November 2011/Prepared Foods -- The “center of the plate” once meant a portion of protein that held the sauce and complemented the sides. Today, the plate is not easily defined (tapas? sharing? family-size?), much less are the central components.
Even taking a broad look at the main course, it is difficult to sum up entree trends. Value demands large portions for the price, or smaller portions suitable for sharing. Consumers want hearty comfort foods they are familiar with, and they want to try new things. People across the country demand dishes that are good for them, and they want to indulge. They want food that is portable and convenient, yet they want food that is fresh and customized--and prepared just for them. They like beef, pork, chicken, seafood, pasta, vegetables...trends overlap and outright contradict each other.

Between the Bread
Sandwiches suit these contradictory trends, which is likely why they are menued in both full- and limited-service restaurants more than any other type of entree. Among consumers polled for Technomic’s “Sandwich Consumer Trend Report,” 93% say they eat at least one sandwich each week.
Sandwiches can be quickly made to order, are highly portable, and satisfy hunger and cravings. They can be adapted to please just about any palate, budget or appetite, and they are popular in preparations--from BLTs to bahn mi. Perhaps most importantly, sandwiches can be adapted to meet almost any culinary trend.
For example, breakfast is a hot topic. Menus that feature a signature breakfast sandwich or wrap help signal differentiation. The quick-service sector positions these sandwiches as a value-menu item, bundling it in combo meals, while fast-casual menus put the spotlight on high-quality sandwich ingredients and artisan breads. Full-service operators are also recognizing the appeal. In a segment defined by a traditional knife-and-fork entree, signature sandwiches can offer flavor and preparation variety, as well as lower-cost options.
Breakfast sandwiches recently introduced or promoted on menus include:
* Dunkin Donuts’ new Big N’Toasty Breakfast Sandwich, with two fried eggs, four slices of cherrywood-smoked bacon and American cheese on Texas toast.
* Paradise Bakery & Café’s Asiago Bagel Breakfast Sandwich, which features egg, applewood-smoked bacon and Vermont white Cheddar grilled on an Asiago bagel.
* Ruby’s Diner’s Breakfast Sliders: Three Kings Hawaiian rolls with fried eggs, American cheese and choice of bacon, Canadian bacon, veggie sausage or lean turkey sausage.

A keen eye picks up on the variety of bread on that list, and the fact that bread mentions are quite specific in most cases. This trend is seen beyond breakfast, as well. The bread defines the quality and flavor as much as the fillings, especially on sandwiches with an artisan preparation.
Chicken sandwiches are the leading variety offered on menus today. Chicken’s adaptability to wide-ranging preparations and flavor applications helps make it a strong foundation. Ham and roast beef are also among the most prevalent protein options for sandwiches, and the three often share a common presentation, in that they are routinely offered with bacon as a smoky accent.
Among leading condiments, classic dressings and spreads are the top options, but spicy, hot and herbal-flavored condiments are emerging. Many of these flavors are globally inspired, and some bold flavors serve as a replacement for added fat and salt.
Some chains that have recently rolled out new sandwiches:
* Arby’s added the new Cravin’ Chicken sandwich, featuring an all-white-meat, chicken breast fillet topped with lettuce, tomato and the chain’s zesty Cravin’ Sauce. It is also available with a roast chicken fillet.
* Caribou Coffee added four Grown-up Grilled Cheese sandwiches: the 3 Cheese Classic, Gouda Turkey Pesto, Italian Chicken Melt and Aged Cheddar Roast.
* Olive Garden introduced three new grilled paninis: the Chicken Caprese Panini, Chicken Florentine Panini and Steak & Portabello Panini.

Beef and Beyond
When it comes to beef sandwiches, hamburgers are the clear favorite. According to Technomic’s menu-tracking resource, MenuMonitor, burger incidence overall is up 5% in the first half of 2011 from the same period of 2010. Burgers with greater representation on menus are bacon cheeseburgers, mushroom and Swiss burgers, and patty melts. But, fish burgers, garden burgers and turkey burgers have also seen growth, though their incidence is much lower.
The “better-burger” category has seen impressive growth. As evidence: While the limited-service hamburger category experienced a 1.6% growth in sales from 2009-2010, fast-casual chain sales within the hamburger category continued to thrive: five fast-casual burger chains experienced double-digit sales growth in 2010. There is room for burger growth: Technomic’s research shows burger consumption is on the rise. Nearly half of today’s consumers (48%) eat a burger at least once a week, up from 38% in 2009. The better-burger category is giving consumers more options and allowing them to enjoy burgers at prices that represent a trade-up from quick-service or a trade-down from full-service.
Today’s top trends for specialty burgers include premium proteins; toppings that add sweetness or spice; housemade sauces; and globally inspired flavors and ingredients. Going forward, watch for preparations that feature premium proteins and ingredients; spicy, fruity and sweet toppings; ethnic flavor influences; and signature sauces.
While sesame seed buns and whole-wheat buns are the top choices on menus, a premium positioning is seen in the use of pretzel and sourdough breads, and, to a lesser extent, challah, ciabatta and rye.
Cheeses also help differentiate burger offerings, by highlighting flavor and an artisan appeal. Specialty bleu and goat cheeses can add sharpness or a premium quality, while nacho, pepper Jack, mozzarella and feta cheeses can help operators position globally inspired burgers on the menu.
Classic burger toppings, like tomato, lettuce, onion and pickle are most widely preferred. Up-and-coming toppings that signal global flavor influences like avocado, guacamole and pineapple may not be as prevalent, but are a menu trend to watch.
Recent burger introductions and promotions include:

