Restaurant chains are sometimes perceived as being a step or two behind the indies when it comes to menu innovation. But no sooner had the forecasters finalized their 2018 trend predictions than new items started appearing on chain menus. These dishes—seemingly launched as soon as the calendar flipped to Jan. 1—tap into some of the top culinary trends.
1. Filipino flavors come to Yard House
Asian island cuisine was cited in several forecasts, including the foods that characterize the cooking of the Philippines. Yard House jumped on the trend with the introduction of Pork Lumpia, a Filipino-style spring roll. Here, the kitchen encloses a savory pork filling in a thin, crepe-like lumpia wrapper, then fries it until crispy. It’s served as a starter or snack and marketed as a globally inspired item to pair with Yard House’s extensive list of craft beers or cocktails.
2. Plants push into center of Panera’s plate
Plant-forward eating gains traction every year, but in 2018, its trickle-down onto chain menus has the potential of turning into a flood. In January alone, several burger chains added branded plant-based burgers, and more vegan items are showing up in mainstream concepts. Panera Bread’s new Vegan Lentil Quinoa Broth Bowl and Soba Noodle Broth Bowl with Edamame embrace the plant-forward trend as well as the current popularity of broth and winter comfort foods. Although Panera has offered vegetarian choices in the past, these bowls are clearly promoting plants and appealing to vegans.
3. Olive Garden lightens up
Plants are also getting more attention at Olive Garden, with the addition of spiralized veggie noodles to the menu on Jan. 2. Granted, the Italian-focused chain launched the dish as a lower-calorie, low-carb option for new year’s dieters, but it also incorporates more vegetables into a menu known for ample portions of cheese- and sauce-drenched pastas and meats. The zucchini and yellow squash noodles are combined with whole-grain linguine, tomatoes and garlic in a scampi herb sauce.
4. Downsizing, Red Lobster-style
Snacking is the eating style of the year, especially among younger consumers. Twenty-seven percent of 18- to 34-year-olds would like to purchase snacks at restaurants instead of full meals, according to Technomic, and casual-dining players are starting to take advantage of this trend. Enter Red Lobster’s new Tasting Plates menu, featuring downsized entrees with a price tag to match ($4.99 on average). Options include a petite lobster roll, roasted shrimp in chili-lime butter with caramelized pineapple, loaded fries with clam strips and shrimp potstickers. There’s even a veg-forward option of fried broccoli florets topped with spicy sauce and fried chili peppers.
5. Snacking surges at LSRs
Quick-service and fast-casual concepts are also revving up snacking action with signature nibbles. Sonic Drive-In, which has been attracting between-meal snackers with its beverage lineup, is now moving over to the food side. This month, the QSR launched what it’s calling “the perfect snack”—a soft pretzel twist with cheese sauce for dipping—for $1.99. Au Bon Pain, an early entrant into snack menus with its line of Petit Plates, is snackifying breakfast to satisfy morning munchies. The bakery-cafe chain debuted mini Rise & Shine Rolls filled with bacon, eggs, cheese and herbs—a move that can help snag the second-breakfast customer.
6. Heat hits the sweet spot
The demand for heat is sparking an interest in more complex spicy flavors, per Technomic’s Flavor Consumer Trend Report. While fiery flavors continue to heat up menus, 2018 is seeing a blend of sweet and hot in new items. Bruegger’s created a Sriracha honey cream cheese that flavors the chain’s new Sriracha Honey Sunrise Breakfast Sandwich and its Sweet Heat Turkey Sandwich. Over at Fresh&Co., an eight-unit fast casual based in New York City, a new mac and cheese features a local cheddar cheese sauce and bacon tossed in a sweet-spicy maple syrup.