Whole grains, passion fruit and upgraded proteins were prominent menu trends during the first quarter of 2013, said Elizabeth Freier, associate editor for food service researcher Technomic.

“A lot of concepts now are focusing on what’s been removed in certain healthy menu items … but a lot of the focus may be turning to what healthy elements the food actually contains … which many consumers are now viewing as just as important as what the food lacks,” Ms. Freier said.

New whole grain options on menus during the first quarter included Auntie Anne’s Honey Whole Grain Pretzel, Jamba Juice’s Jamba Kids Meals and Sandella’s Flatbread Cafe’s Whole-Grain Flatbread. New Passion fruit products included Baskin-Robbins’ Berry Passionate Frozen Yogurt, Tropical Smoothie Cafe’s Passion Fruit Smoothie and Lucille’s Smokehouse’s Spiced Rum Punch.

Upgraded proteins included products such as Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard’s new chicken platform, Long John Silver’s offering of an upgraded shrimp product and Taco Bell’s introduction of an improved steak.

Ms. Freier said upgraded proteins were especially seen as important in quick-service where consumers are concerned about the quality of the meats being offered and are looking for transparency in sourcing.
Other big menu trends included bowl presentations; cheese-heavy sides; indulgent breakfast sandwiches; classic cocktails; freebies, buy-one, get-ones and deep discounts; and wraps.

She said bowl presentations are especially popular in fast-casual restaurants because they provide a platform for rice or grains and a protein plus vegetables. As a result, they meet many dietary requirements and may be promoted as hearty meals.

Wraps offer a convenient and portable format that may be used for ethnic varieties or better-for-you-options.

Ms. Freier said she was somewhat surprised to see cheese-heavy sides and indulgent breakfast sandwiches become so popular because such products go against current health and wellness trends, but she notes not all products can or should fit into health and wellness.

Going forward, she said next-generation spicy flavors will become increasingly important. She said spicy flavors in the past year has been about jalapeno and habanero, but operators are beginning to expand beyond these flavors and the general term “spicy” to include more specific flavor profiles such as peri peri and peppercorn.

When developing menu products, Ms. Freier said operators need to be aware of consumers’ new dining habits, and they need to develop items to reflect these new habits. Snacking, for example, is playing a larger role in eating habits for consumers, and traditional dayparts are evaporating. Additionally, while upgraded proteins are popular, she acknowledged it might not be possible for all operators to upgrade these products due to cost concerns. Operators need to determine the degree of necessity for them to have more expensive proteins, and if operators do upgrade them they need to stress the sourcing of the new ingredients.

As for innovation during the rest of the year, don’t expect to find an emphasis on center-of-the plate beef options. Center-of-the-plate vegetables likely will be a driving trend the rest of the year due to health and wellness and an interest in ethnic foods. Chicken and other non-beef alternatives also will rise in popularity due to the rising costs of beef, she said. Expect to see even more non-beef burgers popping up on menus.