More now than ever before, consumers have the ability to impact menus. Diners are much more opinionated and vocal about their restaurant preferences, and operators need to constantly adapt menus to appeal to their main customer demographic.
The US population continues to grow more diverse; increasingly, ethnic influences are infiltrating menus across segments and within areas of the menu. Younger consumers, in particular, are looking for more authentic global flavors and preparation styles.
Consumers also are more concerned about health and additives in foods. Dietary accommodations, like vegan or gluten-free options, are becoming more mainstream, and chains are touting antibiotic- and preservative-free foods and ingredients.
Despite these influential trends, menus have continued to shrink, as restaurants aim to focus efforts on fewer, higher-quality items, vs. overwhelming patrons with a large menu. Operators reduced their number of appetizers by 7%, desserts by 5% and entrees by nearly 9% in the latest year-over-year comparison, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor data. Despite this shrinkage, here’s a look at how operators are innovating on the menu.
In full-service dining, small plates are taking over the spotlight. In the past three years, callouts of small plates on menus have ballooned, growing more than 800% on menus. These dishes provide a fun, shareable experience for guests. In fact, half of consumers say small plates help them cut back on large portions; help save money; and they share dishes with a group, according to Technomic’s “2016 U.S. Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report.”
Many full-service restaurants are going a step further by adding an entire section of their menus devoted to small plate offerings. SPIN! Neapolitan Pizza’s small plate offerings are available at select locations; options include Calabrian Shrimp Formaggi, Shrimp Scampi Pizza, Roasted Eggplant Parmigiana and Stuffed Mondo Pork Meatballs. Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse added small plates to its menu in April, including Potato Bites, Stuffed Mushroom, Dim Sum and Shiitake Pot Stickers.
Operators are gleaning inspiration for small plates and starters alike from ethnic street foods. Ethnic ingredients are attractive to younger consumers, in particular; overall, patrons are more likely to try new global flavors in appetizers, without the commitment of ordering an entree. Trending in limited service are handheld street foods, like skewered meats, tacos and dumplings, while some casual-dining chains are devoting entire sections of their menus to street foods.
Mama Fu’s Asian House added chicken satays to its menu late last year. The charred chicken-thigh skewers come with hoisin barbecue sauce, served over Asian slaw and garnished with cilantro, sesame seeds and lime. Rockfish Seafood Grill recently added limited-time Red Curry Shrimp Dumplings—a medley of Asian flavors blended with Gulf shrimp wrapped in wontons, pan-seared and served with sweet-soy dipping sauce.
Enhancing flavors is also a major trend in traditional appetizer soups and salads. Consumers also are looking for these items to be more filling. Grains do just that for salads. Operators are particularly tapping quinoa (red, white and black), farro, semolina and bulgur as salad bases and ingredients. In addition to adding satiety, many grains (like quinoa) are naturally gluten-free; are rich in protein and fiber; and add texture to any salad.
Following a test last fall, Wendy’s recently rolled out the Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad nationwide. The salad features grilled chicken, feta and a sun-dried tomato-grain blend with quinoa, brown rice, chickpeas, white beans and roasted vegetables. This spring, The Habit Burger Grill launched a limited-time Super Food Salad with grilled, marinated chicken breast, baby kale, tri-colored quinoa, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, feta, dried cranberries, almonds and kale-pesto dressing.
To innovate soups, operators are taking basic tomato- and cheese-based soups to the next level by experimenting with ales, spicy peppers and other flavorful ingredients. Fine-dining concept Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar added a spring version of the classic tomato bisque with garlic croutons, Parmesan frico and crispy Brussels sprout leaves. On its Taste the Season menu late last year, the concept also featured Smoked Cheddar and Gruyere Soup infused with Stella Artois.
Ethnic-inspired dishes and ingredients are showing up in entrees, as well—especially sandwiches. Cuban sandwiches have increased 4% on menus, and banh mi mentions have doubled on top restaurant chain menus since 2013.
Because sandwiches are such a familiar format, they can be great vehicles for introducing consumers to new flavors and ingredients. McAlister’s Deli recently rolled out the limited-time West Coast Banh Mi with pulled pork, jalapenos, pickled vegetables, cilantro, sriracha mayonnaise, greens and cucumbers marinated in cilantro-lime vinaigrette on a toasted baguette.
Although ethnic sandwiches, like Cuban and banh mi, have become more mainstream, demand exists for even more global flavors in sandwiches. (See chart, “Ethnic Preferences.”)
Consumers most prefer Italian and Mexican sandwiches but also report interest in less common varieties, like Korean sandwiches, which are poised for growth. Korean barbecue has been trending, and other Korean flavors—such as Korean-style short ribs, fried chicken, bulgogi and kimchee—are growing on sandwiches.
Minnesota-based supermarket chain Lunds & Byerlys launched a Korean-inspired lettuce wrap on romaine hearts: Korean BBQ Lettuce Wrap with Kobe beef in Korean barbecue sauce, kimchee-dressed rice noodles, scallions, red peppers, cilantro and sesame seeds.
