Restaurateurs are giving their menus an upgrade

State of the Plate: Menu trends columnist Nancy Kruse examines operators' push to make their menus more experiential with options such as truffle and caviar.
Ike's Love and Sandwiches
Ike's Arrow from Ike's Love and Sandwiches is for its loyalty club members. | Photo courtesy of Ike's Love and Sandwiches.

State of the Plate

Marketers across the broad spectrum of business sectors have adopted “experiential” as their buzzword du jour and guiding light in drawing customers; and supermarket executives in particular have wholeheartedly embraced the concept.

In just the past few weeks, the CEO of The Fresh Market vowed to “prioritize the customer experience first,” while execs from Trader Joe’s touted the “experience of being inside the four walls” as intrinsic to their success.

The four walls of Fresh Take, opening soon in Georgia, with be positively bursting at the seams with experiential elements, like a barbecue smokehouse and a five-hole putting green—this last a nod to its Augusta location. The retailer is promising a blend of convenience, culinary indulgence and leisure, a bundle of benefits rarely seen at retail grocery.

Cyclical doldrums? While the importance of the experiential is nothing new to restaurateurs, it has gained greater currency of late. In their recent report on The End of the Spending Spree, the consultants at AlixPartners talk about “more experiential dollars now comprising wallet-share” of restaurant expenditures and forecast a permanent shift to more intentional, experiential restaurant purchases.

It may be a little premature to predict a permanent shift, since current consumer behavior is consistent with that of past periods of economic challenge, and in any case, the consultancy’s recommendations to create a more meaningful dine-in experience at full service and to focus on premium products at quick service are already standards in the operator playbook.

From the menu perspective, however, what does feel different this time around is how far upscale operators are willing to travel and the extent to which these efforts are fueled by supply-side innovation.

Digging truffles. The post-pandemic period has seen truffle products rapidly crossing over from fine dining to the mass market, ably abetted by domestic truffle producers.

While it has taken some time to take off, the US truffle industry is finally finding its footing. The North American Truffle Growers Association reports that there are now 200 truffle installations here, and market analysts note that advancements in cultivation and the growth of truffle farming have facilitated the introduction of further-processed items like truffle oils, sauces and condiments.

Chains are responding. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews, for example, invited patrons to dine in the lap of luxury this spring with a limited-time Five Star Flavors menu that showcased the Tycoon Burger with a mushroom-and-truffle aioli that also topped Cheesy Bacon Truffle Fries.

Next Level Burger lives up to its name with the Redwood Truffle Burger made with a shiitake mushroom-and-white truffle patty, and speaking of white truffles, Shake Shack, which introduced black truffle sauce in 2020, has upped its game with the White Truffle Burger, White Truffle ‘Shroom Burger and Parmesan Fries with White Truffle Sauce. Per CEO Randy Garutti, the objective is to entice guests to trade down from full-service restaurants.

Of course, burger meisters aren’t alone in their fascination with the fungus. Taco Bell topped Loaded Nacho Fries with truffle-flavored hot sauce, Macaroni Grill stepped up with Parmesan Truffle Fries and Starbird unleashed a quartet comprising Truffle Bird Sandwich, Truffle Tenders, Truffle Wings and Truffle Fries.

Spooning caviar. Arguably at the apex of the gourmet-food pyramid, caviar is also being democratized thanks to increased farming both here and overseas, as well as its adoption as snack of choice by relentless TikTokers. Its increased presence on menus caused Eater San Francisco to kvetch last year that San Franciso Has Officially Reached Peak Caviar and to lament that the product, once a stylish and exclusive New Year’s Eve tradition, was now “being thrown at local diners from every corner of the Bay Area dining scene.” Let’s hope nobody got hurt.

While most chains have yet to reach a caviar peak, let alone fling the stuff at patrons, it is appearing in polished casual operations like Carson Kitchen, where it garnishes the Devil’s Egg appetizer, and at The Rusty Pelican in Key Biscayne, where it tops Yukon Gold Caviar Frites.   

Unsurprisingly, Ocean Prime, the high-end seafood emporium that promises glitz and glam, dishes up some briny glam by way of White Truffle Caviar Deviled Eggs, while the Las Vegas outpost ups the ante with a high-rolling caviar-and-vodka service.

apostle chicken fried lobster

The Apostle Supper Club's Chicken Fried Lobster. | Photo courtesy of The Apostle Supper Club.

Loving lobster. The king of the crustacean family, lobster has found an egalitarian home at restaurants of all stripes. Limited-service chains are onboard with limited-time offers like Pokeworks’ Luxe Lobster Bowl and Quiznos’ Classic Lobster Sub.

All-day cafe customers can indulgein lobster before lunch. Turning Point celebrated summer with Lobsta-Cado Toast and Seas the Day Lobster Mac and Cheese, and Another Broken Egg Cafe tempted with a nifty Lobster Hash Benedict, made doubly extravagantwith truffle-seasoned mushrooms. For later in the day, O’Charley’s offers recurring specials like Lobster Quesadilla and Lobster Bisque.

The Apostle Supper Club builds buzz in the Twin Cities with a retro-tiki vibe that includes a piano bar, fireplace lounge and cool dishes like Chicken Fried Lobster, a high-low item that combines a down-home technique with uptown touches like ponzu aioli, macerated citrus onions and black truffle.

Gold digging. Pedigreed proteins are proven patron pleasers, and more chains are addressing the opportunity with Wagyu beef, the prized Japanese breed coveted for its rich marbling.

American-bred Wagyu is a hybrid that makes the meat affordable and accessible, and Capriotti’s Sandwich Shops has successfully promoted its use of Snake River Farms’ American Wagyu for the past several years. More recently, Panda Express Innovation Kitchen experimented with Spicy Wagyu Beef Dumplings.

Fast-growing Ike’s Love and Sandwiches went way outside the box with an ultra-luxurious sandwich crafted exclusively for Ike’s Reward Members. Ike’s Arrow was made with Wagyu pastrami, purple slaw, pickle, Havarti and a savory dressing created just for this for this limited-time special.

On the subject of luxury, diners are being dazzled by a sudden menu gold rush. Sexy Fish opened in Miami last year with Sexy Gold Fish & Crispy Caviar made with gold-flaked sea bass served with caviar. Not to outdone, nearby Papi Steak garnered attention with its $1,000 tomahawk steak presented in a gold-and-rhinestone studded briefcase. To underscore its exclusivity, orders are limited to 10 per night, and despite the lofty price point, customers don’t get to keep the case.

While numerous high-end restaurants have been busily mining the menu, few chains have joined the gold rush. One exception is the Insta-friendly 24K Burger at Slater’s 50/50’s location in Las Vegas. Here, the brioche bun is dusted in 24-karat gold, as is the bacon, which is stacked upon a half-pound Wagyu beef patty and truffle cheese.

Experiential outlook.Restaurant industry recovery post-Covid has been complicated by inflationary pressures, supermarket resurgence and escalating competition across segments. But we’ve been through tough times before, and savvy operators who recognize the menu as their primary means of customer connection and who double down on menu innovation ultimately prevail.

The good news is that the premium menu experience in which small touches score big points is achievable by all operators; it’s not just about gold-plated truffles. Consider how Buffalo Wild Wings stepped things up with a limited-edition, premium-branded Bulleit Bourbon BBQ Sauce, a sexier take and a smarter value add vs. conventional barbecue sauce.

And McDonald’s recently announced two new sauce flavors, Sweet & Spicy Jam Sauce and Mambo Sauce. The launch helpfully included suggested menu pairings, a fun, experiential tactic if there ever was one.

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