Menu Trends for 2012: Three Experts, Nine Things to Watch

By Rick Zambrano

It’s the start of a new year, and as usual, food industry experts are chomping at the bit for a chance to speak their mind. QSR industry webzine Quick Serve Leader headed directly toward those whose jobs it is to analyze and opine about what restaurateurs and managers can expect on the foodservice horizon in the coming year.

These three experts give us a glimpse into already developing menu trends, and those that are not immediately in the QSR framework but coming soon to your own menu.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president | Technomic

Menu Trend #1: Rising commodity costs bring more scratch preparation in-house, and offer restaurant operators a chance to tout items as "homemade" and "home-style.?

Due to the rising cost of commodity ingredients (and the cost of transporting them to your restaurant) restaurateurs are using less expensive proteins and starches, and are preparing many products in-house.

According to Technomic, back-of-house prep is becoming de rigeur because labor costs are holding steady, though some regions may see lower labor costs because supply is so high relative to demand.

Where chefs and restaurateurs would’ve previously purchased more time efficient, pre-prepped ingredients — at a premium cost — today’s lean times are changing that. But there’s an added incentive for restaurateurs to prep ingredients themselves. "Operators can then take credit for doing the prep work, [and] they can boast about the level of skill required and the freshness," says Tristano. For some commodities like pre-shredded lettuce this may not hold true, he says, but for many ingredients it's a viable way to proceed.

Menu Trend #2: Consumers seek comfort foods with a twist, or familiar foods with a new spin.

Quick Serve Leader covered this topic last year in our article "Wayward Menu Trends," and it seems the same trend is resurfacing for 2012. As consumers continue to embrace a psyche of cautious exploration, food experts say that breakout foods won’t be popular, but that restaurateurs should offer playful variations of familiar foods people know and love.

Although comfort foods continue to be an opportunity,  they should be combined with new flavors and new toppings. Think Mexican toppings on the old American standby, the burger; Thai influences on sauces; and Korean entrenchment in the barbecue space, from food trucks to fine dining.

"Many ‘ethnic’ foods are considered comfort foods – spaghetti and meatballs, burritos, etc.," says Tristano. "Adding a twist to these items may mean making them more authentic or creating a fusion with another cuisine. A naan sandwich could be described as an Indian burrito, and you have made it ‘safe’ for the customer to try."

Menu Trend #3: Less is more. To facilitate flexible purchasing, everyone from growers and manufacturers to distributors and operators will work toward a more transparent, safe, and efficient supply chain that streamlines everyone’s workflow.

Chains like Chipotle and Burgerville have been particularly active in local sourcing, and others chains are looking to do the same whenever possible. Although inherently difficult for large chains to at a minimum source even regionally, Tristano says there is a move toward doing what they can. McCormick & Schmick’s, Big Bowl, Silver Diner are examples of casual dining chains that are also making strides in this effort.

John Canner, CHE, associate professor |The Culinary Institute of America

Menu Trend #4: Healthy menu options become ubiquitous

Leave it to Michelle Obama to usher in a trend that’s here to stay. Healthy foods are front-and-center issue, and children's’ nutrition will become even more prevalent. Adults, too, will finally admit that they want to be "coaxed" into healthier menu options: think salads, anything labeled “under 500 calories" or lettuce wraps.

According to Canner, healthy will be a big deal in 2012 as more restaurants start to make their menus include lower-calorie options. "How I see it is that people are a lot more conscious about health options when they are eating," says Canner. "I think there will be far more awareness."

Many quick-serve chains have implemented menu options with a set number of calories, giving guests a full range of options for their diets. Fazoli's and Corner Bakery Cafe are two large fast-casual chains that have rolled out lower calorie options to guests, with meals labeled at 400, 500 or even 600 calories. 

Menu Trend #5: Ingredient traceability and authenticity becomes the rule, not the exception

Look for restaurants providing more information about their menu ingredients and the source of foods. High-profile health scares and a seafood mislabeling scandal in the Northeast has led to consumers running for the hills...the hills of transparency, that is. Consumers want to know where their food is coming from.

