The past decade has seen restaurant operators expand menu offerings at a furious pace, eager to stay ahead of flavor fads and stave off aggressive competition. But all of this menu-rollout activity no doubt left the average consumer feeling confused and overwhelmed—and many restaurant-chain kitchens unable to successfully execute on such a dizzying array of choices.

In 2013, operators hit the wall—the average menu totaled a bulky 112 items—and started trimming the fat off the menu. During the past couple of years, Technomic has charted this downsizing trend; its most recent MenuMonitor data shows that chains in the Top 500 restaurant segment have reduced menu items by 3.2%. Appetizers and desserts have dropped by more than 5%; entrées by almost 11%; and nearly every major entrée category has seen a notable decrease in items.

In the wake of menu reduction, operators are concentrating much more on specialization. The result of this shift is taking menus in a new and interesting direction, with more opportunities for guests to customize from a leaner menu lineup; more creativity with limited-time offerings; and more introduction of signature items that help restaurants carve out a distinct concept-positioning niche with consumers.

But, while this may be the age of the shrunken, specialized menu, restaurant companies still are laser-focused on innovation. Quantity not only is being supplanted by quality—but also by uniqueness, true flavor differentiation, and a more daring approach to preparation, presentation and health. Here’s a closer look.

Appetizers, Soups and Salads

The first glance at the menu reveals how operators are using offerings—particularly starters—to revitalize guests’ perception of their concept. For example, two of the industry’s leading casual-dining chains, Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill and T.G.I. Fridays, both introduced new appetizer programs during the past year and have positioned new starters as shareable and central to socialization and fun.

Fridays’ $10 Endless Apps were marketed around “good times.”

Applebee’s focused on using new appetizers to draw customers’ attention to the bar. Its revamped Bar Snacks menu now features robust-flavored finger foods, like Double Crunch Bone-in Wings, Kobe-style Meatballs and Pot Stickers (shrimp-and-pork-filled wontons with Thai peanut and soy dipping sauce). Fiery flavor profiles were also evident on the menu—clearly designed to pique the interest of a younger, Millennial consumer base—with Sriracha Shrimp and Sweet Potato Fries featuring sriracha chile-lime dipping sauce.  

Recent data from Technomic’s latest “Dinner & Late Night Consumer Trend Report” reveals how today’s restaurant-goer is calling for more appetizers positioned specifically as snacks. Today, 32% of consumers, up from 27% in 2011, say they routinely make a meal out of appetizers and snacks when they dine out. One in four consumers also indicate they want to see more bar snacks and shareable small plates available during dinner and late-night hours. The hot trend points to happy hour menus—slated during both the early evening and late-night hours—that feature eclectic bar foods and small plates.

Andiamo has rolled out happy hour and late-night food and drink specials, including $2.99 finger foods and Foodtinis: snacks served in stemless martini glasses for $4.99. Yard House offers an Eat Late menu to lure late-night diners, inspired by street-food trends. Appetizers include handheld Monte Cristo Pops.

Brick House Tavern + Tap has debuted a new Snack menu, featuring meatballs, a popular appetizer trend. The menu lists house-made lamb-and-beef Greek meatballs and signature Buffalo chicken meatballs. Additionally, Brick House now offers a daily Happiness Hour menu, listing specialty starters and seasonal cocktails.

Moving along the left side of the menu, soups are being reinvented to take on myriad ingredient and flavor trends. Attention-grabbing, better-for-you components—like superfoods, dark greens and ancient grains—have been incorporated into new soups this past year. One of the most noteworthy trends for soup has involved meshing old-school preparations with these emerging ingredients. This mashup is seen in the number of independent restaurants and major chains that are rolling out unique broth soups.

In the restaurant-chain arena, Panera leads the way with its signature Broth Bowls. Featuring global inspirations, superfoods, grains, dark greens and even cage-free eggs, the broth bowls combine a classic comfort-food preparation with add-ins that give nods to contemporary health. 

Big-city independents kicked off this trend early in the year, with the launch of takeaway shops specializing in flavorful bone broths. In New York City, Brodo offers $4 cups of organic chicken, gingered grass-fed beef and a combination of chicken, turkey and beef broths. Brodo serves the broth coffee-style, and guests sip it on the go.

