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A look at the good, and bad, menu developments from 2021

Sweet & Sour: The debut column from Nancy Kruse and Peter Romeo focuses on the good, the bad and the ugly from the year that was.
Kruse-Romeo column
Photo courtesy of KFC

Sweet and Sour

Editors note: Sweet & Sour is a monthly column featuring Nancy Kruse, Restaurant Business menu trends columnist and founder of The Kruse Company, and RB Editor-at-Large Peter Romeo.

Nancy Kruse: ‘Tis the season, Peter, which means that while visions of sugar plums are dancing in my head, restaurant marketers are making merry with the merch. As I write this, I’m bundled up in my handsome A&W Restaurants’ Cheddar Weather Varsity Jacket with my Mariah x McDonald’s Beanie on my head. To further keep the winter chill at bay, I’m sipping on Arby’s French-fry flavored vodka. I’m not sure if I prefer the Curly-Fry Vodka or the Crinkle-Fry version, but at 80 proof, either should leave me properly fortified for a look back at menu developments of 2021

And what developments there were. The fried-chicken juggernaut kept on juggernauting, with no end in sight. All those poor hens could probably use a shot of Arby’s 80 proof right about now, as operators improvised like mad to take advantage of fried-chicken’s unflagging popularity. There was a raft of third-gen fried-chicken dishes like Velvet Taco’s Winner Winner Chicken Dinner Taco, a weekly special that put tenders, mashed potatoes and gravy in a flour tortilla, while patrons of iniBurger could finish with a flourish with the emerging chain’s Nashville Hot Chicken Ice Cream Sandwich. On the second-gen sandwich front, breakout fast-casual player Curry Up Now rolled out a Tandoori Fried Chicken Sandwich to all of its locations; and it appears that at long last, KFC cracked the sandwich code with a well-received, fresh-from-the-fryer handheld.

Speaking of all those poor hens, they gave up their wings in record numbers, as the chicken wing thing slowly morphed into a thigh thing. The critical wing shortage and concomitant sky-high prices led to operators’ long overdue, default adoption of a poultry cut that their customers have long spurned. It’s not clear to me that this is a trend that has, pardon me, legs, but the one to watch here is Wingstop, the wildly successful segment leader that launched Thighstop, a virtual flanker brand, last summer.

At the opposite end of the menu R&D spectrum, everywhere you looked you saw the rapid proliferation of super-premium ingredients. Luxe touches constitute a true win-win by giving operators pricing latitude and relief from margin pressure, while providing patrons someplace to spend a bit of the $1.6 trillion in “excess savings” they’ve banked during the shutdown. Fast-casual pizza concept Your Pie launched a limited-time-only White Truffle Pizza as part of its craft series this autumn, and Shake Shack recently converted its Black Truffle Burger and Parmesan Truffle Fries from app-only specials to instore offerings. First Watch offered a truly wonderful Truffle Mushroom Hash for patrons who wanted to start their day in the lap of luxury.

A coveted crustacean made the menu, too, as Claim Jumper jumped in with a Lobster Mac n Cheese Grilled Cheese Sandwich LTO; and Red Lobster amped up its annual Lobster fest in February with the addition of Kung Pao Noodles with Fried Lobster. Meanwhile at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Astros fans could take the sting out of their fresh World Series loss to the Atlanta Braves with a lobster corn dog.

My hands-down favorite Cinderella story of the last 12 months, though, has been vegetable category. We’re witnessing the slow but steady Starbucks-ification of veggies, as chefs add culinary cool to a category that has long been an afterthought. The makeover of the carrot from humble staple to gastronomic glamour puss is a terrific case in point. Blue Duck Tavern in Washington DC is offering a special Carrot Cavatelli with spiced carrot purée and carrot-top salsa verde, while Morrison Healthcare’s Spicy Carrot Buddha Bowl combines harissa-roasted rainbow carrots and spicy carrot hummus with a finish of carrot tops. Both score waste-management points for their use of the greens and double bonus points for creative global accents.

