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5 ways to play up protein

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For operators, protein is a blank slate for flavor. What burger isn’t made better with decadent toppings or mix-ins? What roast isn’t enhanced by a well-executed marinade or vibrant flavor rub? And what bowl of pulses doesn’t benefit from a flavor boost?

Typically, consumers are most receptive to innovative flavors paired with more familiar proteins—that’s why hamburgers have become so over-the-top in recent years. But there’s plenty of room for creativity with other proteins, too.

Here are some flavor-boosting ideas for protein across the menu.


Chicken is the country’s top protein, menued by 92.3% of all operators, according to Technomic MenuMonitor data. It also pairs well with an incredibly diverse assortment of flavors, from citrus to hot peppers to global spice blends.
Currently trending nationwide is the regional specialty Nashville hot chicken—fried, spice-marinated chicken doused in cayenne pepper sauce. Dry rubs are another effective way to spice up this popular poultry. Native Grill & Wings, for example, recently offered a Chicken N’ Waffles Dry Rub seasoning for its chicken wings.

Operators can also add flavor by offering customizable options with an assortment of dipping sauces for chicken. Ruby Tuesday features Crispy Chicken Bites served with sauce choices such as Thai, hickory bourbon, Buffalo, Cajun honey and honey mustard.


When it comes to seafood offerings, shrimp is king—and ripe for a flavor boost. It appears on 69.6% of operator menus, according to Technomic MenuMonitor data. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurant & Market added a novel Shaken Shrimp Cocktail to its fall menu, featuring marinated shrimp, Mayan salsa, avocado, lime and tortilla chips. Rockfood Seafood Grill recently introduced Asian-inspired shrimp LTOs such as Honey Sriracha Almond Shrimp and Red Curry Shrimp Dumplings.


Beef, like the Swiss Army Knife of proteins, shows up on 87.8% of operator menus, according to Technomic. It’s a mainstay for burgers, steaks and is crumbled in everything from pasta sauce to tacos. Consumers are familiar with this protein and are open to seeing it paired with unexpected flavors. Hard Rock Café recently launched an LTO menu of global burgers, which included the espresso-rubbed Java Lava Burger. Snap Kitchen added Coconut Curry Beef poached in coconut milk with ginger, garlic and cilantro. Chili’s Grill & Bar rolled out steaks with citrus-chile sauce and ancho-garlic rub.


Pork appears on almost all restaurant menus, in some form. From pulled pork to pork loin to sausage, the item is popular with consumers. Boudin Sourdough Bakery & Cafe added several pork LTOs, including Luau BBQ Pork Salad with ginger-soy barbecue sauce and caramelized pineapple. Slater’s 50/50 offered a limited-time Pork Bahn Mi burger with an Asian-seasoned pork patty. Mimi’s Cafe featured a center-cut pork chop flavored with honey, herbes de Provence and lavender.


Non-meat sources of protein are gaining in popularity with vegetarians and omnivores alike as more consumers seek out plant-based foods for health and environmental reasons. Global-inspired flavors work well with these protein sources, as beans and lentils are popular in world cuisines. The Big Salad featured a Mediterranean Salad with chickpeas, feta, quinoa and lemony dressing. Add trendy sweet-smoky vadouvan spice blend to a bean-based burger patty. Or, include housemade spice-marinated beans and lentils at build-your-own bowl and salad concepts.

Pulses are also a natural fit with a variety of flavors, and can be easily prepared with a flavored broth to add a kick to any dish.

This post is sponsored by Minor’s®

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