Some of the fastest growing sandwich flavors on top chain menus over the past two years include sriracha (up 80%), chili (up 59%) and mango (up 33%), all of which are ethnic. Other trending global ingredients include pickled carrots, chili mayonnaises and yogurts, black pepper and peppercorn, and Khmer sausage.
In addition to sandwiches, pizza is experiencing innovation and growth. Pizza consumption is at its highest level in four years, according to Technomic’s “2016 Pizza Consumer Trend Report.” Limited serves, in particular, are increasing efforts to meet consumer dietary needs and calls for more transparent sourcing. Jet’s Pizza recently launched a gluten-free crust, joining Papa Murphy’s and Pizza Hut, which began offering gluten-free pizza at certain sites last year. In January, Papa John’s removed artificial flavors and colors from its menu and announced plans to use antibiotic-free chicken in toppings by summer 2016. Late last year, Blaze Pizza removed nitrites from its pepperoni, salami, ham and bacon.
Pizza chain patrons also express interest in pizza for breakfast, particularly in toppings like bacon, eggs, ham, pork sausage and potato. More than one quarter of 18-to-34-year-olds say they would likely order pizza for breakfast or brunch if it was offered. Brunch pizzas could include varieties such as eggs Benedict; chorizo and potato; scrambled egg and sriracha; ham and duck egg; and pancetta and cheese.
With the popularity of all-day breakfast, proteins typically served in the morning hours are spreading to lunch and dinner dayparts as well, with pizza being just one format for which to showcase these ingredients. In May, Slater’s 50/50 added the 50/50 Fire Burger with a spicy beef patty topped with sriracha bacon guacamole, bacon jam sour cream, ghost pepper Jack cheese, fried jalapenos and a sunny-side-up egg on a brioche bun. The egg adds novelty and ups the savory factor and the substance of a dish, making it more protein-packed and filling.
On the sweeter side of the menu, desserts offer consumers an indulgent treat. However, with health still important to many consumers, operators have been strategic with their dessert innovation. Restaurants can feature better-for-you offerings that are still a treat by emphasizing natural, housemade and made-from-scratch ingredients. Bristol Seafood Grill’s recently added Salted Butterscotch Tart features Maldon sea salt, chocolate ganache, housemade banana sherbet and candied walnuts.
Another way to target more health-minded diners who are still looking for something sweet is through smaller portions. Dessert shooters and sliders, in particular, have proliferated on menus. In February, Umami Burger rolled out dessert sliders featuring salted-caramel ice cream with caramel sauce inside chocolate brioche Larder Baking Co. buns decorated with a powdered sugar “U.”
To appeal to guests looking for indulgent desserts, operators turn to mashups—both flavor and mealpart versions. Baskin-Robbins’ seasonal summer ice cream flavor Ancho Mango Sunrise with mango ice cream, chamoy, mango pieces and an ancho-chamoy ribbon offers a sweet-and-spicy flavor combination.
Sweet and savory also is trending, like in the Maple Bacon Sundae on Denny’s limited-time Red, White & Blue menu. The dessert has vanilla ice cream, sweet maple syrup and savory bacon. Ben & Jerry’s recently brought back the Brrr-ito for a limited time. The taco-like dessert features two scoops of ice cream, chocolate cookie crumbles and fudge drizzle rolled in a soft waffle wrap.
When it comes to beverages, consumers seek unique, innovative flavors, as well as more classic tastes. Coffee continues to lead the pack, with nearly 75% of Top 500 operators offering coffee-flavored drinks. Other traditional flavors are orange, strawberry, chocolate and root beer. One in four consumers increasingly is ordering these familiar flavors, according to Technomic’s most recent “Flavor Consumer Trend Report.” However, nearly one third of consumers overall—and 46% of 18-to-34-year-olds—are ordering more beverages with unique flavors than they were two years ago. This indicates that patrons are looking for a mix of both traditional options and more innovative flavors.
Operators continue to innovate with seasonal beverage offerings. Fall brings with it a proliferation of pumpkin, nutmeg, cinnamon and spiced chai drinks. Mint, gingerbread and cranberry are common flavor pairings for beverages in the winter. And spring and summer drinks feature a range of floral, citrus and fruity flavors.
Jamba Juice offers a rotating list of seasonal sips; the chain recently added Gotta Guava with guava juice, peaches, and sherbet with pineapple and strawberries; Tropical Sunburst with orange and pineapple juices, pineapples and sherbet with pineapple; and Strawberry Juice Refresher with apple juice, strawberries and lemon juice.
When temperatures rise, McDonald’s returns its lemonade and strawberry lemonade drinks and ice-blended beverages. This year, the chain is emphasizing that it has sourced locally grown strawberries at select locations. The fact that a chain as large as McDonald’s is making attempts to offer local—and in the eyes of consumers, better-for-you—food illustrates the magnitude of this trend.
Originally appeared in the August, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Consumer Influence on the Menu.