CHICAGO — Smoky, spicy or seasonally sourced, some of the hottest flavors and preparations on menus span both food and beverages. Peppers, for example, recently have popped up in both fast-food sandwiches and casual-dining cocktails.
“We’re seeing tandem trends happening across the food and beverage sides of the menu,” said Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of Technomic, Inc. “Does food drive beverage trends, or does beverage drive food trends today?”
The question was posited during a presentation at Technomic’s Restaurants Trends & Directions Conference, held June 18 in Chicago.
“Until fairly recently I would have said food is the driver because we’ve been through a culinary revolution,” said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta.
“However, I have seen the opposite phenomenon as well.”
Global wines and cocktails may inspire interest in a particular cuisine, such as Peruvian or Brazilian dishes, Ms. Kruse said.
On the other hand, popular flavors and ingredients in food have crossed over into cups. Pumpkin lattes, anyone?
In both limited-service and full-service restaurants, seven common themes on food and drink menus indicate consumer desires for authentic and hand-crafted fare, complex flavors, and healthful preparations.
“Arguably the menu mega trend of moment is authenticity,” Ms. Kruse said. “Consumers place high value on authenticity, but the definition of that becomes problematic because it is highly perception-driven.”
Ingredient sourcing, premium preparation and ethnic cuisine are ways in which operators may convey authenticity, she said. An example is 800 Degrees Neopolitan Pizzeria, a create-your-own concept in Los Angeles that offers Naples-style pizzas with blistered crusts and Italy-imported cheeses.
“In the pizza category, it’s all about Neopolitan pies,” Ms. Kruse said.
In beverages, seasonal and locally sourced ingredients are making a splash. Milkshakes at Burgerville, Vancouver, Wash., include such ingredients as Oregon-grown strawberries and hazelnuts with dairy ingredients processed in Portland.
Growing on menus are such terms as “artisanal,” “house-made” and “rustic,” all conveying craftsmanship.
“In its purest sense, craftsmanship implies skills and training, maybe even certification,” Ms. Hood Crecca said. “It gives the consumer a sense of quality assurance, and it has an element of being unique, which is really important.”
A sandwich at Peet’s Coffee & Tea, for example, features turkey that is slow-cooked for eight to 10 hours, then topped with house-made pumpkin-seed pesto aioli, imparting craft and care in the kitchen. Similarly, bakery-cafes such as Panera Bread and La Brea Bakery highlight having expertise in bread-making.
“On the beverage side, we’re seeing handcrafted cocktails percolating out through chain restaurants, some doing extremely well,” Ms. Hood Crecca said. “Beyond alcohol, we are also seeing it coming up in non-alcohol. We’re all familiar with handcrafted coffee drinks, but now we are seeing it extended into soft drinks as well.”
Starbucks recently launched its Fizzio line of handmade sodas in select markets with national distribution planned next year.
“It will be interesting to see what that sparks in terms of handcrafted sodas,” Ms. Hood Crecca said.
Sizzling on mainstream menus are branded hot sauces such as Sriracha, new peppers and spices, and a surge of ethnic cuisines.
“All non-Western cuisines are assertively flavored,” Ms. Kruse said. “From a food point of view, ghost peppers have moved from being a cult item to fairly broadly picked up in the mainstream. It’s one of the two or three hottest peppers in the world. Four hundred times hotter than Tabasco.”
Earlier this year, Jack in the Box introduced Jack’s Blazin’ Chicken Sandwich, topped with a ghost pepper-ranch sauce and Swiss-style cheese.
“The name of the item gives a clear signal to the consumer that something hot and spicy is going on,” Ms. Kruse noted. “No surprises. And the approach from a flavor perspective is balanced; the heat is offset by dairy fat.”
Spiciness also spills into the drink menu. A margarita at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro contains jalapeño tequila with jalapeño slices and white grapefruit juice.
Not just for barbecue, smoky flavors are on fire in both food and beverage. Charring also has gained steam in independent restaurants, suggesting influences from Nordic cuisine.
The Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich at Arby’s, introduced as a limited-time offer, has become the chain’s best-selling new product ever, Ms. Hood Crecca said. The success of the sandwich starts with a 13-hour hickory smoked brisket balanced by the creaminess of a smoked gouda cheese.
“They’re still going gangbusters with it,” she said.
At Papa John’s, the Smokehouse pizza includes bacon and ham that have been hickory smoked, adding flavor complexity to traditional meat toppings.
Adding smokiness to drinks are such garnishes as grilled pineapple and smoked rim salt, as well as barrel-aged spirits naturally infused with wood flavors.
From the Cronut to the Waffle Taco, hybrids are having a moment on menus.
“They are really meant to generate buzz, drive some P.R., certainly to create traffic, and also to a certain extent, to give the consumer some bragging rights in terms of being the first one on the block to try it,” Ms. Kruse said.
The croissant-donut mashup designed by New York bakery owner Dominique Ansel has inspired a spate of knockoffs known as Doughssants, Fauxnuts, Cray-nuts and Kronut Krullers. And the centerpiece of Taco Bell’s breakfast launch has drawn “enormously positive press,” though the item is not the chain’s best-seller on the morning menu, Ms. Kruse said.
In beverages, restaurant operators are serving shakes made with beer or wine. For its Can-Crafted Cocktails line, Red Robin blends beer with liquor and fruit juice.
Chains are channeling the health-conscious crowd by calling out functional benefits in both food and beverage items.
The Veggie Grill, a vegan fast-casual concept in Los Angeles, offers a Mindful Living menu with low-calorie, high-protein items and mentions of such micronutrients as vitamin B, potassium, selenium and folate. The descriptor for the Bombay Bowl, made with whole-roasted vegetables, almonds and hemp seeds, notes the dish is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
“Chobani SoHo café is doing really interesting things with Greek yogurt,” Ms. Hood Crecca added. “It starts with a base already perceived as healthy and takes it up a notch with mix-ins (including fruits, nuts and seeds).”
Juices and smoothies have become a mainstay in mainstream restaurant chains. At Panera Bread, customers may sip a Low-fat B-Green Smoothie, made with fruit and vegetable puree.
“Red Mango now has a line of smoothies that use their patented Super Biotics, tapping into the whole probiotic trend,” she added.
Whiskey-infused steak sauce, margarita-marinated chicken and the like are blurring the lines between the bar and kitchen. On the other hand, food flavors are appearing in beverages, such as the tiramisu latte at Starbucks and red velvet cake vodka.
“From beverage to food, one of the most successful stories in the business is TGI Fridays’ Jack Daniel’s Grill program,” Ms. Kruse said. A more recent example, she added, is Outback Steakhouse’s new Moonshine BBQ menu, which features items coated in barbecue sauce made with real moonshine.“There is a surprising uptick in cross-pollination moving in the other direction as well,” she said. “Last fall, pumpkin was on every coffee menu.”