While consumers are favoring regional ingredients sourced from as close to their address as possible, they will also look for more information on global and far-traveling ingredients on their menus. This rise in consumer awareness runs in tandem with many consumers' food allergies and a concerted effort to address food that could be harmful.

"We'll see better training of wait staff in consideration about the [restaurants'] products, so people don't get sick from our restaurants," notes Canner.

Menu Trend #6: Grazing

“Americans are almost demanding dining options at all hours of the night and wanting to graze as they travel from bar to restaurant to bar,? says Canner.

Yes, America's enduring love of grazing and sampling has accelerated. The playful sensibilities of a growing younger population combined with their love of good food has led to a near addiction to sampling, tapas and small plates. The trend continues to fuel growth in the food truck scene.

Small plates and sampling portions encourage eating lighter, experimentation, and fuel the late night scene. From Au Bon Pain's Portions, launched in 2008, to Dunkin Donuts' all-day snacking options, smaller portions fulfill the small-plate demand, and feed into people’s health consciousness.

Suzy Badaracco, forensic food expert and president | Culinary Tides

Menu Trend #7: Extreme Asian

American palates are being exposed to global flavors thanks to increased travel to places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Nepal, and beyond. When folks come home, they want to eat what they’ve experienced abroad.

"The shift is coming from the travel trend; now it is shifting to more extreme Asian travel," says Badaracco. "In some parts of the country, now the food is coming in."

Badaracco says that there is growing evidence that this "extreme" Asian, or "Asian shift" is being played out in restaurants and in magazines like Bon Appetit. Foods are also finding their way to grocery shelves. She attributes this shift not only to travel, but to the playful, experimental American psyche. "When you're coming into [an economic] recovery, consumers are getting more extreme and experimental. [Ordinary] comfort foods go out the window."

Menu Trend #8: Invasivors

Lionfish are a species that is proliferating in droves and threatening to damage the ecological balance in the Caribbean. Because of their flaring, poison-filled fins and their ability to lay thousands of eggs multiple times during the year, their growing population is of real concern to biologists and the fish that share the ocean space.

Solution? Eat them, says Badaracco and other culinary experts and chefs. Lionfish are just one species known to be invasive, and may ultimately be best found at your local restaurant. Add the Carcinus Meanus to the growing list of invasive creatures...although the complexity of catching them and other marine community-altering crabs is another chapter still playing out.

Badaracco suggests looking at the invasivor trends as a culinary opportunity that is an extension of the "natural" and ecologically responsible movement, thereby a potential add-on to natural and sustainable-centric eateries and food trucks.

Menu Trend #9: Deep North flavors 

Where there's ice cold water, there's fresh seafood for our Scandinavian neighbors to fish, cook and serve. Gone are the days that Scandinavian and Deep North cuisine were pigeon-holed into Swedish Meatballs . Along with the New York-based restaurant group, Smorgas Chef, which is now raising both livestock, native herbs and produce at a farm it purchased in the Catskills, Scandinavian chefs like Marcus Jernmark of Aquavit, highlight the best of Nordic fare.

"[Regional international fare] there's a trendy way for a trend to coming into America," says Badaracco. "It's their regional favorites - it's not threatening. That's how they come in."

From brave combinations of cheeses, seafood, and meats once considered too gamy for mass enjoyment, to dry herring, smoked fish, and caviar, Nordic cuisine is taking hold in Scandinavian strongholds in the Central part of the United States and moving outward to the coasts, now rooting itself in New York, defying what Badaracco calls “the notion that all new food trends move from the coasts inwards.?

For the QSR masses, rumors have surfaced that a Nordic truck is headed for Boston, Mass. Stay tuned...

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Copyright: Kandessa Media. All rights reserved.

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This story appears in:  Food News & Trends

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