New menu items feature influences from around the world, particularly Asia, but ingredient sourcing and preparation are decidedly close to home.

In terms of menu development across mealparts, one of the largest trends of the year is bold, spicy, ethnic-inspired cuisine—Asian fare, in particular. Foodservice operators across the board are adding a new American twist to authentic Asian ingredients to create exciting hybrids of flavor.

Beyond ethnic inspirations, menus increasingly are featuring health-halo ingredients, from superfoods to “real” premium items to artisanal, house-made creations.


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

Asian flavors are huge again this year, and the left side of the menu reflects this movement. According to Technomic’s 2013 “Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report,” 39% of consumers say that unique or ethnic flavor profiles influence their decision to order small plates. Independent restaurants have tuned into this consumer interest, as more of them craft small plates with Asian ingredients and flavors, such as kimchi and ginger. Some leading chain restaurants are beginning to catch on, though the trend is still in its early stages.

In late 2013, southern California chain Lazy Dog Cafe added a line of Asian-inspired items to its permanent menu, including dim sum dumplings, steamed shrimp shumai dumplings and pork pot stickers with sesame-soy dipping sauce. In March, bd’s Mongolian Grill added a few new appetizers to its menu, such as its Chicken Sriracha Bites, bite-sized chicken infused with sriracha, tossed in sweet chili sauce and served with ranch dressing. Going forward, expect more leading restaurant chains to celebrate the diversity of Asian flavors in their appetizers and snack menus.

Nutrient-rich, fresh and functional foods and drinks, often referred to as superfoods, are seeing a surge in demand among appetizers—salads in particular. Superfruits, such as açaí, pomegranate and goji berries, and alternative greens, such as arugula, kale and cabbage, are being promoted as health-improving or disease-preventing foods.

According to Technomic’s latest 2014 “Soup & Salad Consumer Trend Report,” fruit salads have increased in menu incidence on limited-service appetizer menus over the past year, demonstrating that healthy options are important in not only full-service restaurants but in quick-service and fast-casual stores, as well. For example, in March, fast-casual burger chain The Counter added a superfood-rich Kale Salad—kale, green cabbage, jicama, celery and Greek feta tossed in lemon vinaigrette—to its menu.

Starters starring superfoods can also blur the lines between decadent and indulgent, all while offering customers a health-halo benefit. For example, LongHorn Steakhouse launched seasonal menu specials in March, including two superfood-rich starters: Crispy Artichoke Harvest, featuring hand-battered artichoke hearts with green beans, red bell peppers and red chili ranch; and Roasted Golden Beets, golden beets topped with melted goat cheese. The health benefits of artichokes and beets help offset the more indulgent ranch dressing and goat cheese in these dishes. 

For the soup category, Asian ingredients are also on-trend. Late last year, Technomic released its 10 trends predictions for 2014; starches were set to make a comeback, and ramen was called out as a key ingredient to watch. This spring, this prediction came to fruition throughout the U.S., in terms of ramen-focused chains, emerging concepts and independents. According to Technomic’s MenuMonitor data, the incidence of ramen mentions on leading and emerging chain restaurant menus increased about 18% from first-quarter 2013 to the same period of 2014.

Trendy Asian soups are showcasing housemade savory broths, pork belly, soft-boiled eggs, kamaboko (white fish cakes) and bamboo shoots. Primarily the domain of independent restaurants, the appeal of ramen soup, in particular, is spreading as both an appetizer and an entrée. Three noteworthy ramen-focused spots have recently emerged in Chicago, including High Five Ramen by restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff and Ramen-San by Lettuce Entertain You. High Five Ramen’s specialty is a tonkotsu ramen-noodle dish made with spicy pepper and Japanese chilies.


Entrées and Sandwiches: Main Course Trends

The ingredients, preparation and presentation of items within leading entrée categories vary greatly depending on the foodservice segment. Fast-casual concepts are currently setting the pace for industry menu development, especially celebrity-chef-driven, fast-casual eateries.

For example, fast casuals are notably driving the evolution of pizza: 55% of consumers purchase fast-casual pizza at least once a month. A surge in specialty pizzas on leading limited-service menus (according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor data) points to the trend for “better” artisan, gourmet pizzas. Fast-casual pizzas are typified by artisan crusts, specialty ingredients, and customizable sauce, cheese and topping combinations that are made to order.

