An inside look at the James Beard Awards, McAlister's menu expansion and creamsicle drinks

Menu Talk: Pat and Bret dig into the latest food and drink news happening in the industry.

This week on Menu Talk, Restaurant Business Senior Menu Editor Pat Cobe and Bret Thorn, senior food and beverage editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, share their take on some recent hot topics.

The James Beard Foundation announced the finalists in the restaurant and chef categories, naming nominees in 22 categories, including both national regional honorees. While culinary skill and operational excellence still play into the awards, a positive work culture and community involvement are now key criteria for a nomination. And, since the pandemic, the foundation completely overhauled the program to bring more diversity into the awards selection process, including broader geographic representation. 

These changes have caused a bit of controversy in the industry, as some think well-regarded chefs in larger cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago have been largely overlooked. Pat and Bret weigh in on the revised criteria and discuss the cachet the James Beard Awards hold for the winners.

Mike Freeman

Mike Freeman, CEO of McAlister's Deli

Mike Freeman, CEO of McAlister’s Deli, joins the podcast to share the brand’s menu evolution. It started with breakfast catering, launched last year when the fast casual was under the former Focus Brands banner. Earlier this year, Focus Brands was renamed GoTo Foods, transforming into a “platform business” centralizing many tech and supply chain functions among the seven restaurant concepts.

McAlister’s Deli was the first to become a $1 billion brand, with menu innovation a major force in achieving that sales benchmark, Freeman believes.

“We spent a lot of time and energy focusing on revenue channels and finding opportunities for meeting our guests where they want to be met,” he said on the podcast. “There’s been lots of attention placed on our catering innovation, expanding our reach from the beginning of the day to the end of the day.” Snacks, desserts, and beverages also got a refresh, and a new “semi-homemade” category provides takeout options.

Speaking of beverages, new ones keep flowing out of the pipeline. Lately, we noticed orange creamsicle drinks on several menus. The nostalgic flavor taps into childhood summers. With summer fast approaching, we will probably see more of these retro frozen treats showing up on beverage menus.

Menu Talk is a collaboration between Restaurant Business Senior Menu Editor Pat Cobe and Bret Thorn, senior food & beverage editor of Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. You can subscribe to it wherever you listen to podcasts.


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