From one end of the menu to another, some noteworthy trends stand out. Although restaurants and their menus can’t be everything to everyone, there has still been a broad attempt to deliver food and drink with contemporary attributes around health, flavor innovation, value and premium quality, as well as menu offerings designed for very specific dining occasions.

The Left Side of the Menu: Soups, Salads and Appetizers

Appetizers—long-standing tools used to whet customers’ appetites for their meal while providing operators with a bump-up in the check average—are being repositioned on a number of menus as a way to help develop fun, interactive dining occasions. Technomic’s new 2012 “Menu Positioning & Occasion Driver Consumer Trend Report” uncovers how restaurant chains are promoting shareable new finger foods and small plates as a part of bar, happy-hour and late-night menus.

For example, full-service Elephant Bar Restaurant now offers what it calls a “second happy hour” every night from 9 p.m. until close. Its new small plates include firecracker shrimp, spicy wood-grilled Italian sausage, wood-grilled Moroccan chicken skewers and spinach-and-artichoke stuffed mushrooms.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House’s new Sizzle, Swizzle & Swirl happy-hour campaign emphasizes fun and promotes a selection of bar bites and drinks priced at $7 each. Premium mini-food options include a USDA-prime burger with fries, tenderloin skewers over spring greens, New England lobster roll with fries, three petite sliders, sliced filet sandwich with fries, seared ahi tuna and spicy lobster.

Appetizers and small plates also are being promoted with health in mind. California Pizza Kitchen promotes a menu dubbed “Small Cravings,” while The Cheesecake Factory has expanded its “SkinnyLicious” menu with a wide variety of lighter small plates, including Shrimp Toast Lollipops, and mini kale and faro salads.

Speaking of small-plate salads, Technomic’s latest 2012 “Soup & Salad Consumer Trend Report” examines the growth of appetizer salads. In fact, the year-over-year picture for appetizer salads shows that starter salads have shown increases since 2009; some of the top categories include antipasto, Asian, Greek and Caprese salads. These varieties all feature globally inspired flavors and ingredients that go beyond the standard lettuce-tomato-cucumber variation.

To further create interest in these salads, operators can lighten them up by repositioning them as finger foods that can be eaten as hand-held bites. Take, for example, Thai-style lettuce cups—they’re simple to eat, give guests a punch of Asian flavor and can double as a light meal when ordering more than one. Crispers’ new Asian Lettuce Cup features Thai-spiced chicken, spring mix, noodles, basil and peanut dressing; it’s also offered as part of the chain’s new Lettuce Cup Trio, which features a Blackened Chicken Caesar Cup and Steak & Bleu Cup.

As for soups, there’s a burgeoning trend toward global flavor profiles. Consumer responses to Technomic’s questions about ethnic soups bear out this finding, as 43% of respondents said they would be interested in trying ethnic soups offered at varied-menu restaurants. This means that in a restaurant category known for something-for-everyone menus, a significant percentage of consumers want ethnic soups to be part of that menu mix.

The global soups that are poised to break out of a purely ethnic positioning into a more mainstream setting represent Mexican and Vietnamese culinary traditions. Pozole, a classic Mexican soup made with diced pork, pasilla chilies and white hominy, is a simple, yet highly flavorful comfort-food soup. And, entire restaurant concepts are being developed around pho—a Vietnamese noodle soup with beef brisket, flank steak and assorted add-ins.

The introduction of traditional Mexican soups need not be intimidating, as most contain ingredients with which consumers are already familiar. For example, Souper Salad lists Tamale Soup on the menu, while Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant lists several simple Mexican favorites: Sopa de Albondigas—a meatball soup with chipotle peppers; Sopa de Fideo—a pasta soup; and Caldo de Res—featuring Mexican-style beef and vegetables.

Also on the horizon is greater acceptance of soups with a North African/Moroccan or Middle Eastern flair. Already, several chains that specialize in soup, such as Souper Salad and Souplantation, are menuing soups described as Moroccan and Syrian. Souper Salad offers a Moroccan Garbanzo & Lentil Bean Soup, while Syrian Chickpea with Lemon & Tahini is a fixture on the menu at Souplantation.

Entrées and Sandwiches: Main-Course Trends

Consumers continue to weigh value when dining out, with a focus on what they receive for the money. In other words, value is extending beyond absolute lowest price to include quantity and quality—particularly for entrées in the full-service segment.

Two-for and three-for appetizer/entrée bundles remain a focal point of value-oriented menu positioning for many leading restaurant chains, and operators in the full-service arena continue to use bundle promotions to drive traffic.

