“Play it safe” seems to have been the mantra of chain menu developers in the last five years. Too many burgers, breakfast sandwiches, kale salads, nachos and quinoa bowls landed on the table and in takeout containers. While these remain crowd favorites, consumers are going to want more variety and excitement in 2015, the result of an improved economy and lots of pent-up demand. Here are five predictions as to how operators can meet that desire on the menu.
1. Snacking grows as a daypart
The three-meals-a-day paradigm is history. Chicago research firm Technomic reported that 51 percent of consumers snack at least twice a day, seeking sustenance mid-morning, mid-afternoon and evening. Yet restaurants are falling short on the snacking front—80 percent of snacks are sourced from retail stores, says Technomic.
Restaurants can offer far more inventive snacks, repurposing menu items and cross-utilizing ingredients into items such as flatbreads, mini wrap sandwiches, housemade soups, dips and spreads and drinkable snacks, including smoothies.
2. Menus encourage mixing and matching
Customization will continue to be a priority for consumers and one way to accommodate that is to make the menu a mix-and-match game. Why assign just one or two side dishes to a chicken or beef entree? Technomic’s Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report found that 67 percent of consumers want to be able to choose the side that comes with their entrée. Some restaurants are allowing guests to choose their own sides and create a custom entrée. And others are going the pay-for-what-you-eat route, pricing meals according to portion size.
3. Mashups rule
Korean tacos were just the beginning. Look for more esoteric Asian influences to take hold on mainstream items. Waffles with a Filipino adobo topping, Indian naan bread salad and African-spiced fried chicken. But don’t call this fusion or you’ll be run out of town. The hip terminology is mashup, a word that connotes authenticity and artisanship, not gimmickry.
4. A gluten-free backlash
Gluten-free is leveling off, according to the chefs who responded in the National Restaurant Association’s 2015 “What’s Hot” survey.
But that doesn’t mean it’s going away—it looks like wheat-adverse customers will always be with us. With better quality gluten-free products and a variety of ancient grains now widely available, it’s easier to accommodate them. So it’s time to refocus your culinary creativity on other areas. How about lower cost proteins? Or more unusual varieties of fresh produce?
5. Batching cocktails to save time and labor
Backlashes aren’t limited to gluten-free menu items—there’s also a mixology backlash. Bar patrons are getting tired of waiting 10 minutes for a carefully crafted cocktail painstakingly muddled with five fresh ingredients, artisanal spirits and housemade bitters. They’re also getting tired of paying $15 or more for a drink. Batch cocktails are the wave of the future. They can be expertly blended with topnotch ingredients, then made readily available at the touch of a tap or the twist of a keg’s spigot. And fast casuals without a bar can easily concoct and batch a house cocktail to stay ahead of the competition.