As we head into the new year, the mega-trends driving menu and product development fall into three major buckets: health and wellness, big flavors and breakfast. Sound familiar? While there are many cutting-edge mini-trends emerging, those feeding the mainstream are sticking to what customers want right now. But both operators and manufacturers are offering unique twists to differentiate themselves within these buckets.
Fresh tropics—fast-casual style
True to its core concept, menu introductions at the fast-growing Tropical Smoothie Café will embrace all three buckets. “We’ve been working all year on a new menu launch for the first quarter of 2012,” says COO Mike Rotondo. His customers are looking for healthy food with a tropical twist and Tropical Smoothie Café is delivering—with updates to some of its signature flatbreads, smoothies and wraps, exciting new LTOs and a continued focus on breakfast, introduced in 2010.
The starting point—ingredient and product upgrades. “We used to spec KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce, but now we are using a proprietary Hawaiian-style sauce with distinctive plum and pineapple notes, developed with a vendor partner,” Rotondo reports. The new product is enhancing a chicken flatbread, wrap and sandwich, “and we’re selling 50 percent more of these items than we did last year,” he adds. Another hit is the seasonal Cranberry Chipotle Flatbread, an item that marries sweet and heat—a flavor trend that’s tops right now.
Going into 2012, Tropical Smoothie Café is looking at adding steak to the menu, tapping its supplier—National Steak and Poultry (NSP)—to develop a fully cooked product with a spicy pineapple marinade. NSP also stepped up to assist the chain in its sodium-lowering efforts. The company developed a ready-to-serve chicken product with about 35 percent reduced sodium.
Breakfast—which is served all day—continues to grow month over month. “We didn’t have to reinvent ourselves for this daypart or bring in new equipment or many new SKUs. Our menu of smoothies, wraps and sandwiches is very relevant to breakfast—we just have to remind people that we’re serving it,” Rotondo explains. On the 2012 menu, some favorite breakfast items are getting a more prominent position, including the Triple Berry Oat Smoothie. Also in development: a smoothie that combines vegetables and fruit to help guests meet the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations.
When looking to add new products, Tropical Smoothie Café approaches its distributor, Sysco, to see if a private label version is available. If not, “we then go to vendors we do business with. These suppliers like having us in their portfolio as our volume grows and they help us control costs,” says Rotondo. For particular flavor profiles, however, often only a specialty vendor can meet specs. “In developing the Cranberry Chipotle Flatbread, we contracted with a company called Italian Rose, which converted a retail sauce into a foodservice product for us.”
Putting a spin on steakhouse staples
Guests at a high-end steakhouse expect a certain menu and you can’t get too oddball, admits Mario Tolentino, the new chef de cuisine at BLT Steak at The Besty hotel in Miami Beach. So he sticks to classics on the regular menu, but gets creative with his blackboard specials. Tolentino features two appetizers, sides and entrees daily. “I try to make these preparations more complex and on-trend, having them ‘pop’ with unexpected twists,” he says.
These blackboard specials also make the most of seasonal ingredients. Two recent examples: Brussels sprouts roasted with apples and apple cider vinegar gastrique and cauliflower with fennel in brown curry butter. “My training is rooted in French culinary technique, but I like to add new elements and push the boundaries a bit,” Tolentino explains. A Seared Scallops on Butternut Squash Puree with Pistachio Vinaigrette appetizer illustrates this leaning. Tolentino pickles the pistachios in a sweet-sour solution with bay leaf and peppercorns to give the vinaigrette some punch and crunch. “Pickling is a trend that’s going to continue into 2012, but not many chefs are pickling nuts,” he claims.
Tolentino’s entrée specials also take a more cutting-edge direction. The Cote de Bouef for two is smoked with olivewood and served with one of 2012’s hottest items: roasted marrow bones.
Here is a snapshot of what’s trending in late 2011, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database.
- Sauces and Seasonings have been leading the pack in new product introductions, but Bakery and Snacks shows the most growth.
- Seeds are increasingly showing up as an ingredient in bakery products. The health and natural goodness of seeds have wide appeal.
- Coconut continues to expand, with oil, flour and other coconut-based products emerging.
- Dark spirits are moving from the cocktail glass to the ingredient list, especially in sauces and condiments.