Optimism is in the air as we look ahead to 2010, but product and menu developers are proceeding with caution. “The economy has had a huge effect,” says Colleen McClellan, food insights strategist at McCormick. “It’s slowed down the ability to move forward and restaurants won’t be taking huge risks in 2010. It seems like many of the 2009 trends will continue.”
Yet diners still want a restaurant experience they can’t replicate at home. Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD Crest, feels that there’s a lot of pent up demand and “innovation is the way to capture customers, especially at dinner. In the casual segment, particularly, there’s been a lot of ‘me too’ lately.”
Datassential MenuTrends research backs up this assessment. Chain menus have actually shrunk in the total number of items offered and there’s been a slowdown in LTOs. “As the economy recovers, we expect menu growth and LTO introductions to resume,” says Datassential’s Brian Darr. “But for now, keep in mind that restaurants have become more selective about innovation; the demand for new menu ideas persists, but it is tempered by a corresponding need for evidence that those ideas will work.”
How can you put selective innovation to work in your operation? Take a look at the flavors, ingredients, products and menu categories that our team of industry experts predicts will thrive in 2010.
High-impact flavoring techniques. Imparting flavor to food through charring, caramelizing, curing, smoking and encrusting is continuing to gain ground, reports Datassential. And these techniques are being applied to surprising foods. It took two years for Roth-Kase to nail down its smoked blue cheese formula, but trial and error brought the subtly smoky Moody Blues to the market in June. “We cold-smoked the cheese over apple and pear woods to create just the right smoky undertones,” explains Kirsten Jaeckle, Roth Kase director of marketing. “Put it on a burger, and it tastes like a bacon cheeseburger.”
Local color. In the NRA’s 2009 Chef Survey, respondents cited “locally grown produce,” “locally sourced meats and seafood” and “locally produced wine and beer” as three of the top five trends. Distributors are responding by offering more local products and regional specialties. “The locavore movement is driving the resurgence of regional American cooking,” says McCormick’s McClellan. “There’s a renewed interest in native ingredients as well as pickling, preserving and curing.”
Better-for-you foods. Operators are looking for products that deliver health in tasty ways. Baby boomers and young parents are seeking out healthier menu choices but they are not willing to sacrifice flavor and excitement. “Portion control and sodium reduction will be the hot buttons, especially with the government’s new dietary guidelines coming out in 2010,” contends Sean Craig, senior executive chef of Gilroy Foods & Flavors.
Comfort with a twist. Customers are looking to experiment with new flavors and ingredients if they are introduced in a familiar way, says McClellan. Her examples: take Buffalo Chicken Wings to a new place with Argentine chimichurri; spread a sliced steak sandwich with smoked paprika mayo; braise meats Middle Eastern style; or infuse one-dish preps like rice and beans with authentic Jamaican flavors.
Cuisines on the rise. “Regional flavors within the Mediterranean are a natural extension of comfort food, simplicity and wellness,” says Craig. “We’re paying particular attention to Greek and Southern Italian flavors.” Darr of Datassential cites Basque and Peruvian as leading edge trends, while McClellan sees further exploration of regional Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, African and “Japanese beyond sushi.”
Trading down. Market research firm Mintel predicted that trading down would be a major trend of 2009 and in September, a full 52 percent of Americans polled admitted to spending less at restaurants. “There’s been a lot of trade down in menu items,” agrees NPD’s Riggs. That translates to customers ordering lower priced items, more burgers than steaks and shareable desserts. In fact, premium burgers and sandwiches made with up-graded ingredients are booming as concepts and on menus.
The appeal of appetizers. Another bright spot on 2009 menus was the appetizer category—and Datassential expects this to continue. “Bite-sized fried items and dips are some key appetizers that have grown in the past year,” notes Darr. “These items are thriving due to their smaller portion size.” And their smaller price. That’s what McCain Foods discovered when it ran its Half Price/Half Portion Appetizer promotion in a range of different restaurant concepts. Operators who participated reported appetizer sales going up by 15 to 75 percent.
A return to simplicity. Mintel’s recent Global Consumer Trends survey shows that the majority of Americans want to simplify their lives. Food companies are responding with products that boast “clean” labels while restaurants are sourcing from trusted suppliers. Lynn Dornblaser, trends analyst at Mintel, believes that companies offering products with the fewest number of ingredients stand to garner gains in 2010.
Value tops all. “Value is the mantra of the day,” states Riggs. But NPD’s survey respondents don’t define value in terms of the cheapest price. “Consumers are willing to pay for fresh, high quality food that meets their expectations. It’s more about reasonable prices and priced-right portion sizes.”
