Consumer Trends

The secrets behind the top LTOs of 2021

A good limited-time offer should encourage purchase, but the most successful ones share other winning traits.

What do Friendly’s Lobster Roll, Jack in the Box’s Chocolate Croissant Bites and Starbucks’ Caramel Ribbon Crunch Creme Frappuccino all have in common?

They are among the 40 top-scoring limited-time offers of 2021, according to Technomic’s Consumer-Rated LTOs tool. By garnering higher-than-average scores for purchase intent—as well as two out of three other metrics (craveability, uniqueness and draw)—these items are designated as “Best-in-Class LTOs.”

Technomic, a Restaurant Business sister firm, describes Best-in-Class as “approachable yet creative spins on familiar foods.” That combination tends to drive both sales and traffic—the ultimate goal of a limited-time offer.

In 2021, Technomic tested 2,140 LTOs with consumers, and only 2% earned the “Best-in-Class” designation. Of the 40 that rose to the top, 14 used the word “fresh” in the item’s menu description, 11 called out a brand name and seven were coffee-based beverages.

Mentioning bacon, plant-based, shrimp or burger in the menu item’s name proved tempting to consumers, too. Berry cocktails also drew attention, but no chicken dishes made the cut.

2021 by the numbers

Source: Technomic

The top 40 LTOs weren’t ranked in any order, but we pulled out 10 that demonstrate the types of dishes and drinks that showcase consumer preferences. They fall into different menu categories and meal occasions but they all have broad appeal.

On the appetizer side, consumers gave high marks to the Avocado Smash at pizza chain Mellow Mushroom. The LTO calls out “fresh” twice, with a menu description of “made fresh for you with avocado, lime, a dash of garlic and salt. Served with freshly made bruschetta and warm toast points.” Enticing wordsmithing here.

Jack in the Box’s Chocolate Croissant Bites stood out in the sides/extras category. The description is brief: “Light and flaky Chocolate Croissant Bites filled with hot and melty Hershey’s chocolate." The brand name mention earned this snack high marks.

Beverage LTOs increased in number last year, with 11 nonalcoholic drinks making the Top 40 list—more than one-quarter of all items. The Caramel Ribbon Crunch Creme Frappuccino Blended Beverage from Starbucks boasts a rather detailed and flowery description that appealed to consumers: “Buttery caramel syrup is blended with milk and ice, then topped with a layer of dark caramel sauce, whipped cream, caramel drizzle and crunchy caramel-sugar topping—oh-so-beautifully delicious.”

Judging from the beverage category, consumer preference is trending toward sweet flavors, with cookies and cream and blueberry cobbler coffees also on the list.

Fruity drinks are also popular, with mango, watermelon and passion fruit making the cut. And sometimes a brief, simple description can sell an item. The Watermelon Wake-Up from First Watch simply states “Watermelon, pineapple, lime and mint” but the four ingredients imply a refreshing, all-natural, summery way to start the day.

Fruit also makes a splash on the cocktail front; nine fruity alcoholic drinks landed in the Top 40. The Fresh Strawberry Martini at Ninety Nine Restaurants was cited for its blend of “freshly muddled strawberries, Tito’s handmade vodka and cold-pressed agave citrus sour mix, served with a sugar rim.” Again, fresh is a descriptor that wins points, as is a brand-name vodka. Other cocktails in this category featured blackberries, peaches, kiwi and mango.

The Lobster Roll from Friendly’s falls into the entree/main dish category. It’s described as “fresh and creamy lobster salad with celery and crisp lettuce on a classic grilled roll. Served with golden fries and coleslaw.” Simple and direct, spotlighting what consumers perceive as a luxury ingredient in a family-dining chain.

Seafood and beef dominated the entree category, and when the two were paired in surf ‘n turf combos, it broadened their appeal. The Center-Cut Sirloin with Grilled Shrimp from Glory Days Grill is chock full of tempting adjectives in its menu description: “USDA Choice sirloin chargrilled, topped with Dijon mustard sauce and four seasoned grilled shrimp. Served with creamy mashed potatoes, our fall vegetable medley with balsamic reduction…” Dishes like these reinforce consumers’ craving for premium ingredients.

Burgers are a perennial favorite and four versions joined the 2021 ranking. The appeal of the Monster Angus Thickburger from Carl’s Jr. is obvious from its name—it signifies a generous portion of quality beef. The description goes even further: “Two third-pound charbroiled 100% Black Angus beef patties, four strips of bacon, three slices of American cheese and mayonnaise, served on a premium bun. Bacon is another ingredient that elevates a menu item.

The Cheddar, Bacon and Chive Giant Stuffed Tater Tots at Wild Wing Café have several indulgent ingredients going for them in their name alone. The superlatives in the description add to their craveability: “World’s largest tater tots stuffed with cheddar cheese, bacon and chives. Gooey cheese, smokey bacon and crispy tots seem to be an irresistible combination.

A health halo can also sell an item, as in the Super Salad at Pinstripes. The description details the salad’s healthy profile. “Loaded with nine superfoods: Kale, spinach, pecans, figs, golden beet chips, avocado, ancient grains, raspberries olive oil, Humboldt Fog goat cheese.” Calling out the locale for an ingredient—in this case, cheese—is another plus, reports Technomic.

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