American menu development relies on the evolution of trends. While we may roll our eyes at Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino, or any “next trending ingredient” for that matter, trends are, after all, what keep the foodservice market dynamic, competitive and enticing. 

Even more so today, with the added aspect of social media and digital buzz-making—trends keep us talking about food. It’s the evolution of ingredients and their endless culinary interpretations in the hands of food and beverage professionals that drive the US foodservice market. Here are eight trends on the minds of editors at Flavor & The Menu.

Better Bowl Builds

As a menu concept, the bowl originated as an alternative to a wrap or burrito, at customize-your-own concepts like Chipotle. Nowadays, bowls are big business in foodservice, with many fast-casual restaurants adopting the bowls model as a menu strategy. 

Bowls are being built with intention rather than just offered as a mix-and-match build-your-own. Bowls are constructed with more forethought in the balance of grains, proteins, produce, high-impact flavor and textural add-ins and sauce components.  

In fact, chefs behind bowl builds are beginning to minimize customer control, determining that customizable bowl builds don’t always reflect the flavor and textural balances the brand intended. In Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Beehive Kitchen’s Mediterranean Bowl, on the menu of “Chef-Inspired Bowls,” features cranberry-almond kale salad, whole grain brown rice, Parmesan-roasted broccoli, wok-seared mushrooms, rustic herb grilled chicken, soy charred steak and roasted pepper sauce.

Salads Get Crisper

There’s a shift in salad development, with crisp-lettuce menu stars like the wedge and Cobb getting renewed attention. Chefs also are paying more attention to the build, incorporating modern flavor combinations and innovative textural plays. 

The salad category has been relatively flat in terms of growth, overshadowed by more dynamic menu sections. Now, menu developers are taking cues from successful bowl builds and building salads with a more mindful intention. Also, the reintroduction of crisper lettuces like iceberg and romaine is bringing satisfying crunch back to salads, after so many years of celebrating delicate baby greens. 

As evidence, look to chef Ted Hopson from The Bellwether in Los Angeles, who menus a salad that features fava-bean purée and chicory. Or Denver’s Vital Root, which reinvents the classic Cobb to fit its vegetarian sensibility: coconut “bacon,” quinoa, dates, feta, tomato, radish, egg, smoked almonds and goddess ranch. This all points to a larger trend, where chefs are creating salads with stronger appeal for younger generations.

Chickpea Craze

After the United Nations declared 2016 the “year of the pulse,” chickpeas quickly climbed to the top of that pulse pile. 

Helped along by a growth in Eastern Med and Middle Eastern cuisines and flavors, and by the interest in plant-based proteins, chickpeas themselves are a key component in some of today’s most trend-forward menu builds: as a base builder in many trending bowl concepts; on the bar-bite menu in the form of chickpea fritters; in trending falafel concepts; as a gluten-free flour alternative; roasted and spiced and served as a craveable crispy snack or sprinkled atop a variety of dishes for texture. 

The discovery of aquafaba—the liquid in a can of beans and legumes—is one of the hottest trends among cutting-edge bartenders and pastry chefs, cleverly whipped up and used as a substitute for egg whites to thicken a cocktail or for a vegan meringue or whipped topping. All of these trend aspects are keeping the spotlight on chickpeas.

Crispier Toppings

Texture has always been a key building block in menu development, but increasingly on menus today, textural treatments are becoming more inventive. 

Roasted chickpeas, unique nut-and-seed brittles, fried leek “hay” and popcorn are all adding contrast and intrigue to savory menu builds. Take for instance the crispy leeks atop Watermark’s top-selling Grits Soufflé in Nashville, or the pine-nut brittle topping the Brussels Leaf Salad, with cherries, blue cheese and crispy pork, at West End Wine Bar & Pub in Purcellville, Va. 

Crisp texture is trending in burgers, too, as chefs are tucking crunchy components into the build. Onion straws, fried jalapeños, house-made potato chips, layered atop a burger build, are making a multi-textural experience and a signature flavor story. At the growth chain Burger 21, crispy onion strings crown the Tex-Mex Haystack burger while a crispy batter fried jalapeño is the signature touch in the Jalapeño Burger at Norms in Southern California.

Such textural treatments have an element of fun and surprise, helping a brand stand out in a dizzying array of choices.

Creative Play in Flavor Systems

A flavor system is made out of the building blocks of a dish that give it a distinct signature. Buffalo chicken is one example, where the building blocks are Buffalo sauce, celery and blue cheese or ranch dressing. Once a system has been developed, perfected, tested, launched and marketed, the investment can be substantial. 

