Looking back over the last year, certain key words seemed to capture what was happening on restaurant menus. Concepts in every segment were talking about transparency, clean labels, local sourcing, authenticity, simplification and veggie-centric—and adding items that walked the talk. Breakfast was the most active daypart, but snacking was close behind. Developments left everyone searching for the next hot flavor.
Here’s a recap of the factors that shaped menus in 2015.
McDonald’s may have drawn the most attention for touting a.m. choices at lunch and dinner, but other players soon got in the game—some with more alluring choices than Egg McMuffins. Peet’s Coffee & Tea started testing Kale-Goat Cheese Flatbreads and Croissant Bread Pudding, while White Castle jumped in with the return of its Breakfast Belgian Waffle Sliders.
Pared-down wine lists
In 2014, our end-of-year wrap-up mentioned how chains like McDonald’s, IHOP and BJ’s had simplified their menus by cutting items. Last year restaurants did the same with their wine lists. Perhaps they took a cue from fast casuals without bars that offer two to four wines at most, often on tap. Or maybe it was an effort to convert younger customers into wine drinkers by eliminating the confusion.
Operators became more vocal than ever about ingredients, especially if they could crow about what those elements didn’t have. “Antibiotic-free” was a top buzzword this year among QSR chains featuring chicken. Subway, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Papa John’s all vowed a switch to antibiotic-free chicken in 2016—an initiative already underway at Chick-fil-A and Panera Bread Co.
Hot chicken heats up
A number of well-known chefs imprinted fried chicken with their signature touches, several even launching fast casuals based on their special preps—most recently David Chang’s Fuku in New York City. But in the last few months, Nashville hot chicken has grabbed the culinary spotlight. The regional specialty—chicken parts dredged in a fiery coating and fried—is expanding into the national fast-casual space, led by some noteworthy names.
Root to stem cooking
The nose-to-tail trend, popular in restaurants that butcher animals on-site so no meat is wasted, seemed to catch the attention in 2015 of the vegetable crowd. Root-to-stem cooking celebrated the leaves, peels, and gnarly parts of a vegetable or fruit that usually get tossed—as well as misshapen and “ugly” produce. Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurants, an early advocate, collaborated with two chains to feature wastED menu items based on the principle: Sweetgreen’s wastED salad and Shake Shack’s wastED burger.
Snacking blurred dayparts
Half of adults now snack two or three times a day, according to Mintel’s 2015 snacking data, often substituting snacks for meals and purchasing them at restaurants. Operators responded with more snack options as bar bites, shareables and grab-and-go minimeals, even creating special categories on their menus with catchy names.
Charred to a crisp
Where smoking and grilling left off, charring took over. Restaurant chefs were especially fond of charring vegetables—presenting Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots and corn with blackened surfaces and crispy edges Charring caramelized sugars and intensifies flavor, turning vegetables into bold companions for smoked meats, roast chicken and grilled fish—or as stars on a vegetarian plate.