What's in, what's out and what's coming up on menus? R&I's
This article first appeared in the 1 November 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USAÁ¢ÂÂs leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visitÁ its website here >>
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
When a survey of nearly 1,000 operators identifies mini burgers and sweet-potato friesÁ¢ÂÂ"both barely blips on the radar a few years agoÁ¢ÂÂ"as two of the hottest up-and-coming items, it is clear how abruptly consumer tastes change and how nimble operators must be in responding.
R&IÁ¢ÂÂs 2007 Menu Census findings illustrate how carefully operators listen to consumersÁ¢ÂÂ often-conflicting requests and, remarkably, how willing operators are to augment and adjust menus.
Diners say they want choices that they perceive to be lighter or more healthful, but they wonÁ¢ÂÂt give up on old favorites. They want menu items that are new and exciting but that still have overlays of familiarity. They crave foods that are fun, shareable and handheld.
The results are menus in all industry segments that offer more variety, excitement, health-consciousness and inventiveness without forgetting that burgers and fries have lost none of their consumer appeal.
This yearÁ¢ÂÂs Menu Census reveals several key themes about how operators manage to keep customers happy and sales strong. Food choices that carry healthful halos, for example, have become must-haves across dining segments. EntrÁÂ©e salads are widely cited as increasing in sales, and salads rank high among menu items that operators are considering adding.
Whole-wheat pastaÁ¢ÂÂ"an example of a better-for-you food that at the same time is traditionalÁ¢ÂÂ"tops the list of grains, pastas and legumes that operators are considering as menu additions, while yogurt and fruit plates are among breakfast items operators cite as increasing in sales.
Breakfast is big but often brief for many consumers, which explains why portable itemsÁ¢ÂÂ"breakfast sandwiches, burritos, wraps and smoothiesÁ¢ÂÂ"show such sales growth.
Handheld choices designed to eat and share in dining rooms are popular as well. Appetizer menus lead the way in answering the call for handheld options; now lettuce wraps, pot stickers, egg rolls and spring rolls join perennially popular chicken tenders, wings, onion rings and mozzarella sticks.
Innovation on the Side
The emergence of foods that meet dinersÁ¢ÂÂ desires for new flavors and presentations is not limited to entrÁÂ©e selections. Consumers are being offeredÁ¢ÂÂ"and are orderingÁ¢ÂÂ"a wider selection of starters and side dishes that expand culinary horizons.
Mini burgers, spring rolls and other fork-free fare expand appetizer menus beyond brisk-selling fried foods. Seafood-based starters have become the top-selling category among first courses, thanks in particular to the growing popularity of crab cakes and calamari. In fine-dining venues, increasing consumer interest in oysters and other raw-bar options, as well as in raw proteins such as steak tartare and seafood seviche, suggests consumer palates continue to be adventurous.
Among sides and accompaniments, long-time favorites including macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes show strong diner support. At the same time, operators also are introducing less-traditional choices such as polenta, couscous and risotto.
The fact that dessert flights and bread pudding rate among the top five dessert dishes operators may add shows that that tricky menu balance of cutting-edge and comforting already is being achieved.
The links below will take you to R&IÁ¢ÂÂs Menu Census trends for each sector.