa cabbage, carrots and scallions in a Japanese ginger dressing (Doc Chey’s).
* Spicy Thai Slaw--With Asian pears, crispy shallots and mint (Spice Market).
* Tossed Greens--Mixed-greens salad drizzled with a sesame-miso dressing (Zippy’s).

More for the Money
Arguably nothing is resonating more with foodservice consumers than a strong value equation. Underscoring value--especially in a way that promotes a lot of food for a little bit of money--has been paramount to foodservice’s efforts to attract guests. There has been plenty of debate about low-price-oriented value deals and whether such discounting devalues a restaurant brand and lowers the quality perception. There may be no clear consensus, but one thing is certain: operators that participated in value-priced meal bundles or menu specials made appetizers central to the deal:
* Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar promoted its “2 for $20” menu, offering one full-size appetizer and two entrées for $20. Appetizers include Spinach & Artichoke Dip, Boneless Buffalo Wings, Queso Blanco, Crunchy Onion Rings and Mozzarella Sticks.
* Canyon Creek Chophouse suggested guests stop in for its “5 at 5” deal, offering five appetizers and five beverages for $5 each. Available appetizers include Thai Shrimp Cocktail, Spicy Calamari, Moroccan Meatballs, Prime Rib Quesadilla and Prime Rib Sandwich.
* Kincaid’s American Dining Classic rolled out its March Trio, a three-course dinner priced at $39. The menu includes an iceberg lettuce wedge and teriyaki tidbits as appetizers.
* Palomino Restaurant & Bar rolled out a March Fresco promotion of a three-course dinner for $30. The menu features a charcuterie plate, Sicilian meatballs or Palomino’s signature Chop Chop Salad as appetizers.
* Wintzell’s Oyster House promoted its new “5-5-5 Happy Hour,” offering $5 pitchers, $5 for a dozen of raw oysters and $5 for a selection of appetizers. Appetizer options include Jerk Chicken Chili Nachos, Fried Pickles, Crawfish Tails, Smoked Tuna Dip, Loaded Potato Skins and Hot Wings.

New “Bites” and Minis
In this economic climate, there is something to be said for an appetizer menu that promotes substantial portions for a low price, but consumers are not monoliths. Differing needs and preferences around portion size, flavor, shareability and health all play a role in the purchasing decision for appetizers. Many guests simply are not looking for a full-sized appetizer--even at a rock-bottom price. Instead, these customers may gravitate toward smaller-portioned foods described as “bites” or minis.
In the last “What’s Hot Chef’s Survey,” from the National Restaurant Association, chefs nationwide named amuse-bouche, hors d’oeuvre-style, bite-sized appetizers as a trend to watch in 2011. MenuMonitor research captured the following examples of new appetizers described specifically as “bites” on the menu:
* Tandoori Chicken Bites--Featuring bite-sized chicken pieces cooked in traditional Indian tandoori spices (Chutney Joe’s).
* Boneless Bites--Bite-sized, boneless chicken served with choice of dipping sauce, including Traditional Buffalo, Buffalo Garlic & Romano, Honey Barbecue, Asian or Tangy Uno’s Wowza Sauce, infused with Samuel Adams Boston Lager (Uno Chicago Grill).
* Fried White Cheddar Bites--Batter-fried white Cheddar cheese bits, served with marinara sauce (Zaxby’s).

Smaller portions of handheld foods fall into this positioning, as well. Easy to hold--and fun to dip--mini-foods highlight creative ingredient combinations for guests, providing them with a low-risk way to try something new--or allow them to indulge a singular craving for a familiar favorite, without filling up too much before the meal. Smaller-portioned, lower-priced starters or mix-and-match appetizers can even take the place of a main course offering; guests can enjoy a small portion of something craveable and skip the price of a full-sized entrée. Some new “minis” added recently to the appetizer lineup are:
* Mini Tacos--Two mini-corn tortillas filled with spicy barbacoa beef or fajita-marinated chicken breast; topped with cabbage, signature Baja sauce and pico de gallo (BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse).
* Mini Pulled Pork Sliders--With Monterey Jack cheese atop a toasted maple and herb-corn bun; topped with red cabbage slaw and pickle tempura (Bryant Park Grill).
* Mini Burgers on Brioche Rolls--With steak sauce mayo, applewood-smoked bacon and aged Cheddar (Smith & Wollensky).

Late-night Snacks
Outside the conventional dinner-daypart hours--where appetizers are traditionally positioned as the starter to a main course meal--operators are also finding a niche for appetizers on a growing number of menus that promote late-night service formats. Smaller-portioned, shareable foods are a good fit in this arena, as a dining party can mix and match handheld favorites and dipping sauces from combo platters that offer something for everyone.
Another plus for operators is the natural pairing of late-night snacks with adult beverages. Wine, cocktails and beer go hand-in-hand with appetizers served in this format and add to the guest-socialization element during late-night hours. Operators are reaping the benefits: Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill expanded its late-night scope in 2011; the company says bar business now accounts for half of its business between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Smokey Bones’ late-night appetizer lineup includes Smoked Southwest Egg Rolls, Smoked Wings, $4 spring rolls and $5 Cajun shrimp. Other chain examples include:
* Applebee’s offers a discounted price on starters, such as chicken wings, quesadillas and Wonton Tacos, ordered after 9 p.m., at most of its locations.
* From 9 p.m. to close, Buffalo Wild Wings promotes its Late Night Snack Menu, featuring $3 mozzarella sticks, onion rings and mini-corn dogs.
* Chino Latino’s late-night appetizer selection includes $1 tacos, served after 9 p.m.

What is Next for Starters?
Bold flavors and price-oriented value will continue to define the appetizer category, as consumers’ purchasing decisions match up with shifts in taste preferences and lifestyle needs. Watch for appetizers to be the platform for more ethnic flavors to expand and for appetizers to appear in the center of daily specials, combo meals and other price promotions designed to get guests in the door. pf