These value menus aren’t static; in fact, operators are making continuous updates to selections. Technomic research turns up several examples of operators revamping entrée selections to incorporate seasonal ingredients, as well as flavor accents that shine a spotlight on globally inspired sauces, seasonings and other components—particularly those with a pan-Asian flair.

Chicken and shrimp provide a highly adaptable platform for flavor innovation, as seen in the following examples of newly added entrée selections on full-service menus:

• In September, Elephant Bar Restaurant announced the arrival of its new 2 for $20 two-course meals. The offer allows customers to choose either an appetizer or dessert, along with two entrées. The new entrée choices include Crispy Teriyaki Chicken, Crispy Honey Shrimp, Szechwan Shrimp & Chicken in Spiced Garlic Sauce, Mongolian Beef, Thai-High Chicken Stir Fry and Orange Chicken.

• Applebee’s recently added two new dishes to its 2 for $20 menu: Chipotle Cream Steak & Shrimp and Southwest Shrimp Fettuccine.

• Outback Steakhouse added several new entrées to its $15 four-course meal deal lineup. Entrées include its Wood-Fire Grilled Shrimp and Sweet Glazed Pork Tenderloin.

Sandwich Innovation

An ongoing trend for sandwiches continues to be innovation, in terms of preparations and toppings. On menus across restaurant segments, operators are marking differentiation by developing new sandwiches, wraps, hot dogs and burgers with unexpected toppings and ingredients.

Technomic’s secondary research—and a review of its own MenuMonitor database—reveals several of the latest developments for sandwiches. Up-and-coming trends include revamps of classic offerings; namely, eclectic accents to sandwiches, ranging from specialty condiments to ingredients that add a globally inspired spin.

Up next for sandwiches will be a continuation of higher-end, chef-inspired components migrating from the independent-restaurant arena down to the chain level. These gourmet ingredients will build appeal among food-savvy consumers who may be looking for unique flavor profiles and higher-quality foods—and among those who are willing for pay more for “premium.”

Some toppings and ingredients to watch include:

• New breads—including Indian dosa and naan; herb-accented artisan flatbreads; steamed buns for a wider array of Asian-inspired handhelds; and crispier, cone-style breads.

• Jam—think savory tomato jams, such as the housemade version at RM Seafood, which along with avocado aioli, accents a Roasted Chicken Panini.


• Chutney—fruity varieties like mango, apple and cranberry will continue to accent turkey and chicken sandwiches, and bolder, fiery versions will emerge; the Chicken Curry Tartine at Le Pain Quotidien is served with a side of harissa-cranberry chutney.

• Kimchi—the Korean relish adds a spicy, pungent kick to sandwiches and burgers; Tanuki Tavern slathers kimchi on a specialty burger.

• Specialty ketchup—housemade ketchup conveys a premium quality, while spicy, hickory-flavored or tropical mango versions underscore variety for sandwiches, burgers and wraps.

Tempting Trends for Desserts

There seem to be three prevailing trends guiding menu development for desserts: a consumer affinity for classic, retro sweets; a do-it-yourself format that lets guests assemble and customize; and gourmet tweaks to desserts.

While nearly everyone appreciates uniqueness and creativity on the dessert menu, the classics are here to stay. There’s a move toward keeping ingredients simple and communicating a message about “real” food to restaurant-goers. With all the innovation and new ingredients being introduced on menus, many consumers welcome promotions that speak to traditional, American-style foods. Cold Stone Creamery recently launched a line of Retro Classics desserts for $4.99. The new desserts include Classic Banana Royale, Classic Turtle Sundae, Classic Hot Fudge Sundae, Cherry Vanilla Cherry Pie Sundae, Malt My Heart with Chocolate Sundae and a Classic Root Beer Float.

However, for those in search of what’s new and next, desserts with an unexpected twist are just the thing. One of the hottest trends for gourmet desserts calls for smoky flavor profiles. Look for this trend on the independent-restaurant level:

• In San Francisco, ice-cream shop Humphry Slocombe occasionally offers a smoke-flavored ice cream called Fume, and Absinthe Brasserie features cinnamon-smoked apples served over hazelnut crumb.

• At Table 310 in Lexington, Ky., the S’mores dessert features smoked vanilla bean ice cream swirled with crushed graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate.

• New York City’s Corton restaurant serves a lightly smoked maple crème with an ice cream infused with sourdough miche bread and sour cherry cremeux.

• In Cambridge, Mass., Craigie on Maine invented a bourbon-pecan ice-cream tart with a bacon-chocolate crust and Mexican smoked salt.