* Burger King relaunched its BK Minis for a limited time. BK Burger Minis are fire-grilled beef patties topped with dill pickle chips and ketchup.
* Beef ‘O’ Brady’s added a line of Black Angus Burgers. The line includes Smokin’ Jack Sliders, a Cheesy Patty Melt and the Frisco Patty Melt, as well as a Build-Your-Own Burger option.
* Grand Lux Café’s most recent menu rollout includes three new burgers: the Bacon-Cheese Burger, Avocado-Chipotle Cheeseburger and Chicken Burger.

The Streets of the World
Hints of global inspiration appear in sandwiches, burgers and entrees overall. Also prevalent is consumers’ desire for bold flavors, value and portability. The Korean taco, a mashup of Korean-style fillings in a Mexican format, is just one example of an influx of multicultural dishes and street food from around the world.
Technomic is watching the trend of operators using “street” to describe tacos, usually to make them seem more authentic and/or upscale. North Americans have taken hold of the terminology; as consumers continue to welcome more authentic Mexican items, more operators will use it. El Torito, Taco Cabana, Chevys Fresh Mex, Qdoba, California Pizza Kitchen and The Cheesecake Factory are among the chains that have recently introduced or promoted street tacos. Such items not only provide the flavor customers are looking for, but also the convenience and comfort food factor.
Technomic’s “Center of the Plate: Poultry Consumer Trend Report” found two in five consumers say that restaurants should offer more chicken entrees made with ethnic ingredients and flavors (41%). A smaller, but significant, percentage say they would like to see more ethnically inspired beef (34%) and pork (35%) dishes.
Many consumers also value certain ethnic food for its healthful properties, such as the Mediterranean fare discussed in the “Hot Emerging Cuisines,” on page 53 of this magazine. Technomic has observed instances of a global twist serving as a healthful indicator, such as a bruschetta blend topping a chicken breast or Thai-spiced shrimp as a replacement for fried. Along a similar vein, Papa Murphy’s Take ’N’ Bake Pizza added a new Thai Chicken deLITE Pizza, featuring a crispy crust topped with a sweet Thai chili glaze, mozzarella cheese, grilled chicken, zucchini, onions and crushed red pepper flakes.

Healthy vs. Indulgent
Healthful fare is on the rise, but there is still a disconnect between consumer demand and purchases. As federal menu labeling requirements get hammered out, the issue of healthful vs. indulgent fare--on the menu and in menu descriptions--gets complicated. Limited-time offers (including seasonal fare) will trend up, not only because they attract attention, but also because they do not require posting nutrition data that consumers would rather not know. Despite the calories, customers are still seeking comfort food.
However, consumer attitudes toward health are changing and will continue to evolve. Technomic research shows most consumers do not think they need to sacrifice good taste for health. At the same time, the consumer definition of health continues to adjust. In the recent past, a diet low in carbohydrates was deemed to be a healthy option. Today, consumers focus on other nutritional elements, such as trans fats and sodium, and consider how their food was produced and sourced to determine if it is a healthy choice.
The incidence of most traditional health claims is declining on menus nationwide. Many familiar health indicators, such as low-fat, reduced-carb, etc., are giving way to new avenues toward signaling health. Certain health-halo attributes, such as organic, natural, local, seasonal and sustainable, are a top trend to watch on the menu.
Some of the healthful items recently introduced to menus include:
* Daphne’s California Greek rolled out a line of Flatbread Pizzas, each with under 500 calories. Varieties are: Rustic Greek, BBQ Chicken, Margherita and Pepperoni.
* The Cheesecake Factory launched a stand-alone menu of lower-calorie entrees. The SkinnyLicious menu lists nearly 50 new, existing and reformulated offerings; each contains 590 calories or less. Among the 13 new offerings are Mexican Tortilla Salad, the SkinnyLicious Hamburger and Tuscan Chicken.
* Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen launched the Louisiana Leaux Get Up & Geaux! menu of better-for-you meal options with reduced fat, calories and sodium compared to regular dishes. Selections are: Naked Chicken Wrap, Naked BBQ Chicken Po’ Boy, Naked Tenders Meal and the Get Up & Geaux! Kids Meal.

Moving Forward
Entrees will continue to evolve in myriad ways, but do not expect the dichotomies of health vs. indulgence, and convenience vs. customized to cease. Smart operators provide balance and multiple options, or stay fiercely focused, if that is what their core customer demands. pf