Staying ahead of the next big menu moves

Technomic’s new State of the Menu report recommends actions chain operators can take to move their menus forward this year.
menu items
More flavor, more unique ingredients and more samplers are among the ways to move menus forward in 2024. | Photo: Shutterstock

Industry forecasters had a lot to say about potential 2024 trends as 2023 wrapped up. And no doubt some of them will pan out.

But now that we’re two months into the new year, Technomic has released its annual State of the Menu 2024 report—a definitive look at the future of menus based on data and insights from Top 500 chain restaurants.

The report points out three big trends moving menus this year and five recommended actions operators can take to stay ahead of the curve.

What’s moving menus

Menu size steadies after the downsizing and streamlining of the pandemic years. Both limited- and full-service menus saw steady year-over-year menu mention increases (from 1.9% to 4.7%.) But the more extensive growth happened around LTOs. Between 2020 and 2023, limited-time item counts went up by 52.7%, a sign that more innovation is taking place in that space rather than with additions to the permanent menu.

Menus embrace more, getting more generous with portions, bold flavors, premium ingredients and detailed menu descriptions. Technomic cites “more is more” as a continuing trend, whether it’s ramping up spicy heat, elevating dishes with luxurious ingredients or taking mashups in unique directions.  

The pricing conundrum is impacting restaurant traffic. Menu prices skyrocketed in 2023, but consumers may be saying “enough is enough.” There are indications that customers are trading down from full-service to quick-serve restaurants or trading out of foodservice entirely. Operators are finding they have to adapt to consumers’ changing definition of value—both in terms of price and the value they place on a unique experience.

Along with laying out these three overriding forces, the State of the Menu report offers five actionable recommendations chain restaurants can start working on now.

Menu extensions go a long way to power up profits. Experiment with ways to work existing SKUs into new meal occasions or innovative dishes. Mashups are a proven way to drive incremental traffic, so Technomic advises operators to lean into unique flavor and ingredient combinations.

Get specific about menu descriptions. Menu items with highly transparent descriptors drive craveability and the more details provided, the more premium a dish appears to be. Be choosy about using words to enhance a preparation style, specify a portion size, explain a lesser-known ingredient or describe a heat level or flavor profile; too much wordiness can overwhelm the diner.

Look to LTOs to excite customers, create demand and temporarily expand the menu. While a limited-time offer can take time and labor to develop, Technomic suggests partnering with a supplier to attach a proprietary product to the item and bring it back to the menu on a seasonal basis.

Experiment with new flavors and presentations. Seasonal and less mainstream global flavors are in demand and generate excitement with consumers. Trial new and unexpected flavors in non-risky ways, like adding a new sauce option to a burger or wings or playing around with a different chili pepper in a quesadilla. On the presentation front, eye-catching foods and drinks build social media buzz.

More is more continues as a menu theme in 2024. Although restaurant traffic may be falling off, average checks are still high. Pricier, more premium ingredients and menu items are selling, with surf and turf one of the most popular LTOs in Technomic’s ranking and caviar the fastest growing flavor on full-service menus. “More” doesn’t have to mean upscale ingredients; it’s important to find the definition of “more” that best fits your brand and concept.

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