With consumers’ interest in specialty, premium pizza choices in mind, here is a look at a few standout specialty pies at a handful of fast-casual pizza concepts:

  • BST, Amante Gourmet Pizza: A spin on a BLT sandwich, featuring hand-tossed dough covered with Dijonnaise and topped with mozzarella cheese, fresh spinach, Roma tomato slices, bacon and a sprinkle of ground pepper
  • Art Lover, Blaze Pizza: Artichokes, mozzarella cheese, ricotta cheese, chopped garlic and dollops of red sauce on Blaze’s signature crust
  • White Pizza, Pizza Studio: Extra-virgin olive oil, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, olives, mozzarella cheese and arugula on a rosemary-herb crust
  • Habanero Carnitas Pizza, CPK ASAP: Slow-roasted pulled pork, red onions and house-made cilantro pesto, served with seriously spicy habanero salsa
  • Thai Breaker, Top That! Pizza: Thai peanut sauce, mozzarella, marinated chicken, roasted garlic, caramelized onions, chopped green onions, julienned carrots, sharp Cheddar and roasted peanuts.

Other entrée trends include the proliferation of size-based value meals, where customers pay by the portion. In addition to the Right Price Right Size value menu at Wendy’s, which signals that smaller-portioned items carry a lower price point, other chains are pricing offerings according to size. McDonald’s offers Chicken McBites, bite-sized breaded and fried chicken breast pieces, in three sizes—Snack, Regular and Shareable. These items also reflect the burgeoning trend that centers on snacks as the core of the value menu.


Sandwich Stars

Few foods are as much a fixture of the menu as sandwiches. With a preparation that can combine a multitude of ingredients, flavors and textures in a single bite, sandwiches are a highly craveable entrée choice for many consumers.

Spicy sandwiches are raging hot right now. From quick-service to casual-dining segments, operators are increasingly filling their sandwiches with hot-and-spicy peppers and sauces. Additionally, the mainstreaming of ethnic-influenced peppery profiles is led by the proliferation of sriracha pepper sauce, which traditionally appears in Thai and Vietnamese cuisines.

Last November, Dunkin’ Donuts introduced a limited-time Spicy Smoked Sausage Breakfast Sandwich, made with spicy, andouille smoked sausage. Also in November, Subway added Creamy Sriracha Sauce as a limited-time condiment option and showcased the sauce on a chicken and a steak melt in its Fiery Footlong Collection. In the fast-casual segment, Which Wich Superior Sandwiches recently added sriracha to its sandwich ingredient lineup.

Leading limited-service restaurants are also focusing on differentiating their sandwich menus through premium and nontraditional bread offerings, from ciabatta to pretzel to waffle. Wendy’s has been making strides with premium burger buns over the past couple of years. The chain rolled out three during 2013 alone: the brioche bun, the pretzel bun and multigrain flatbread.

In April, Quiznos began testing Ciabatta Toasties sandwiches at select locations, and in May, Culver’s started testing chicken ciabatta sandwiches. In fact, Technomic’s 2014 “Sandwich Consumer Trend Report” shows that, at top limited-service restaurants, after “bun,” ciabatta, tortilla, sourdough and wheat are the most prevalent types of bread offered for sandwiches. Beyond these top breads, Taco Bell, Burger King and White Castle have all released sandwiches with waffle buns this year.

Up next for sandwich breads, sauces and toppings will be the continued development of chef- and ethnic-inspired components. Chinese steamed bao, Indian naan and biscuit sandwich breads are all trending in the independent restaurant arena. For example, Naansense in Chicago serves made-to-order sandwiches wrapped up in naan that is baked fresh daily in the store’s tandoor oven.

Indeed, a variety of Asian cuisines and ingredients are driving much of the ethnic sandwich trend, with Vietnamese bánh mì, Chinese steamed bao sandwiches and falafel sandwiches leading the way. Lee’s Sandwiches continues to bring bánh mì to the masses at more than 50 locations, mostly in California. There, adventurous diners can find bánh mì prepared with such ingredients as pâte, head cheese, sardines and shredded pork skin, all served on a fresh French baguette.

Falafel may also soon begin appearing on non-Middle Eastern restaurant menus, as Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines make strides in foodservice. Traditional Middle Eastern falafel consists of a fried patty of chickpeas, fava beans or both, and is typically served wrapped up as a sandwich in a pita or laffa (Middle Eastern flatbread). Customers of the nationally expanding Amsterdam Falafel brand can customize falafel sandwiches with different sauces and add-ins from a toppings bar.


Tempting with Desserts

The past year has been a big one for desserts, strengthened by the worldwide fame of Chef Dominique Ansel’s Cronut, a croissant-doughnut hybrid trademarked in 2013. Dessert mash-ups, or two popular desserts combined to form a synergetic hybrid, are popping up at restaurant chains, bakeries and sweet shops around the U.S.

Just this summer Jack in the Box began testing croissant doughnuts in select markets. Yet another doughnut hybrid appeared in Chicago’s independent restaurant scene this summer—Waffles Café’s Wonut—a mini, deep-fried waffle coated in one of several flavors of glaze, from marshmallow to maple.

