Slideshow: A dish by any other name

by Monica Watrous
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CHICAGO — Cheese has lost its meaning on menus.

Diners want to know more these days. What kind of cheese is it? From where was it sourced? How is it prepared? Is it gluten-free?

Slideshow: Top growing menu terms.

More than ever, operators are peppering menus with extra detail to appeal to a savvier consumer.

“Operators are being more and more descriptive with what they’re offering on the menu,” said Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential, a market research firm. “They’re taking more space to provide information about each and every dish that they have there. As a result, everything is becoming a lot more specific. It’s not enough now to say you have cheese on the burger.”

The top growing descriptors on menus, according to Datassential, reflect trends in healthful dining and indulgence. Red beets and Brussels sprouts rank high among such fatty proteins as short ribs and pork belly. From Nutella to Sriracha, complex flavors remain red-hot.

Combining on-trend flavors and ingredients with the top penetrating proteins or preparations results in a familiar dish with a unique twist, Ms. Webster said.

“It’s not a lamb dish with Sriracha and a whole bunch of other flavors where people are like, ‘I don’t know what half of that is, and I don’t like the other half,’” Ms. Webster said. “If you use some of these top preparations or flavors to create something that has an unusual element to it, you are creating something that’s a little safer to experiment with.”

While restaurant users are more educated about ingredients and preparations, the majority still may prefer chicken to charcuterie. Such trending terms as broccolini and burrata have less than a 2% penetration in U.S. chain and independent restaurants.

“The reality is that if you look at the industry broadly, the vast majority of restaurants are catering to the mass markets,” she said. “You certainly have the independent operators who are probably offering more unique options, but between the chains and a lot of the mom-and-pops that are in middle America, if you will, they’re really catering toward consumers who are relatively risk- and experimentation-adverse.”

Many of the top growing ingredients or flavors featured in appetizers, entrees, sides and desserts are mainstream-bound or beyond.

Click for a slideshow of the 18 top growing menu terms.
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