"Artisanal toast is taking the nation by storm," reads a recent headline from Eater.com. Meanwhile, Food Genius reports that less than 1 percent of nearly 60 million menu items mention the word “toast.” That’s quite a discrepancy. How can something that is supposedly taking the nation by storm be listed as a menu item less than 1 percent of the time?
The extended length of time it takes for a buzzy item to make its way onto mainstream menus helps explain this discrepancy, as does the slightly hyperbolic nature of foodservice punditry. But let’s be clear: No matter how you define it, toast is not a food trend. And though we do love a nice, crisp slice of charred bread as much as the next person, we would be remiss if we did not bust this buzz. In order to do so, let’s first revisit Food Genius’ criteria for food trends.
Back in July, we said that in order to be considered a trend, an item must have experienced growth both over the last year and in the most recent quarter. Also, the item needs to appear on more than 5 percent of unique menus. Anything that falls beneath these metrics represents a niche item.
Admittedly, toast, throws a wrench into this criteria because, while it is in no way a trend, it also not niche - at least not in the traditional sense. Toast is as pedestrian as steak and potatoes. Wherever there are eggs, there is also toast, and it’s practically guaranteed to show up as a side item on every diner menu across the country.
How, then, could toast ever be considered niche? The answer is: Only if we are considering it as a standalone item. The term “toast” might be mentioned on 20 percent of menus, but, like we said before, it’s listed as an individual menu item less than 1 percent of time.
In the U.S., 1 percent of menu items that are from all restaurants within all cuisines and that have any meal part, mention toast.
Showcasing toast as a standalone menu item might be big at twee bakeries like San Francisco’s The Mill but we aren’t so sure that Eater’s claim of it “only being a matter of months before millennial wooing chains will start putting fancy toast on their menus, too” is practical. Before that can happen, toast has a publicity problem to fend off. Many find the trend to be at best ridiculous, an over-elevating of basic foods, artisanal taken too far, and, at worst, highway robbery, seeing as a consumer could easily buy an entire loaf of bread for the cost of a single slice of toast from The Mill.
We aren’t saying don’t ever put toast as a standalone item on your menu. Rather, we are encouraging operators to wait and see how toast plays out among the independent scene first.
In the meantime, temper your expectations by doing research. For instance, when we look at Google trends data on toast, we do in fact see that toast has grown in Google searches over the past 10 years.
More interesting, though, is that it seems to experience a surge in consumer curiosity each December. This makes sense because of the holidays. People are thinking about what homey food they will be eating, and toast is the ultimate comfort food.
But then, after December, interest in toast declines dramatically. Considering this, a practical course of action could be to menu toast topped with avocado or fruit compote as a breakfast LTO in the winter months. Then, come March, analyze your results and see if the item sold well enough to further invest your precious research and development dollars into it.
Sure a few in-the-know San Franciscans are going bananas for toast. Perhaps a smattering of folks in Detroit are, too, but that doesn’t mean the layman walking into an Einstein Bros on a sweltering, summer morning in Arkansas is going to feel the same way about toast topped with avocado as Gwyneth Paltrow does, especially without any pre-exposure to the trend. As it relates to food trends and your bottom line - it’s almost better to be behind the curve than in front of it.
Instead of toast, a more reliable, early-morning-eating trend to bank on is the breakfast wrap. The term “breakfast wrap” now appears on 10 percent of menus, up from 9 percent last quarter, and can be found in 26 percent of restaurant locations, up from 18 percent last quarter.
When it comes to experimenting with food trends, these are the kind of numbers that operators and manufacturers should be looking for because they indicate an optimal amount of consumer awareness.