Innovation on the menu doesn’t have to be focused on entrées; it’s important to extend the same strategies, if not more intensely, to the so-called left side of the menu where appetizers are listed. Young consumers most often are those who order appetizers in restaurants, and this connected group is calling for more ethnic-focused innovation.
More than two-fifths of consumers aged 18–34 say they would like more restaurants to offer appetizers (and small plates) with ethnic flavors or ingredients, according to Technomic’s “2015 U.S. Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report.”
Items like starters require less commitment than full-sized entrées, so restaurant chefs and foodservice providers have the flexibility to be more creative and push the envelope to offer the uniqueness consumers demand. Appetizers’ low-risk positioning also allows consumers to try bold dishes; the report found that more than half of consumers say they are more willing to try a new flavor or ingredient in an appetizer or small plate than in an entrée. Starters also can provide a way to test the success of new flavors, formats and preparation styles in appetizers before applying them to entrées.
Regional Asian street food, especially within Chinese and Japanese cuisines, is one area expected to proliferate. Chains will turn to new and unique street foods beyond tacos, sliders and dumplings. Look for the emergence of more authentic, country-specific Asian street fare—including Thai, Korean and Japanese favorites—and even regional Chinese cuisine, such as Xi’an.
Ethnic street foods are inspiring both concept and menu development across all segments. For example, The Cheesecake Factory offers Thai Lettuce Rolls with three spicy Thai sauces—Peanut, Sweet Red Chili and Tamarind-Cashew. Whole menus dedicated to street foods are cropping up at casual-dining chains. Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery launched a limited-time Street Foods menu featuring Chorizo and Cotija Pretzel Bites, Guacamole Tostadas, Mini Street Tacos and Beef Barbacoa Sliders. Quaker Steak & Lube introduced Street Food as a new menu category, with items like Asian BBQ Steak Tacos and Spicy Chicken Tacos with Sriracha-Asian sauce.
Emerging quick-service chain Xi’an Famous Foods specializes in authentic street food from Xi’an, China, offering handhelds, such as the Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger. Other limited-service restaurant chains are menuing portable ethnic street foods like simple tacos, Asian buns and dumplings, and skewered meats.
Non-ethnic restaurants and foodservice providers can offer ethnic starters to help broaden appeal and differentiate without over-investing in entrées. Upscaling some street-food staples or providing premium substitutions and add-ons may increase check averages and entice consumers with uniqueness.
Baltimore independent Bond Street Social, for example, offers a premium, street foods-inspired menu with starters, such as Spicy Lobster Rangoon with Sweet ’n sour Garlic Lemongrass Sauce and arepas—a flatbread popular in Colombia and Venezuela—featuring Pulled Duck Confit and Truffle Crème.