Soups are often paired with salads, which also have displayed a movement toward functional, nutrient-rich components. Greens continue to take a darker route, with pea shoots and tendrils, kale and collard greens. Quinoa, farro and barley are adding texture, while feta and bleu cheeses—and unexpected mix-ins like watermelon—provide a unique aspect. Specialty salad dressings are amping up the flavor with sweet, hot, herbal and spicy concoctions that feature chili peppers, curry, ginger, cumin, maple, turmeric, dill, harissa and wasabi.

First Watch’s Superfood Kale Salad features a maple dressing; ‘wichcraft’s new Roasted Turkey Salad consists of gluten-free grains, cranberries, roasted nuts, greens and a buttermilk dill dressing; and Sauce Pizza & Wine’s new LTO Watermelon Salad is made with watermelon, spinach, arugula, jicama, toasted pumpkin seeds, feta cheese and balsamic vinaigrette.

Entrées and Sandwiches

Entrée developments have been geared toward preparations that enhance flavor profiles. Trends signal the on-going popularity of synergistic flavor pairings, such as hot and sweet, or sweet and sour. This has been illustrated in the promotion of sweet-and-spicy sauces, accented by tropical flavors, honey and maple accents, paired with spicy barbecue and assorted chili peppers—such as habanero and jalapeño.

A number of limited- and full-service restaurants used chicken—especially wings—as the protein platform for sweet-and-spicy sauces. Mazzio’s Italian Eatery introduced Sweet Chili Wings, and Zaxby’s rolled out a new Spicy Honey BBQ sauce for wings. Also new this past quarter were Tilted Kilt’s Mango Habanero Wings. Other top restaurant chains eschewed the sweet taste element and opted simply for ultra-hot flavors for wings, such as the new Ghost Pepper Wings LTO at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen. 

Limited- and full-service chains also jumped on similar trends for other proteins, including seafood. Fish and shrimp recently have been accented with branded beers before battering and frying. In addition to the robust flavor the beer imparts, operators looked to attract attention by calling out popular brands of beer on the menu. Examples include Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s Redhook Beer-Battered Cod Fish Sandwich, Shari’s Restaurant’s Alaskan Amber Beer-Battered Fish & Chips and the Guinness Battered Shrimp & Fries at Claddagh Irish Pub.

Big, well-rounded flavors also were the hallmark of new sandwiches that have debuted this year. Barbecue was a top preparation, specifically in the form of new pulled-pork sandwiches and pulled-pork-topped burgers. Wendy’s rolled out a new limited-time Pulled Pork Sandwich and Pulled Pork Cheeseburger. And Wendy’s wasn’t alone: Subway released a new Kung Pao Pulled Pork Sandwich; Burger King tested a cheeseburger topped with pulled pork in select markets; and Potbelly Sandwich Shop recently debuted a new Pulled Pork Sandwich LTO.

Spicy flavors also have stood out on the menu for sandwiches during the past few months. As consumers become more interested in new, flaming-hot varieties of peppers, there has been a greater number of familiar offerings—such as sandwiches and wraps—laden with spicy pepper sauces.

For example, Wendy’s new Jalapeño Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich features a crispy, breaded chicken breast fillet topped with diced, fresh jalapeños and ghost pepper sauce. Jack in the Box’s new Bacon Blazin’ Chicken Sandwich also features a heat-tinged mix of jalapeños and a ghost pepper-ranch sauce, and Taco Bell’s latest handheld offering, the Daredevil Loaded Griller, gives customers the choice of chipotle, ghost pepper or habanero sauce. The ghost pepper is an ingredient/flavor trend to watch, as there has been a 40% year-over-year increase in the number of restaurant operators that now list ghost peppers on the menu.

While adventurous diners certainly have had their pick of full-bodied flavors for sandwiches, there also has been plenty of innovation around more traditional sandwich builds. Another top preparation trend for the year has been the proliferation of melt sandwiches, featuring a wide range of hot sandwiches topped with a variety of melted cheeses.

Driven in part by the long-held preference for grilled cheese sandwiches, melt varieties have appeared across numerous restaurant segments. For example, quick-serves like Steak n Shake have launched a new Veggie Melt Sandwich, and Whataburger has introduced a new Chicken Strip Monterey Melt. In the casual-dining segment, Johnny Rockets’ has debuted a line of Inside-Out Cheesy Melts.