On the subject of carrots, how about Eureka!, the casual dining chain that is no stranger to pushing the menu envelope? This fall they offered a Truffle Mushroom Cheeseburger made with, wait for it, Santa Carota carrot-fed Angus beef. Carrot-finished beef is said to be exceptionally juicy and tender, plus I bet it really helps those steers with their night vision. 

Overlaying all the wonderful menu R&D action this year has been a kind of golden haze. No, wait, Peter, that’s actually Cheetle, the cheese-dust residue left on the hapless chompers of Cheetos. The name was coined just last year, perfect timing for the onslaught of Cheetos-inflected items that have been leaving telltale dayglo traces on so many menus. I was totally smitten with Flamin’ Hot Ice Cream and Shakes, a couple of zany LTOs from Marble Slab Creamery. More recently, my head has been turned by the Korean Hot Dogs from Los Angeles-based Mochinut that are crowned with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos’ dust, an inspired multinational mashup if there ever was one.

But I’ve been most impressed by the Cheetos-inspired promotion at Applebees. While it lasts, patrons can order the boneless wings tossed in either original Cheetos Wing Sauce or Flamin’ Hot Wing Sauce, all coated in crunchy Cheetos crumbles. Now, you’re probably thinking that’s a lot of Cheetle to contend with, but it turns out that orders are accompanied by a Shirtkin, which I guess is what you’d get if a shirt and a napkin had a baby. Anyway, it boasts the latest in “Cheetle-wicking technology,” so that fans can wipe the telltale orange crumblies on their Shirtkin, which is kinder to both their wardrobes and restaurant linens

Whoa, Peter, it seems that the liquid Arby’s is going to my head, so I’ll hand this off to you by using my KFC Finger Lickin’ Chicken Mitten Bucket Hugger that holds a bucketful of wishes. The first go to foodservice operators, who have once again demonstrated the very best of creativity and innovation during the very worst of times. I am humbled by their unstinting style and grace, and I sincerely wish that their days will be both merrier and brighter in 2022. And I wish you the happiest of holiday seasons, too. I look forward with great enthusiasm to our upcoming monthly conversations and humbly thank you for allowing me to add yet another deadline to your busy schedule.

Peter Romeo: Ah, Nancy, so nice to have you aboard! Especially when you have a bottle of 80-proof hooch in each hand. I couldn’t help but notice that both bottles are nearly empty, which explains why your picks of 2021’s notable menu entries have chain operations specialists reaching for a fresh bottle to sample. Maybe some onion-ring-flavored gin, just for a change of pace?

I can see that a theme is already emerging in these give-and-takes. You, as a keen (but occasionally bleary-eyed) observer of restaurant menus, celebrate the outstanding work of your peeps, the R&D folks who are constantly looking for The Next Big Thing. I’m plugged more into the ops crowd, the process specialists who have to make these ideas work in a high-volume chain setting.

That’s why I’m sending a case of straightforward bourbon to my posse—none of that peppermint or French fry-flavored stuff. Given the industry’s labor and supply-chain challenges, and the need for items to travel well, simplicity in the kitchen has never been more important. Indeed, I’d say it’s the imperative of the moment.

Chicken wings certainly fit that bill, since even I could throw some into a fryer. But Carrot Cavatelli or Flaming Hot Ice Cream?

I don’t disagree with your list. I just wonder how much staying power some of those complex selections may have.

Indeed, I’ll bet you a Colonel Sanders Bearskin Rug that the currents likely to be with us well into 2022 will be the unadorned and straightforward—more brisket items, for instance, with nary a speck of Cheetos dust to kick up the flavor. The brisket that Chipotle featured as an LTO in 2021 may have been the best fast-food product I’ve ever tasted.

Not coincidentally, the meat was offered as an ingredient of the chain’s salad and rice-based bowls. If there’s one trend that I’d add to your list, it would be the head-turning increase in bowl versions of just about any dish you can imagine. Here again, it was simplicity and the promise of traveling well via delivery or takeout.

Now, pass over one of those near-empty bottles so we can slur out a toast to the year in menu-making and the new alliance between Restaurant Business and The Kruse Company. Just keep those KFC-scented logs to yourself.

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