2011 menu insights

by Allison Gibeson
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Having locally sourced food on the menu is increasingly becoming an expectation for consumers when visiting some restaurant formats, industry experts say. In addition, value, sustainability, a “back-to-the-basics” approach and the popularity of food trucks will be influential food service trends in the coming year.

According to the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” chef survey, the top trends for restaurants in the coming year include locally sourced meats and seafood, locally grown produce, sustainability, nutritionally balanced children’s dishes, hyper-local (restaurant gardens, for example), children’s nutrition, sustainable seafood, being allergen conscious, simplicity and back to the basics, and farm and estate-branded ingredients.

“Consumer’s palates have become more sophisticated,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice-president of the research and knowledge group at the N.R.A., Washington. “In general, restaurant patrons are much more interested in knowing the story behind the food they are served. That can range from where the different items are sourced, or it can include the different cooking techniques. Both menus and restaurant web sites have become important in telling this food story to consumers.”

Mr. Riehle said helping the consumer develop a connection with the local items is important. He said freshness is a growing concern for consumers, so if a restaurant operator may reduce the amount of time in transit for a produce item, then that may make a difference in the taste and flavor sensation of dishes.

Restaurants also are using web sites to tell the story of what’s on the menu, and this will continue to be an important way of communicating with consumers. In addition, restaurants are promoting specific farms and ranches, with full-service formats doing this the most.

Darren Tristano, executive vice-president at Technomic, Inc., said there always will be consumers looking for deals and others focusing on indulgence. As a result, most restaurants are creating a ladder strategy with higher-end items that are higher priced and lower-end items that are more portion-controlled. With this tack, he said restaurants are looking for optimization. Restaurant operators want to understand the core items they have to have and how much room they have to play around with because menus are becoming so bulky consumers are having trouble finding what they want.

Brand promotion efforts

Mr. Tristano said restaurants will continue to use social media as a promotional vehicle, and they are using it as a way to better understand what their loyal customer base wants as well as what items to put on the menu and which items to keep.

“How a restaurant promotes value and the value equation to the customer is going to be the most important thing,” Mr. Tristano said. “Customers need to know they are going to get value at this restaurant because that’s going to be a big consideration for where a customer chooses to go out. Loyalty seems to be slipping in this economic climate, so alternatives become greater options. If a brand can continue to promote its value to its customers — that will probably be the most relevant.”

Technomic emphasized food trucks will play an important role in the coming year as restaurants are using trucks as brand extensions and catering aids. Restaurants use social media to advertise the location and gather a following for the trucks. For example, the Burgerville chain in the Northwest uses food trucks as an extension of its kitchen so they may increase revenue out of existing stores. There also are areas emerging where food trucks are stationary and resemble something like a food truck park. Mr. Tristano said use of trucks may be seen more

from limited-service restaurants. On the other hand, fast-casual brand extensions of full-service restaurants are popping up as a way of extending a brand. For example, Denny’s now has an express location.

As menu labeling laws become the norm, restaurants will introduce more limited-time items to bypass requirements to post calories, and there will be more “healthy” menus advertised as items being under a specific amount of calories. Overall, Mr. Tristano said restaurants most likely will not reduce calories by that much but will more heavily promote their existing foods.

Tracking menu flavor trends

In terms of flavors consumers may start seeing on menus in 2011, McCormick, Hunt Valley, Md., said in its annual “Flavor Forecast” that fennel and peri-peri sauce, pickling spice and rice vinegar, roasted curry powder and wild mushrooms, caramelized honey and adzuki red beans, and ancho chile pepper and hibiscus will be the most popular flavors in the coming year. Overall, consumers are getting more adventurous in what flavors they try.

“Whether it’s the unexpected zing of hibiscus in a Latin-inspired ancho chile sauce for ribs or brisket or a clever twist on a cheesecake tart with an herb-popcorn crust, this year’s flavors really take the taste buds to exhilarating new places,” said Larry Tong, McCormick chef.

According to Mintel International, Chicago, seasonal flavors will be of importance

to restaurant patrons.

“For restaurants, seasonal dishes are a natural way to draw interest, but the challenge is not to simply add items to the menu, but to add items that resonate with your current customers and have enough seasonal interest to draw potential guests,” said Kathy Hayden, food service analyst at Mintel.

Specifically, Mintel said in 2009 food and beverage menu items featuring fall ingredients and flavors such as pumpkin, squash, apple, cinnamon, caramel and hazelnut increased by 13% from the summer to fall season.

Despite the trends driving the industry, Mr. Tristano said it is unlikely that in the next year restaurants will get back to the level of performance seen before the recession, and it will be a long time before that level of performance is seen again. He said for 2010 Technomic expects nominal growth of about 1.5% — still a decline when considering inflation — and in 2011 Technomic expects 2% to 3% growth. Mr. Riehle said restaurant industry sales reached $580 billion in 2010.

“Growth in the restaurant industry is driven by convenience, consumers need for socialization as well as growth in consumer’s real disposable income,” Mr. Riehle said.

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