Mash-up desserts are in hot pursuit likely due to their “wow” factor. Consumers already expect to indulge on a dessert occasion, so fusing together two decadent desserts into one treat pushes the boundaries of indulgence. More so, many diners want to try something unique that they can share on social-media sites, like Instagram. In the future, expect to see a wider variety of sweet-and-savory dessert mash-ups at leading restaurant chains, with dishes incorporating unexpected flavors and textures to surprise consumers.

Restaurant operators are starting to develop new takes on puddings, including regional and ethnic varieties. Dessert pudding in America may be light in texture, like a blancmange, or dense, like a bread pudding, and can be thickened with anything from eggs to cornstarch to flour. In addition, operators are incorporating premium toppings and decorative accents on top of pudding, as well as playing with traditional serving sizes (think mini and oversized pudding portions).

In January, LongHorn Steakhouse introduced a Praline Pecan Butterscotch Pudding, consisting of butterscotch pudding, Maker’s Mark bourbon-caramel sauce, candied pecans and whipped cream.

A variety of decadent bread puddings were also added to leading chain menus this year, such as:

  • Abuelo’s Capirotada, a Mexican bread pudding
  • Outback Steakhouse’s French Toast Bread Pudding
  • Ruth’s Chris Steak House’s Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce.

Other nostalgic desserts have also been making a comeback onto menus, particularly old-fashioned milkshakes and ice-cream floats. Earlier decades are often associated with purer food made with real ingredients, which may partially account for the uptick in shakes and floats. Chick-fil-A, for instance, describes its milkshakes as “hand-spun the old-fashioned way each time.” Chick-fil-A’s vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and cookies and cream milkshakes feature proprietary Icedream ice cream, whipped cream and a cherry.

Beyond hand-dipped chocolate, vanilla and strawberry milkshakes, malts and custards, there is an increasingly innovative range of flavors and ingredient combinations available for frozen desserts. Flip Burger, celebrity Chef Richard Blais’ restaurant in Atlanta, menus liquid-nitrogen-infused milkshakes in flavors such as Krispy Kreme, Nutella and Burnt Marshmallow, Captain Crunch, Strawberry Shortcake and Foie Gras.


On-trend Beverages

Across most mealparts, premiumization is a common thread—better burgers, better pizza, better milkshakes—and better beverages are no exception. In an effort to stand out from competitors, operators are rolling out high-quality, out-of-the-ordinary beverage offerings.

Non-alcohol sodas, lemonades and teas are being elevated beyond the traditional household name brands. Lemonade-and-iced-tea blends, “restaurant originals” (such as housemade sodas) and specialty teas all increased in menu incidence from first-quarter 2013 to first-quarter 2014, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor online trend-tracking resource.

So far in 2014, several fast-casual concepts have added distinctive new choices, such as a housemade cranberry-ginger soda and hibiscus soda (4food in New York City); Fentimans botanical sodas (a UK brand, now offered at Portland-based Elephants Delicatessen); mango-tangerine juice (Pret A Manger); and ginger black iced tea (New York-based Dig Inn Seasonal Market).

Among quick-service brands, Starbucks announced in April that it would debut its line of all-natural, preservative-free Fizzio handcrafted sodas in stores this summer. Also, Dunkin’ Donuts recently added an iced green tea, as well as blueberry, raspberry and peach flavors of its traditional iced tea.

Meanwhile, on the adult-beverage menu, operators are still pushing a stronger local focus in terms of both beer and spirits. Several operators are choosing craft beers sourced from the same city or state from which the concept originates. For spirits, many independent operators are serving vodkas and whiskeys from the same region as their concept, such as the Midwest.

In April, Carolina Ale House revamped its beverage program to include more local and craft beers, wine options and mixed drinks. The new beer menu features a 30% mix of local and craft beers, blended beers and beer flights. Individual Carolina Ale House restaurants will also offer cocktails inspired by local sports teams. The same month, Yard House debuted a custom beer menu with more than 20 new drafts reflecting local selections and flavor preferences.

Operators are experimenting with unexpected cocktail flavors, moving beyond the sweet and fruity standards. Savory and salty flavors are emerging on the craft cocktail scene, in particular. Mexican micheladas are making inroads at U.S. restaurants; earlier this month, casual-dining chain On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina launched a Border Brunch menu featuring a michelada made with Dos Equis XX Special Lager. The new Border Brunch also features a Bloody Mary with vodka, tomato juice, hot sauce, lime juice, Worcestershire and horseradish, garnished with jalapeño, jicama and bacon.

