Serving up value

by Allison Sebolt
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A variety of restaurants are discounting items — McDonald’s has a well-established value meal, KFC recently introduced a value meal, Dairy Queen has its "Sweet Deals" menu, and T.G.I. Friday’s has a "Right Portion, Right Price" menu. Clearly, value is one of the most important considerations on the menu right now.

"Things like healthy have taken a backseat to value and comfort foods," said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president for Technomic, Inc., Chicago. "There is a trend toward more hearty foods that are more filling, more all-you-can-eat. This is an age where buffets are going to be doing better because they represent higher value."

But Maria Caranfa, director of Mintel’s Menu Insights, Chicago, said she believes healthy items are still important and consumers are still interested in health and wellness. At the same time, she said such items potentially may cost significantly more, which may be prohibitive to consumers.

"Healthy menu items need to be an integrated part of the menu and priced at comparable prices to other menu items," Ms. Caranfa said.

Value meals are not just being found at fast-food or lower-priced restaurants, there also are discounted meals being offered at high-end restaurants as well, such as Morton’s The Steakhouse offering a $99 dinner for two.

In addition, Sullivan’s steakhouse is introducing various value-priced meals for under $30. Their "contender" menu, for example, offers popular menu options for under $25.

With so much focus on discounting and providing value, the question becomes how restaurants are able to afford to offer such deals in the economic environment.

"The new reality today isn’t how to be successful, it’s how to survive," Mr. Tristano said. "When you look at these value meals and recognize the price points, you have to realize that most restaurants are using these value price points as loss leaders — as a way to get traffic through the doors, as a way to generate sales, and as a way to ideally upgrade customers into a higher check average."

As evidence of how these value meals work for restaurants, Mr. Tristano and Ms. Caranfa noted how McDonald’s has consistently attributed its value menu to driving sales and business, and Ms. Caranfa said T.G.I. Friday’s has increased its profits through its "Right Portion, Right Price" menu.

Both Mr. Tristano and Ms. Caranfa noted how comfort foods are becoming more popular. Ms. Caranfa even included comfort foods in Mintel’s top menu trends for 2009, saying they are what people crave when they are feeling down. Restaurants are expected to add more comfort foods by increasing use of slow-cooking, with slow-baked, slow-grilled, braised and poached becoming "it" preparation methods.

In terms of specific menu items increasing in popularity, Mr. Tristano said there are more chicken products showing up on menus because it is a lower-cost item.

In a Poultry Consumer Trend Report, Technomic said while chicken has risen in price, its ability to convey value to consumers has allowed it to sustain appeal even as consumers trade down in terms of restaurant spending. Specifically, last May McDonald’s said it will introduce a new chicken item every year through 2011. In fact, salads with grilled or crispy chicken, chicken snack wraps and Southern-style chicken biscuits and sandwiches are huge attractions on the menu of the traditional burger chain. Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, KFC and Wendy’s all have followed McDonald’s lead with the introduction of more chicken items.

In addition, Mr. Tristano said there are more sandwiches showing up on menus, and upscale burger options are expanding on many menus. Also, the premium dessert category is growing, but not necessarily in ice cream. Specifically, gelato chains such as Ciao Bella and frozen yogurt eateries such as Pinkberry and Red Mango have been quite successful.

Ethnic foods also are popular, with Asian foods such as Korean, Thai and Indian cuisines growing in reach.

"Our taste palates are waking up to global cuisine," Mr. Tristano said. "So we are starting to see a lot of our younger generation looking for something more challenging and different."

Mr. Tristano said recent food safety issues will have an impact on menus as consumers are paying more attention to the safety of their foods.

"Having the right types of food, or the least risky foods, on the menu are important so you aren’t in a position when the next big food scare comes out to be at a disadvantage," Mr. Tristano said.

Ms. Caranfa said there has been an element of fun in recently introduced menu items, and this includes "mini" foods — mini sandwiches, mini-desserts, etc.

"Mini-foods are really a perfect balance of sensibility and satisfaction," Ms. Caranfa said.

She said there have been a lot of small tweaks on popular menu cuisines, noting Mediterranean cuisine as an example. Such cuisine is often thought of as Italian or Greek food, but restaurants are putting in a few more ingredients and key words (such as Spanish olive oil or Greek olives) to make it seem more authentic.

Ms. Caranfa also said "storytelling" is an important menu trend. This simply means using key words to bring out positive emotions in the descriptions of items, and these may include "heart-smart," "skinny," "guilt-free," "health-conscious," "hugs and smiles," "restore" and "cool down."

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