In 2012, the National Restaurant Association surveyed 1,800 professional chefs, members of the American Culinary Federation, about the food and flavor trends that are hottest on U.S. restaurant menus this year. For desserts, these chefs called “deconstructed classic desserts” a top trend.

Consumers love the classics but also want to see them presented in unconventional ways. Dessert is an inherently fun treat, and it’s this fun factor that is underscored when the presentation calls for guests to essentially play with their food.

Think churros served with sauces or even complementary milkshakes for dunking; ice cream sandwiches served with components for guests to construct their own treat; chocolate or berry-accented sauces served on the side; or desserts prepared tableside—like the flaming Baked Alaska prepared at the table at Landry’s Oceanaire Seafood Room.

On-Trend Beverages

The biggest story for the beverage category has been the rise of non-carbonated drinks on the menu. This past year has seen soft drinks decline in incidence on limited- and full-service chain menus, according to Technomic’s recent 2012 “Beverage Consumer Trend Report.” Traditional soft drinks are making way for beverages that carve out a specialty niche, with flavors and preparations that speak to larger trends around health, freshness, an artisan focus and global inspirations.

Specialty coffee has made a big mark on chain menus over the past several years, and now specialty tea is poised for a breakout. Look for two trends to flourish: Asian-style teas, including milk teas and bubble teas—which may not necessarily be new, but are making more of a showing on menus across segments; and fruit-infused teas that emphasize premiumization with housemade fruit pureés and eclectic ingredient combinations.

American consumers already enjoy Asian teas; green tea, for example, is enormously popular in the retail market and is lauded for its antioxidant properties, as well as its ability to take on myriad flavors. East Asian teas also are emerging; in fact, Technomic’s beverage study reveals traditional Indian chai flavors rank highest for hot, iced, and specialty teas and tea lattes in the limited-service segment. Accented by aromatic cardamom and masala spices, chai teas have reached a level of wide acceptance for regional Asian teas on the menu.

Next up for Asian teas is bubble tea, a sweetened iced tea that originated in Taiwan. Consumed through large straws, the “bubbles” in bubble teas are actually tapioca pearls that are meant to be eaten along with the tea. Still an emerging tea variety, watch for bubble teas to continue to influence concept development (such as the up-and-coming brand Tapioca Express) and highlight ethnic authenticity on beverage menus for mainstream chains over time.

Teas with accompanying lemon or accents of raspberry or peach are not new, but the ways in which some operators impart fruit flavors to tea are shifting. Going forward, there appears to be more of a focus on deeper fruit flavors, muddled fruits and housemade fruit purées. While tea already benefits from a strong perception of health, adding fruits prepared onsite adds to the idea of tea as a fresher, more healthful beverage.

For example, True Food Kitchen, a Fox Restaurants Group brand, touts the depth-of-flavor attributes and antioxidant properties of its best-selling beverage, Medicine Man. Featuring a base of housemade black tea, the drink also incorporates pomegranate and cranberry juices, as well as muddled blackberries, sea buckthorn extract and a topping of soda water.

Sodas haven’t exactly fizzled out—in fact, it’s safe to assume that for many occasions, Coke, Pepsi and the like will always be the drink of choice for many restaurant-goers. Yet, the most flavor-curious consumers are welcoming differentiation in sodas, this time in the form of creative preparations that are artisanal and housemade.

For example, independent restaurants are piquing customer interest in sodas with housemade preparations; retro sodas that recall classic carbonated options; small-craft sodas; and low-sugar varieties known as “dry” sodas. All of these soft drinks are designed to appeal to adults who appreciate artisanal qualities for beverages. Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, Colo., promotes housemade sodas with flavor blends like kumquat and tarragon; Tavernita in Chicago makes sodas onsite in Valencia orange, white grape “dry” and ginger chili; and The Tippler in New York City touts nostalgic “heritage” brands, like original orange Fanta, Mexican coke and Bubble-Up—all made with real sugar instead of corn syrup. SushiSamba, the Latin-Asian fusion chain, lists housemade sodas made with ginger, blackberries, yuzu, aloe vera water and trendy coconut water. 

Ethnic Adventures

Notice a trend here? There’s a pretty strong theme running throughout this look at the menu: ethnic influences. Ethnic fare is everywhere these days and is showing big swings in directions outside of the norm. Consumers are ready for global foods that fall outside the familiar interpretations of Mexican and Latin American, or Chinese and Japanese cuisines. This curiosity is ushering in exotic new flavors from the Mediterranean and Middle East, to North Africa and Vietnam, onto mainstream restaurant menus.