Chefs are finding creative expressions of that flavor system to be a smart strategy, hence the success of Buffalo cauliflower as an on-trend craveable starter. Other flavor systems making a play right now include PB&J, Nashville hot, banh mi, Korean barbecue and au poivre, showing up in menu items like the Korean BBQ Broccoli at New York City’s veg-centric Dirt Candy and PB&J chicken wings at Takoda in Washington, D.C.

The opportunity for operators here is to tap into a familiar, craveable flavor system and exploit it in an unexpected, but welcome way.

Sorghum Stands Tall

Sorghum sits at the convergence of an exploration into alternate grains and a culinary embrace of all things Southern. With its heritage-yet-hip halo and diverse product forms (grain, syrup, flour) making it inherently nimble in menu applications, it brings intriguing appeal to menu developers and consumers alike. 

Sorghum is seeing a rapid increase in menu adoptions, showing off its versatility in items spanning all menu sections: In “puffed” form atop the smashed avocado at Benjamin Bar & Lounge in Washington, D.C.; as a glaze coating the duck confit at White Oak in Atlanta; mixed into butter accompanying the house-made bread and pickles at Chicago’s Big Jones; and even as a molasses-like sweetener in the The Corduroy Angel cocktail at Young Joni in Minneapolis. 

Chick-fil-A just launched a gluten-free bun made of ancient grains including sorghum, showcasing yet another advantage this versatile grain offers modern-day menu developers.

Flavors of the Middle-Eastern-Med Pantry

Chefs are always scouring the global pantry for flavor innovation, and the blurred regions of the Eastern Med and Middle East are bubbling with opportunities.  Certainly, the many variations of versatile Middle Eastern dips and spreads like hummus and muhamarra, spice blends like za’atar and ras el hanout, and spicy sauces like harissa and schug are presenting chefs with easy-adoption opportunities. 

Many growth fast-casual concepts are rooted in these cuisines. Concepts like Verts and Cava offers bowl or pita builds centered around such proteins like harissa-spiced lamb meatballs while Spitz Restaurants centers its menu on the craveable doner kebab sandwich—a street food wildly popular in Germany but originating in Turkey. Spitz’s Berliner Doner comes with red sauce, feta, cabbage and carrot slaw, sumac-seasoned tomatoes, onion, cucumber and tzatziki. 

Taking cues from the loaded fries and poutine movement and the continued shift toward more sociable dining, chefs are reimagining nachos in creative, craveable ways.

Meanwhile, Israeli cuisine is finally staking a claim in the foodservice arena, helped along by James Beard award-winning chefs Alon Shaya of Shaya in New Orleans (Best New Restaurant, 2016) and Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav (Outstanding Chef the Year, 2017), building awareness of  such iconic dishes like shakshouka, a spicy chile-tomato egg-based skillet prep with chermoula and sunchokes at Shaya. Sure to create even more buzz is Solomonov’s newest eatery, Goldie, a falafel shop, highlighting another Mid-East menu concept at the ready for American foodservice consumers.

Next-Level Nachos

Nachos have been around since football became a national pastime, but they’re gaining steam recently, and they hold new potential for menu developers. 

Taking cues from the loaded fries and poutine movement and the continued shift toward more sociable dining, chefs are reimagining nachos in creative, craveable ways. It’s certainly a smart business move, as they offer up a low-cost carrier primed for premium upgrades. It’s also a proven formula for a successful menu strategy, demonstrated by the boom of loaded fries and tots, to name a few. 

That sense of fun inherent in every scoop, pull and crunch makes nachos a perfect playground for innovation—in the chips, cheeses, toppings and drizzles. And because nachos are perhaps the most familiar, most loved shareable of all time, chefs can introduce a little adventure tucked within those savory, gooey, addictive layers.

Party Fowl in Nashville, Tenn., serves up an appetizer of Hot Chicken Nachos is a natural extension for the brand, while Tommy Bahama used nachos as a platform to introduce tuna poke to its mainland customers. And proving the culinary attention this Tex-Mex icon is finally receiving, the menu star at aptly named Nachoria in Burlingame, Calif., is a base of house-fried chips, homemade cheese sauce, fire-roasted peppers, caramelized onions, green onions and queso fresco and refried or black beans, customizable with a choice of seven toppings ranging from diablo shimp to carne asada.

Originally appeared in the August, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Eight is Enough.