Menu Trends Expert Nancy Kruse hosted a webinar this week as part of the National Restaurant Association’s annual show, NRA 2013, to offer industry professionals the trend-based information they need to improve and grow their restaurant and food chain businesses.
Nancy started with a look back at the past year, calling out the fact that 1,620 new entrees were introduced in the top 250 restaurant chains alone. This figure helps drive home the point that chains are constantly looking for ways to roll out new menu items to keep consumers engaged. Many of these new entrees were sold as a limited- time offer, a technique increasingly used to create a sense of urgency on menus.
Nancy’s “hot-list” for trending menu items hit on, of all things, the veggie department. We are all familiar with the current craze, kale, but Nancy flagged that this will quickly give way to cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Look to see these veggies take the center of the plate instead of served as sides. And speaking of sides, corn is poised to become the hottest veggie but not in the traditional way – look for cultural spins with dishes like hominy, grits and corn, corn cakes, and Elote, a Mexican corn that is roasted, rolled in queso fresco, sprinkled with chili pepper and served with lime on a stick.
“Flavor marriages” will continue to gain popularity on menus across the country. Asian influences will continue to grow and have much potential for new flavor marriages on operator menus, such as combining soy and ginger with Sriracha or a spicy lobster broth. Sour flavors have been missing in American menus for quite some time, and Nancy expects an emergence this year, along with pickles and fermented food items. Some of these techniques can help operators keep healthful foods on the menus – as long as they are attractively presented, customers will order.
Smoke flavors are also booming, out of a major revival of Southern foods. Smoked meats paired with sweeter sauces and salsas are becoming a national phenomenon. Burger King and Wendy’s have both recently introduced new items featuring smoked meats and sauces.
The Future of Menus
Out of all the emerging trends and new flavors, the old favorite, chicken, is what’s really making headlines. Protein is the “it” topic of the moment, and is responsible for a 12% increase in sales on menus from 2009-2012. From fried chicken to cold chicken sandwiches, spicy fried chicken and burger chains with premium chicken options, it’s all about quality: if the consumer considers an item premium, they are more likely to gravitate towards it.
Not surprisingly, it’s all about the consumer, and Nancy warns operators to ensure customer customization. Menu inflexibility will drive patrons away; people are looking for options now more than ever. Poor menu merchandising results in poor sales – operators must let the customer feel in control. At least we know that is one thing that will likely never change!