What’s trending on menus as we head into the second half of the year? Operators can expect the unexpected but shouldn’t ignore the flavors, ingredients and menu hits that have proven to be customer favorites, according to presenters at Winsight’s Restaurant Trends & Directions conference, held this week in Chicago.
Some wild and crazy items have garnered social media buzz, like sushi donuts, black ice cream and a QSR venison sandwich, but offerings featuring more mainstream ingredients such as Buffalo seasoning, burgers and chicken are also getting attention. These takeaways can help refresh your menu by balancing the edgy with the tried-and-true.
1. Switch up a signature
Take a second look at menu items already in place and give them a flavor or ingredient twist. In their presentation on menu trends, Winsight’s Lizzy Freier and Aimee Harvey pointed to several chains that have successfully tweaked signatures. Wendy’s, for example, began sourcing smaller birds to make for a more flavorful, juicier chicken sandwich with higher perceived quality, while Good Times upped the cheese-to-meat ratio on its burger, raised the cooking temperature for a better melt and upgraded the bun.
2. Get inventive with snacks
Americans are more broadly defining what makes a snack and are snacking more often throughout the day. Expanded snack occasions include a second breakfast midmorning and more extensive bar snack menus during happy hour and late night. Younger customers are especially interested in ethnic snacks, with 33% of millennials more likely to order ethnic items as a snack rather than a full meal, according to Technomic’s Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report, powered by Ignite. Consider widening your menu to include more globally accented snacks, such as bao buns, empanadas, pierogis, Indian dosas and Italian spiedini.
3. Span the world with sauces and relishes
Sriracha may have peaked, but other international sauces and relishes are stepping into the condiment lineup to differentiate menus, such as chakalaka, a spicy South African relish combining tomatoes and beans that recently debuted in a vegan wrap at Pret A Manger. While operators traditionally looked to Asian and Latin countries for sauce inspiration, independents and smaller chains are going further afield, tapping into Serbian ajvar (a roasted red pepper and eggplant spread), Appalachian chow-chow and Filipino banana ketchup.
4. Break out of the breakfast mold
African flavors are starting to trend at breakfast too, said Ina Pinkney, “Breakfast with Ina” columnist for the Chicago Tribune and chef-owner of the former Ina’s, a renowned breakfast spot in Chicago. In addition to North African shakshuka, she cited oto, a traditional Ghanian breakfast dish of boiled, mashed yams infused with palm oil and topped with eggs. During her breakfast workshop, Pinkney also suggested flatbreads as a vehicle for global breakfast ingredients, using Indian sourdough, naan or Moroccan harcha flatbread as a base.
5. Tap hyperseasonal ingredients for LTOs
Building a limited-time offer around a seasonal ingredient is a winning strategy, noted Rachel Kalt of The Culinary Edge during a session on LTOs. Doing so promotes an appealing farm-to-table ethos while also cutting costs and increasing margins by purchasing produce in season, she said. Dig Inn, a health-oriented concept based in New York City, offers hyperseasonal LTOs, such as its current cantaloupe and arugula bowl with fresh mint. And every spring, demand builds for Panera’s strawberry poppyseed chicken salad—an LTO the chain introduced several years ago that customers still crave, Kalt said.
6. Innovate with preparation techniques
Charring, toasting, grilling and roasting—prep techniques usually associated with beef, chicken and seafood—are infusing flavor and interest into veggies and beverages. As operators move plants to the center of the plate, they are giving them the meat treatment, as illustrated by California Pizza Kitchen’s Spicy Buffalo Cauliflower and the brined and roasted radishes at Bad Hunter, an indie in Chicago. Toast, smoke and spice are finding their way into drinks, too. Houlihan’s recently introduced a spicy charred pineapple cocktail starring muddled charred pineapple and jalapeno, and Big Shoulders Coffee in Chicago features a toasted marshmallow latte.