Food fads come and go, but trends stick around and evolve, a distinction that was echoed in several presentations at Winsight’s Restaurant Directions conference, held in Nashville during the last week of June. The audience of operators from emerging chains learned that today’s top menu trends fall into seven big buckets. Here’s how they look now—and how they are evolving.
1. Better-for-you foods
The demand for healthy options is still strong, but consumers’ perceptions of healthy eating have changed, said Lizzy Freier and Aimee Harvey, menu analysts and managing editors with Technomic. During their Menu Evolutions presentation, they pointed out that terms such as “fresh,” “clean,” “minimally processed” and “nutrient-rich” are now expectations, and consumers will be looking for foods that make them feel better physically and emotionally.
On the radar: Gut-friendly ingredients are on the rise, with turmeric, aloe and labneh—a Middle Eastern-style yogurt—showing up on more menus. Freier noted that the next iteration of health-enhancing foods is starting to emerge. These include lotus root, collagen and skyr.
On the menu: At Kismet, a casual Middle Eastern restaurant in Los Angeles, the menu lists a shareable dish of potatoes with labneh, macadamia nuts, cured scallops and urfa pepper.
2. The power of plants
At a session about discovering menu trends, Neil Doherty, senior director of culinary development for Sysco and corporate executive chef, predicted that plant-forward and plant-based items will make up 50% of menus by 2025. Freier and Harvey also highlighted plants as a top trend, showing how consumers are expanding their veggie palates, moving on from kale, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Chefs are responding, elevating other vegetables—particularly carrots—to center-of-the-plate status.
On the radar: On the food side, protein-rich lentils, chickpeas and other pulses are on the upswing as meat substitutes, showing up in burgers, grain bowls and salads. But the beverage side of the menu is also seeing a lot of plant action: veggies, herbs and florals are being used in cocktails, smoothies and juice blends.
On the menu: The bar at P.Y.T, a veggie-focused restaurant in Los Angeles, is stocked with juices pressed from beets, celery, red bell pepper and carrots. The seasonally changing cocktail list includes a celery margarita made with celery juice, tequila, lime and agave.
3. Labor-saving dishes
With the continuing shortage of kitchen workers and other back-of-house staff, operators will continue to seek out high-quality ingredients that reduce the need for labor, said Doherty. He suggested that chefs and menu developers write recipes for the menu and spec products in three ways, depending on employee count and skill level: primary (using mostly value-added products), intermediate (speed-scratch prep) and advanced (chef-driven).
On the radar: Suppliers are offering labor-saving products with a health halo, such as individually quick-frozen (IQF) grains and riced cauliflower that can go into plant-based dishes.
On the menu: At Protein Bar & Kitchen, a fast casual based in Chicago, customers can now swap out quinoa for riced cauliflower and cut the carbs in a bowl, such as the top-selling spinach and pesto with chicken, spinach and Parmesan.
4. Global flavor exploration
Younger consumers are more interested in trying ethnic flavors than they were a year ago, according to Technomic’s Flavor Consumer Trend Report, cited by Freier and Harvey in their presentation. Some niche global cuisines have now gone mainstream, including Peruvian and Korean. For example, gochujang, the Korean condiment that many culinary trend watchers called “the next Sriracha,” is now one of the fastest-growing ingredients on menus, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor. Chefs are now digging deeper into Asian and Latin cuisines, menuing dishes with Malaysian and Filipino roots.
On the radar: With Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences still strong, flavors and preparations from Balkan cuisine are starting to emerge. Turkish ingredients, such as grilled halloumi, nar eksisi (a condiment made from pomegranates) and urfa (a chili pepper) are making inroads on menus.
On the menu: BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant in Washington, D.C., serves a wood-grilled halloumi board with prosciutto-wrapped black mission figs, local pistachio honey, pickled onions and house levain.
5. Sauces as differentiators
Variations on housemade sauces and traditional condiments, such as mustard and salsa, are a way to introduce ethnic flavors and differentiate menu items without scaring off customers. Now operators are experimenting with local flavors, such as Nashville hot sauce, Mississippi comeback sauce and Carolina gold barbecue sauce, said Freier and Harvey. Next up: a deeper dive into Asian condiments.
On the radar: Several spicy or slightly funky Asian sauces are on the rise, now that gochujang has taken off, and are starting to impact menus. These include ssamjang (up 20%), XO sauce (up 3.7%) and koji, a fermented condiment.
On the menu: Hot and spicy ssamjang is flavoring butters, barbecue sauces and glazes used with meats, seafood and vegetable proteins. Vedge in Philadelphia menus ssamjang-glazed tofu as a vegetarian entree.
6. Social media-driven menus
Instagram and Twitter are influencing menu development, as restaurants compete by playing up the “wow” factor in preparations and presentations, said Freier and Harvey. Doherty agreed, recommending that operators study these social media channels to discover the latest trends. Towering builds and unique mashups are still in the spotlight, but some concepts are now grabbing customer’s attention with glitter and gold. Starbucks’ Crystal Ball Frappuccino was the most publicized of these glittery items, but even brewpubs got into the action with glitter beer, noted Freier and Harvey. And Buffalo Wild Wings recently offered an LTO of wings with an edible gold topping.
On the radar: Popping foods. Operators are using pop rocks and popping crystals to add texture and sound to the eating experience.
On the menu: Denny’s menued Co-Reactor Pancakes with crystal crunch rocks, while Taco Bell served Firecracker Burritos with cayenne popping crystals.
7. Elevated cheap eats
Chefs are playing around with homey ingredients, elevating their humble origins with innovative touches and techniques. Bologna and porridge are both showing up on menus more frequently, often gussied up with regional accents and upscale applications. For example, barley and oat porridge at Les Sablons in Cambridge, Mass., is treated like polenta, topped with savory grilled lamb.
On the radar: Cereal milk is up 33% in menu mentions, showing up in desserts and cocktails. Jell-O is also beginning to get called out in menu descriptions, brand name and all.
On the menu: Omni Hotels mixes up a cocktail called Eight Maids A-Milking, made with vodka and housemade Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal milk.