This sprawling category is one where LTOs regularly appear to spark a second look among frequent customers throughout the day. In the spotlight for breakfast are new sweet-and-savory sandwiches in the morning. This trend is an offshoot of the mash-up/food fusion craze that’s been on the radar for the past couple of years.

By showcasing opposing tastes coupled together to create craveable flavor combinations, operators are giving customers new reasons to give morning menus a try. Two examples appear in the quick-service segment, with Carl’s Jr. Cinnamon Swirl French Toast Breakfast Sandwich and Einstein Bros. Bagel’s Cinnamon Toast Egg Sandwich.


Speaking of mash-ups, this trend first took root in the dessert category and spread out across the menu from there. Interestingly, operators are drawing back a bit from this type of offering and focusing more on flavors and ingredients that exhibit true staying power.

One such ingredient has been salted caramel, which continues to be used as an accent for lattes and other specialty coffee drinks. Now this sweet/salty addition is being applied more often to baked goods and ice cream. In fact, Technomic’s most recent MenuMonitor data shows there has been a 46% year-over-year increase in salted caramel on the menu. In addition to dessert-style drinks, like Au Bon Pain’s Salted Caramel Latte, Baskin-Robbins has introduced Snacknado ice cream flavored with salted caramel. On the full-service side, 54Th Street Restaurant & Drafthouse has added a new Salted Caramel & Chocolate Brownie to its dessert menu.

There’s also been a resurgence of the dense, complex flavor of bourbon being imparted to desserts. Recent Technomic research shows a 53% jump overall in the number of desserts that now feature bourbon, and specifically, a 43% spike in the number of baked goods that tout the whisky.

Bourbon’s underlying flavor profiles recalls hints of vanilla, molasses, caramel, cinnamon and brown sugar, making it a perfect accompaniment for nutty ingredients. This pairing increasingly has been seen in the number of new desserts that feature bourbon and pecans. Le Pain Quotidien recently rolled out a new Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Tart, and McCormick & Scmick added a Bourbon Pecan Pie to its menu. Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery jumped on this trend’s bandwagon and featured an attractive presentation with its Bourbon Pecan Mason Jar dessert.   

Beyond the distinct flavor focus, operators still are keeping an eye on fun by playing up a nostalgic, kid-friendly angle for new dessert handhelds. One on-trend treat has been the ice-cream sandwich, re-imagined with unexpected components and opportunities to customize flavors. Cold Stone Creamery’s Jammin’ with PB&J Ice Cream Sandwich features Nutter Butter and chocolate chip cookies; Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes brought customization into the mix with its Make Your Own Sweet Insanity Soft-Serve Sandwich; and Kona Grill’s Ice Cream Sandwich Trio features vanilla ice cream in between a flight of chocolate chip, s’mores and peanut butter cookies.


The beverage story over the past year—and going forward—reveals the juxtaposition between hot and cold preparations. One of the biggest surprises in the adult-beverage category has been the booming popularity of the hot-and-spicy, cinnamon-tinged spirit: Fireball Whisky. This spirit is being used to promote new specialty cocktails, playing against citrus and sweet fruit profiles with a lingering burn.

The growing presence of Fireball on the menu is impressive—over the past year, there’s been an 87% hike in mentions of the whisky. Applebee’s new Fireball Whisky Lemonade is one example; Primanti Bros. recently added a signature Angry Balls cocktail featuring Fireball to its cocktail lineup; and Red Robin now offers a hot-and-sweet Fireball Peach Smash cocktail.

On the non-alcohol side of the coin, there’s been a big swing toward cold drinks—and not just in terms of cold or icy as a temperature, but with a focus on different cold preparations. Cold-brewed coffee exemplifies this trend. Coffee always has traditionally been prepared with hot water and then cooled down for use in iced coffee drinks. But now, major coffee chains are trialing brewing their coffee with cold water. The result is said to be a product with a much less bitter taste.

Independent coffee cafés and smaller, regional bottled coffee brands are on board with cold-brewed coffee, which has also caught the attention of major restaurant players like Starbucks and Tim Hortons. Starbucks has big plans for this cold coffee brew, adding it to menus in the U.S. and Canada, and prepping for an introduction of the product in the UK this summer. Tim Hortons currently is testing cold-brewed coffee, recently debuting its version of it at a North American trade show.

