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8 trends from 108 restaurant visits. Did we mention the 1,151 meals?

Plenty of chefs make it a habit to visit a slew of restaurants in search of trends and menu ideas. Gerry Ludwig takes it to an extreme. Every year the corporate consulting chef for Gordon Food Service, a foodservice distributor, blitzes more restaurants in a matter of days than most peers hit in a year. This year’s tally: 1,151 meals from 108 restaurants. The tour ended just three weeks ago.

Here, as he revealed at this week’s MenuDirections 2015 conference, an event presented by FoodService Director magazine for onsite foodservice professionas, are the eight trends that jumped out at him.  Ludwig went a step further and highlight the ideas that struck him as stealable.

1. Healthy coast-to-coast

Healthy options are nothing new on menus, but Ludwig sees healthy food taking off in new directions.

For example, ReViVer in New York City scores each menu item on four principles: balance, nutrition, purity and how “clean” it is. But flavor comes first, as evidenced by menu items such as Basque Shrimp with smoky paprika sauce over greens—an upscale dish that sells for about $12 in the fast casual.

The Harvest Bar, a.k.a. “the super food café” in Sherman Oaks, Calif., uses readymade frozen acai puree and dragon fruit puree as the base for breakfast bowls, adding fruit, nuts and other toppings.

Tip: Create a scoring system for your menu to instantly guide customers toward healthier options.

2. The explosion of egg dishes

“The runny egg trend is not over,” Ludwig says. Sandwiches are just the start—sunnyside-up eggs are appearing on salads, bowls, and more, at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Eggslut in L.A.’s Grand Central Market has lines out the door waiting for the restaurant’s unique bacon-egg-cheese sandwich, a.k.a.“the BEC.” The signature sandwich is made with heritage-pork bacon, runny eggs and farmstead cheddar and topped with flavorful condiments such as chipotle ketchup or honey mustard aioli. There are other egg-centric concepts across the country, including Egg Shop in New York and Eastman Egg Company in Chicago, Ludwig observed.

Tip: Runny eggs not only add value and flavor to menu items, they can serve as a primary or secondary sauce.

3. Take comfort in using broth

Bone broth is everywhere, from the Brodo takeout window of New York City’s Hearth restaurant, to Asian Box, a multiunit concept in California doing chicken and beef broth that customers can upgrade to a noodle bowl.

Operators are adding dumplings, shiitake mushrooms, roasted garlic puree, bone marrow and other extras to amp up flavor and substance. Bone broth is a very concentrated source of protein known for its restorative properties and Ludwig predicts it will soon be as popular as fresh-pressed juices.

Tip: Provide extras such as dumplings, shiitake mushrooms, roasted garlic puree, bone marrow and hot sauces so guests can customize their broth or turn it into a meal in a bowl.

4. Put a toaster on the table

Chicago’s Baker Miller mills its own flour and bakes its own bread. At the restaurant, every table has a toaster so guests can custom-toast their bread, then head to a communal table laden with a variety of jams and spreads to finish it off.

Tip: Differentiate breakfast service by putting self-service toasters on tables.

5. Mucho matcha

Throughout his travels, Ludwig noticed operators making their own kombucha, the lightly fermented drink, serving it on tap and adding flavorings and spices to ramp it up.

The beverage has legs, but he concluded that matcha—the finely powdered green tea—will be mainstream within 24 months. New York City is a hotbed for matcha—the team sipped matcha lattes, matcha hot chocolate and Fuji apple ginger iced matcha, among other specialty matcha beverages.

Tip: Latte art—the designs barristas create in the foam—can upsell hot matcha drinks just as it bolsters interest in coffee.

6. Spoon-tender sandwich meats

Restaurants are going beyond beef, braising pork, chicken, lamb and goat in rich broths or seasoned liquids and then layering the meats with other flavorful ingredients in sandwiches. One of Ludwig’s favorite examples is Untamed Sandwiches in New York City, where condiments such as walnut pesto and pickled Thai chilies add layers of flavor.

Tip: All meats are fair game, including secondary parts, such as chicken drumsticks and lamb necks that yield tremendous value for low cost when braised and topped with zesty condiments.

7. Good-bye vegetarian, hello veg-centric

Chefs are devoting large or separate sections of the menu to vegetables, Ludwig said, treating them to “aggressive cooking methods.” These include roasting whole cauliflower or eggplant on the rotisserie, a technique used at New York City’s Narcissa, or grilling meaty oyster mushrooms with tarragon butter, a specialty of Gjelina restaurant in Venice, Calif. These vegetable dishes may have “garnishes” of housemade ricotta cheese, white cured anchovies or crispy chicken skin; they are not vegetarian but clearly have been elevated to the center of the plate.

Tip: The rotisserie that usually spins chicken, duck or meats in a restaurant can be used to roast heads of cauliflower, whole eggplant, bell peppers and squash—making a visual and culinary statement to guests.

8. Root-to-stem cooking

Following in the steps of the nose-to-tail movement, some chefs are treating vegetables like others treat animals. They are using every part of the vegetable, including potato peels, corncobs, chard stems and radish tops, to get as close to 100 percent yield as possible. Chef Joe Isidori of Chalk Point Kitchen in New York City uses stems from parsley and other herbs in salads, for example.

Tip: Instead of throwing vegetable scraps into the garbage or compost heap, throw them back on the plate to truly reduce waste. 

MenuDirections draws menu planners and nutritionists from so-called non-commercial facilities, including the feeding operations of hospitals, continuing care facilities, colleges, universities, schools and employee dining rooms.  FoodService Director is a sister publication of Restaurant Business. 

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