A Bloody Mary at Lula Cafe in Chicago contains lemongrass.

CHICAGO — Fennel, celery and butter may be trending on menus, but the biggest opportunity for restaurant operators and food manufacturers today is not an ingredient or flavor.

“I’ve been tracking menus for over two decades, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything come on as quickly and with as much underpinning of consumer support as the notion of transparency,” said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta. She and Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of Technomic, Inc., Chicago, discussed menu trends and opportunities during a presentation for restaurant operators attending Technomic’s Restaurants Trends & Directions Conference on June 24 in Chicago.

Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co.

“(Whether it’s) free from steroids, antibiotics, hormones, artificial preservatives, colors, sweeteners, G.M.O.s… This is huge,” Ms. Kruse said.

McDonald’s recent commitment to sourcing chicken raised without human antibiotics may be the tipping point in food service industry, she added.

“Every week a major chain unleashes a new initiative, whether it’s Pizza Hut or Taco Bell, whether it’s Panera Bread, whether it’s Chick-fil-A or Dunkin’ Donuts or Subway,” Ms. Kruse said. “Every single one of you in this room, whether you are an operator or a manufacturer, will be impacted to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the nature of your concept, depending on the makeup of your customer base, and also to a certain extent depending on your geographical distribution.”

Consumers also seek authenticity, though the concept may be difficult to define.

“It’s one of those things consumers think they know it when they see it,” Ms. Kruse said. “The good news from your perspective as operators is that there are so many opportunities to deliver on authenticity.”

Seasonal ingredients, in-house preparations and local sourcing may convey the attribute to a consumer.

Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of Technomic, Inc.

Beyond transparency, trending preparations on food and beverage menus include carbonation, barrel-aged and charring.

“Charring is the prep technique of the moment,” Ms. Kruse said. “It’s working across food categories. We see it in vegetables, charred fruits, charred meats. It’s kind of the next generation of smoking. It’s the result of two converging trends: Consumer interest in real foods… and the growth of new Nordic cuisine.”

Ms. Kruse and Ms. Hood Crecca identified six trending flavors and ingredients on the plate and in the glass. The key to capitalizing on opportunities in culinary development is balance, Ms. Hood Crecca noted.

“Balance in terms of flavor profiles, whether it’s in glass or on the plate, but also balance in terms of your menu,” she said. “Customers want healthy and indulgent, they want sweet and spicy, they want light but also rich and complex.”

Read on for the six hot menu trends.

|||READ MORE: Ethnic herbs|||

Fennel is featured on a spicy sausage pizza at Papa Murphy's.

Ethnic herbs

Herbs are having a moment on menus.

“The drivers, I suspect, are very straightforward,” Ms. Kruse said. “(It’s) flavor without the bad stuff — salt, fat sugar.”

Herbs also lend authenticity to an ethnic dish and signal freshness to consumers.

“Green reads as fresh, and fresh reads as healthful,” Ms. Kruse said.

The herb of the year, she said, is cilantro, whose popularity has soared as a staple in the trendy banh mi sandwich.

Herbs also have a home behind the bar. Cilantro has become a centerpiece in margaritas and fresh-pressed juices.

“The whole idea of garden to glass is going strong on the beverage side right now,” Ms. Hood Crecca said. “Herbs in a glass give us not only the flavor but also aromatics.”

The use of herbs in beverages also conveys craftsmanship, she added.

“Going beyond mint, we’re seeing sturdier herbs coming in, such as sage and thyme,” Ms. Hood Crecca said.

|||READ MORE: Indulging on vegetables 2.0|||

Kale is creeping into juices and smoothies, including the Tropi-Kale smoothie offered at Robeks.

Indulging on vegetables 2.0

Celery is the star of such unexpected dishes as a celery-root bundt cake served at Milk Bar in New York and Bloody Mary cocktails in bars across the country.

“Celery and celery root are the culinary hot tickets of the moment,” Ms. Kruse said. “Celery is absolutely easy to procure, well understood by customers, and it has been underutilized.”

Beets are getting a boost on beverage menus, adding a pop of color and nutrient punch to such gin-based cocktails as the I Got Beet at Pitfire Artisan Pizza in California and the Beet Negroni at Parm in New York.

“‘Drink your veggies’ is such a great concept,” Ms. Hood Crecca said. “On the greens front, of course kale is coming in; juice bars are adding kale to their menus, and a lot of them are offsetting it with other fruits to give it a little bit of balance and sweetness.”

Robeks, for example, offers kale smoothies and juices made with pineapple for a touch of sweetness. Kale also is a component in the Garden Variety Margarita at The Wayland in New York.  