- Fine-dining chefs have more freedom to innovate on the menu. At the 2009 Starchefs.com International Chefs Congress this September, co-founder Antoinette Bruni cited five trends that are happening on the high end.
- Handcrafted foods. Salumi, charcuterie, cheeses and pickles made in-house or by artisanal producers are showing up on plates.
- Farm to bar. Fresh, local ingredients are moving from the plate to the glass as mixologists compete to differentiate cocktail lists.
- Heirloom ingredients. Chefs are seeking out heritage chickens, pigs, fruits, vegetables, grains and other products.
- Head to tail. Kitchens are performing in-house butchering and menuing every part of the animal. Mindfully raised meats are the new buzz words.
- Food trucks and carts—driven by chefs. Everything from schnitzel to Wagyu brisket sandwiches and crème brulee is being sold on the streets of New York, Chicago, L.A. and other U.S. cities.
In the just-released 2009 Chef Survey by the National Restaurant Association, these 10 foods and ingredients were ranked as the “hottest”:
- Artisanal cheeses
- Black garlic
- Ancient grains (e.g. spelt, kamut, amaranth)
- Flatbreads (e.g. naan, papadum, lavash, pita, tortillas)
- Flower syrup/essence
- Salt (flavored, smoked, regional)
- Vegetable ceviche
- Ethnic condiments (raita, chimichurri, sriracha, chutney, soy sauce)
- Whole grain bread
Innovators in the kitchen
Three operators translate the trends.
Pickling for flavor
Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, Philadelphia, PA
Concept chef Pernot brings a strong Latin legacy to the four-location Cuba Libre: he was born in Argentina and is married to a Cuban wife. He practices the style of pickling known as escabeche, which he learned from his mother. “She pickled eggplant by grilling it slightly, then steeping it in vinegar, chilies and spices,” he recalls.
In his restaurant kitchen, Pernot applies the technique to mushrooms, which are grilled to add smoky notes, then macerated in lime juice and herbs. “The pickling helps balance fatty flavors, so I like to serve the mushrooms with meat. I also lightly pickle mango and grape tomatoes to accompany mango-glazed salmon,” he explains. Poached clams and mussels are treated to escabeche as well. Pernot finds the process results in a lighter, more subtle effect than traditional pickling, which relies on lots of salt and/or sugar.
But, he adds, “pickling of all kinds is popular now because pickled accompaniments add value to the plate. Plus, I can use more cost-effective ingredients and prolong the shelf life of seasonal produce.” Ultimately, that means less waste and lower food costs.
A focus on shareable appetizers
Quaker Steak & Lube, Sharon, PA
Value is the most important aspect of menu development at this 38-location casual concept, but flavor and quality are never compromised. Chef McMahon likes to say “there’s no right price for the wrong food.”
Right now, shareable appetizers seem to be the “right food” for Quaker Steak & Lube’s budget-minded diners and the restaurants’ profit margins. And flatbreads are one of McMahon’s favorites. “They are extremely versatile and I can signaturize them with Korean, Thai and Caribbean flavors. Flatbreads are also great vehicles for cross-utilizing vegetables,” he says. McMahon is right on target: Datassential notes that flatbread penetration on menus continued at a fast pace between 2005 and 2009.
The chef is also working on bringing back all-American favorites with new twists—like deviled eggs. These are currently in test, incorporating several flavor profiles. Chicken wings are another popular shareable; McMahon is applying dry rubs and sauces that produce a “sweet heat,” with seasonings that may include cloves, coriander, star anise and citrus zest.
“I try to create flavor profiles that are out of the box but attached to the box; flavors that reflect our core concept,” McMahon explains.
Keep it simple
Urban Solace, San Diego, CA
“I’ve had too many meals where four countries are represented on one plate,” claims Gordon, owner and executive chef of this “new American comfort food” restaurant. “I prefer to highlight a particular ingredient in a dish and let the food speak for itself.”
Out of necessity in this economy, that highlighted ingredient is often an underutilized part of the animal or a gnarly vegetable prepared with a “haute” technique. “I don’t charge more than $17 for an entrée, so I have to look at less expensive cuts of meat,” says Gordon. His braised Beef Cheeks with Sweet Potato Mash are a case in point—two simple ingredients that perfectly complement each other and don’t overcomplicate the dish with too many flavors. Pork belly, pigs feet, frogs legs and chicken are other protein choices, while butternut squash, celery root, Brussels sprouts and parsnips are vegetables that are getting some play.
But quality is a very important part of the equation; Gordon may not be menuing rib steak and halibut, but he sources Jidori chickens from a Japanese farmer near Los Angeles, Niman Ranch pork belly and mostly organic vegetables. “Customers are very savvy these days and they know the difference,” he says.