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How chains are creating seasonal hits

As the weather cools, consumers are looking for more than just holiday flavors.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Consumers have become highly attuned to the seasonality of foods, and they’re looking for restaurants to create seasonal menu items that they aren’t likely to be able to make at home.

In fact, about one-third of consumers say their preferences change depending on the season, and 65% of consumers say describing an item as seasonal enhances the flavor, according to Technomic’s 2017 Flavor Consumer Trend Report. This represents an opportunity for operators to incorporate the seasonal ingredients their customers are looking for, such as butternut squash or sweet potato, and to call them out on the menu.

Traditional holiday staples will always be a draw for customers, but operators need to think creatively to differentiate themselves from competitors and drive higher guest checks.

Offer alternative proteins

One way to offer a unique holiday menu is to feature local game meats rather than traditional ham or turkey entrees. At fine-dining destination Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank, N.J., the early fall, three-course prix fixe menu last year included Venison Wellington, with parsnip puree and huckleberry, while the early winter three-course menu included a Wild Boar Raviolo with ricotta impastata and game jus, and a Braised Buffalo Short Rib with heirloom broccoli and burnt onion puree.

Restaurant Daniel in New York also featured game meats on the menu last fall with a Four Course Game Dinner Tasting Menu. Dishes included options made with wild bird consomme; grilled breast of wood pigeon; roasted venison and more.

Quick-service chain Arby’s joined the hunt for game-hungry customers in October 2016 when it debuted its venison sandwich for a limited time in, then followed in October 2017 with an elk sandwich and, last October, a duck sandwich in areas where duck hunting is popular.

Similarly, operators can consider other alternative poultry dishes such as Cornish game hens. Legal Sea Foods included Pan-Roasted Cornish Game Hen on a four-course menu last year for the Shea Vineyards Oregon Wine Dinner. The dish was served with wild rice stuffing, rosemary au jus and kabocha squash.

Spotlight produce

Plant-forward dishes featuring seasonal vegetables such as acorn or harvest butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and root vegetables are also ideal for fall and winter menus.

Houlihan’s last year added a Fall Farmers Market Bowl with house-made white bean and artichoke hummus, queso fresco, turmeric yogurt, brown rice and quinoa, roasted hot honey acorn squash, balsamic beets and Brussels sprouts, served with a warm pita.

At Red Star Tavern in Portland, Ore., the Autumn Risotto last fall featured foraged mushrooms, butternut squash, black kale and smoked ricotta.

And last year, The Rock Center Café in New York—a major holiday destination for tourists in the Big Apple—offered an Autumn Vegetable Stew as an entree option on its dinner three-course prix fixe menu. Ingredients included root vegetables and saffron-scented couscous.

Communicate specials to customers

One of the most important ways operators can make their seasonal and holiday dishes stand out is though menu descriptions that highlight their seasonality. Terms such as “Autumn harvest vegetable medley” or “Roasted winter vegetables” help set the tone for consumers seeking a unique seasonal experience. Flavors such as butternut squash and baked potato help round out the experience for consumers.

By focusing on new ways to offer the warm, comforting dishes consumers expect on seasonal menus, operators can help generate excitement and boost sales.

This post is sponsored by Campbell's Foodservice

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