“If we were to speculate on Veggies 3.0, it has to be legumes — beans and chickpeas, lentils as well,” Ms. Kruse said. “They are easy to procure, underutilized and very nutritious.”

|||READ MORE: Natural sweeteners|||

The Keg Steakhouse + Bar features pistachio-crusted salmon with maple butter.

Natural sweeteners

Make way for maple syrup, agave and pure cane sugar.

“Refined white sugar has become dietary demon du jour, no question,” Ms. Kruse said. “We’ve seen lots of you searching rather aggressively for better-for-you alternatives.”

The Keg Steakhouse + Bar, which has units in Canada, Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Washington, uses maple butter to sweeten its Pistachio-Crusted Salmon dish.

“Keep a look out on the horizon for a possible revival of brown sugar, like the old-fashioned brown sugar because it’s not white and can be used in sweet and savory kitchen applications,” Ms. Kruse said.

In beverages, pure cane sugar has become a standout sweetener.

“As strange as it may seem, pure cane sugar has become almost a health food in the minds of lots of consumers,” Ms. Kruse said.

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen offers a sweet tea made with cane sugar, and Chick-fil-A serves house-made lemonade with pure cane sugar.

“Also hot right now is Mexican cola, which is made with pure cane sugar,” Ms. Hood Crecca said. “That has a cult following in independent restaurants that are bringing it in and making a big deal about it.”

|||READ MORE: Sweet on bitter|||

Several restaurant chains, including Dunkin' Donuts, have launched dark roast coffee.

Sweet on bitter

“The American palate is strongly predisposed towards sweetness,” Ms. Kruse said. “(Operators) have been very smart in using sweetness to counterbalance and to facilitate the introduction of new flavors — sweet plus spicy, sweet plus smoky, sweet plus sour….”

The latest flavor combination, she added, is sweet and bitter. Umami Burger’s seasonal Pumpkin Spice Latte Burger offered last year was topped with a drizzle of bitter coffee and sweet molasses.

“Going forward, we’re going to see a great deal more play around bitter,” Ms. Kruse said. “Things like bitter greens… coffee as ingredient specifically for its bitter properties, and things like dark chocolate with bitter notes.”

Added Ms. Hood Crecca: “In beverages, it’s almost like bitter is the new black… and it comes on the heels of a trend toward very sweet beverages, whether you’re talking about sweet flavored vodkas or some of the sweet nonalcoholic drinks being offered. So we’re seeing the pendulum shift in beverages back towards bitter.”

Dark roast coffee has recently been launched by the likes of Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-Eleven and Burger King. Trending on bar menus are classic cocktails crafted with bitter liqueurs and bitter beers.

|||READ MORE: Creating a dynamic tension|||

BurgerFi's All Day Breakfast Burger combines the savory elements with the sweetness of maple syrup.

Creating a dynamic tension

The unexpected juxtaposition of sweet and savory flavors has become a go-to culinary strategy for many restaurant operators, Ms. Kruse said. An example is BurgerFi’s Breakfast All Day Burger, which features Angus beef topped with American cheese, bacon, fried egg, hash brown, grilled onions, ketchup and maple syrup.

“Taco Bell has been working overtime on their breakfast menu, and they have a breakfast biscuit taco amalgam with a jalapeno honey,” Ms. Kruse said. “It’s an unexpected punch, and certainly unexpected in the morning.”

The Mexican Chocolate beverages at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf combine the rich sweetness of chocolate with the spicy warmth of cinnamon.

“While this is a traditional concept… it can really be an unexpected treat,” Ms. Hood Crecca said. “It really gets back to balance, and balance is so important in beverages, especially when you’re going to these next-level flavors that are really pushing envelope, and you want that wow factor.”

|||READ MORE: Fats and oils are back|||

Jack in the Box recently launched the Buttery Jack, featuring a beef patty topped with melted garlic butter.

Fats and oils are back

Butter is back. Americans have embraced traditional fats and oils, which are perceived as natural and, therefore, healthy.

“From a consumer point of view, there is a growing demand for real food, for more transparency and clean foods with ingredients that they understand,” Ms. Kruse said. “From the regulatory side, of course, the government has moved to officially outlaw trans fats. Put both of those together, and you’re seeing the revival of long-overlooked, perhaps underutilized sources of fat like butter.”

Consumption of butter has increased 25% over the past seven years, she said. Jack in the Box this year introduced the Buttery Jack, a burger topped with melted garlic herb butter.

“As we look forward, I think we’re going to see more of a comeback of underutilized sources of fats…. If butter has come back, lard has come back even more strongly. It’s clean, it’s understandable, it’s promotable. It may be a niche opportunity for some of you.”

Oils are even starting to creep into cocktails, like the Olives 7 Ways martini made with olive oil at Saxon + Parole in New York City. And set to open in Santa Monica, Calif., is Bulletproof Coffee, a cafe built around the concept of blending butter in coffee.