The Bloody Mary, a signature, savory brunch drink, is showing impressive growth overall on restaurant and bar menus. Year-over-year Bloody Mary menu mentions rose 8.7%, according to first-quarter 2014 data from Technomic’s MenuMonitor database. In addition, chipotle, bacon and Cajun seasonings ranked as the top three fastest-growing flavors in specialty drinks from Q1 2013 to Q1 2014.   



Take Six! Six Mid-year Menu Trends

Technomic has identified six trends emerging for the second half of 2014, including hot peppers and sauces beyond Sriracha, barbecue flavors in QSR handhelds, and classic snack brands incorporated into new menu offerings.

“Technomic brings together the best judgments of its consultants and editors to periodically identify and assess trends that may significantly impact the restaurant industry,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president. “These expert insights are based on site visits evaluating the restaurant scene in cities across the country as well as interviews and surveys of operators, chefs and consumers, backed up by qualitative data from Technomic’s extensive digital resource library and quantitative data from its vast MenuMonitor database.”

Here’s what Technomic experts see emerging:

The Next Sriracha: Thailand’s take-the-top-off-your-head chile-and-vinegar condiment is the new chipotle. Now, customers are seeking newer and even bolder taste sensations imparted by peppers and sauces from Asia, Latin America and North Africa: habanero, serrano, harissa, shishito, togarashi, sweet chili, ghost pepper and spicy mayos and aïolis.

Barbecue Love: Authentic regional interpretations of slow-cooked barbecue continue to have broad appeal, but the latest trend is the application of barbecue sauces and flavors to handheld offerings like sandwiches and pizza, often with barbecue pulled pork as the core protein. Even conventional barbecue chains have rolled out non-traditional, barbecue-inspired handhelds, such as the BBQ Chicken Lettuce Wrap LTO at Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que.

Name That Snack: Classic snacks are being incorporated into novelty foods that capture attention with over-the-top indulgence, like Subway’s Fritos Chicken Enchilada Melt, Crumbs Bake Shop’s Girl Scout Cookie cupcakes or Dunkin’ Donuts’ iced coffee flavors inspired by Baskin-Robbins ice creams.

Asian-style Small Plates: Asian-influenced bites include Lazy Dog Café’s Dim Sum Dumplings and the Chicken Sriracha Bites served with ranch dressing at bd’s Mongolian Grill, but even fine-dining restaurants are incorporating dim sum-style service.

Beverages Bubbling Up: Specialty teas; lemonade-and-iced-tea blends; restaurant originals such as housemade sodas; smoothies beyond fruit, featuring surprising ingredients ranging from kale to peanut butter—all are seeing increases in menu incidence. Fast casuals lead the way. Pret A Manger added Beet Beautiful Juice with apple, carrot, beet and ginger; Grand Traverse Pie Company unveiled a Pie Smoothie; and Panda Express is testing an in-store tea bar. When it comes to adult beverage trends, hops rule; IPAs and other hoppy craft beers are proliferating in many incarnations.

Shrinking Menus: Across all meal parts, casual-dining chains are reducing menus. Operations can slow down when menus get too big; a less-is-more approach can create a more user-friendly customer experience. Will the success of narrowly focused fast casuals lead to more menu and operational simplification in full service?  



Menu Maneuvers: Sandwich Solutions

Sandwich consumption is high. On average, consumers eat more than three sandwiches per week, according to Technomic’s updated “Sandwich Consumer Trend Report.” 

Interestingly, however, only 54% of consumers (up from 51% two years ago), indicate they are preparing sandwiches themselves. This means operators and suppliers will need to focus on hard-to-duplicate menu items to entice consumers to purchase more sandwiches away from home.

Zeroing in on the sandwich ingredient quality also is essential. Compared to two years ago, today’s consumers place higher importance on quality and quantity, as well as the appetizing appearance of sandwich ingredients. Up-and-comers in the fast-casual segment like Jimmy Johns, Firehouse Subs and Jersey Mike’s have capitalized on these demands and are successfully competing for share of stomach with the dominant larger players like Subway.

“Quality sandwich ingredients are a must,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president. “In order for sandwich operators to drive traffic and steal share, they have to strengthen the quality perception by promoting freshness and customization opportunities, while giving guests a more interesting range of toppings, breads and proteins that emphasize variety.”

Here are several additional findings Technomic’s Sandwich Consumer Trend Report: 

  • Sandwiches fill the need for fast, convenient and portable meal options: three out of every five sandwiches (61%) that consumers order are taken to go, and 49% of consumers sometimes purchase grab-and-go sandwiches
  • Most consumers place high importance on health for sandwiches at lunch (51%) and dinner (53%)
  • Further, just 43% are satisfied with the healthfulness of sandwiches away from home, while 50% would like to see more healthy sides to pair with sandwiches
  • Diners would also like more restaurants to offer mini sandwiches (35% agree, up from just 26% in 2010)