Consumers’ never-ending love for iced, cold coffee means that this super-trendy beverage prep is poised for success across segments. The latest data shows consumers are more likely than ever to up their purchase of cold, iced, blended and bottled coffee drinks, providing a relatively easy avenue for coffee-chain operators to flaunt innovation of their core specialty.

Menu Maneuvers: Growing  Seafood, Vegetarian Options

Three-fifths (62%) of general-population consumers say they consume meals without beef, pork, chicken or turkey at least once a week. Among those who eat vegetarian or vegan entrées, younger consumers (45% vs. 30% of older consumers) are more likely to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.

As demand for healthful options continues and the fact that Millennials are representing a greater proportion of the foodservice consumer, seafood, vegetarian or vegan menu innovation will become essential.

Consumers consider seafood, vegetarian or vegan entrées to be more healthful than beef, pork and poultry options. In fact, 72% of consumers who increased their seafood purchases over the past two years say they did so because they are trying to eat more healthfully and consider seafood to be more healthful.

“Health will continue to drive the seafood and vegetarian menu mix, and it can be leveraged both to spur interest in these options and to benefit the concept as a whole, by broadening appeal, reducing the ‘veto vote’ and creating a health halo,” says Kelly Weikel, director of consumer insights for Technomic. “These options also provide a point of differentiation that younger consumers look for as inventive, yet satisfying vegetarian and seafood items featuring on-trend ingredients to create a contemporary, unique and better-for-you positioning.”

Organized into four sections, Technomic’s “Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report” includes menu and consumer insights, trends to watch, and in-depth profiles of trendsetting and innovative brands. Findings include…

… the need for vegetarian or vegan menu items: At least twice as many consumers who eat vegetarian or vegan foods cook them at home (68%) as order them at any foodservice location at least weekly, including fast food (31 percent) and traditional casual dining (23%)

… fast-casual seafood will grow: Emerging brands specializing in fresh, affordable seafood will continue to develop and find success

… roughly half of consumers surveyed who may also eat meat say that vegan or vegetarian options are just as satisfying (51 percent) or filling (59%) as meals that contain meat

… the leading fish dish at Top 500 restaurants is salmon, though cod is a quickly growing fish variety on both limited- and full-service menus

Technomic’s “Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report” is one of many topics in its Consumer Trend Report series, offering the most current analysis, insight and opportunities.

A Forward Look:

  • Trimmed-down menus, specialized selections and creative cross-utilization of ingredients in restaurant kitchens will forge ahead.
  • Expect flavor direction to move toward hotter levels, with wider ranges of global peppers and spice blends.
  • D-I-Y health—or the ability of the consumer to customize food offerings to fit their own definition of health, such as with gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan/vegetarian, superfood ingredients—will flourish.

Menu Maneuvers:  Poultry’s Progress

Vegetarian, vegan and seafood options continue to increase on menus; however, due to the flexibility that poultry offers operators to create innovative and premium dishes—and its lower price relative to beef—poultry is well positioned to remain a popular choice. To retain poultry’s share of stomach, operators and suppliers will need to emphasize chicken and turkey’s healthfulness and affordability and menu innovative takes on traditional dishes to pique consumer interest.

“Bold and spicy flavors can be used to differentiate, especially combined with alternative preparations—like spicy ground turkey in tacos or rotisserie-style chicken flavored with dry rubs. Touting poultry’s health and overall value will help justify poultry price points,” explains Kelly Weikel, director of consumer insights at Technomic.

In addition to tracking consumers’ consumption behavior, the Center of the Plate: Poultry Consumer Trend Report compiles menu, industry and competitive data, and spotlights emerging concepts. Operator and manufacturer marketing teams can easily leverage the report’s key themes, which include…

 … 89% of consumers eat chicken at least weekly, while 36% eat turkey

 … menu descriptors such as natural, unprocessed and organic are seen as more healthy by consumers

 … the most prevalent proteins at limited- and full-service restaurants are chicken, pork, beef and turkey, in that order.

“The Center of Plate: Poultry Consumer Trend Report” is one of many in Technomic’s Consumer Trend Report series, offering the most current analysis, insight and opportunities.