Authenticity, comfort and food trucks are steering menu innovation, as chefs work to drive guest traffic — and customer returns — in a stubborn economy, menu expert Nancy Kruse said during the recent Menu Trend & Directions conference.
In the first half of the year, the top 250 restaurant chains have introduced 1,521 new entrée items and 1,726 new entrée limited-time offers, according to Nancy Kruse and her State of the Plate. When sides, appetizers, sandwiches and desserts are added, those numbers swell to 3,191 new items and 2,783 limited-time offerings, according to research from Technomic Inc.
The Menu Trends & Directions conference was held this week in Dallas, and is produced by Nation’s Restaurant News, The Kruse Co. and Technomic.
Given the challenging environment, “the response is a distinct uplift in the amount of innovation as it pertains to menu development,” said Kruse, president of The Kruse Co. and a columnist for Nation’s Restaurant News.
That innovation breaks into three camps: creative comfort that feeds slower evolutionary menu innovation, food trucks that fuel disruptive innovation, and consumers’ desire for authenticity that sparks revolutionary innovation, Kruse said.
Waffles and pretzels are the hot examples of creative comfort, Kruse said, highlighting such items as Dunkin’ Donuts Waffle Breakfast Sandwich and the Bold Folds offered at Bruxie’s in Orange, Calif., which folds waffles around prosciutto and gruyere cheese, smoked salmon and dill, or lemon cream and berries.
“We are awash in waffle-mania,” she said.
IHOP also has introduced chicken and waffles, bringing American soul food to the mainstream. And Shari’s has found success with its seasonal Fresh Blackberry Belgian Waffle LTO.
Two unique waffle applications can be found at the University of California, Berkley, where waffles are embossed with the school’s insignia, and in grocery stores, where a gourmet caffeinated toaster waffle is now available.
In the same vein, pretzels are taking on new twists, Kruse said, particularly Friendly’s Soft Pretzel Bacon Burger, where the pretzel acts as the bun, and the pretzel-dusted calamari found at ABC Kitchen in New York.
At Chancery Family Pub in Milwaukee, a pretzel serves as a crouton for soup, and at Smokey Bones pretzel bites are served with the Cajun Shrimp Skillet to sop up the sauce.
The widespread attention is forcing pretzel specialists to up their ante as well, Kruse said, noting that Pretzelmaker now offers a pumpkin spice pretzel.
Stuffed and stacked foods also reflect evolutionary innovation, as operators seek that “wow” factor and a strong value perception. Examples include Burger King’s Stuffed Steakhouse Burger, La Madeleine’s Stuffed French Toast, Pizza Hut’s Ultimate Stuffed Crust Pizza and Carrows’ Pastrami Burger, where the cured meat acts as a toping.
While the food truck segment is still small, it is significantly influencing food, customer communication and delivery expectations, Kruse said.
Food truck fare is fun, convenient, sometimes exotic and generally high quality, and food truck service is unintimidating, personal and communal, she said. When you factor in the digital and spontaneous aspects of food truck marketing, the segment is rapidly reshaping the customer experience.
Kruse higlighted The Dump Truck in Portland, Ore., which offers a variety of dumplings at the low price of eight for $6; Lardon of Los Angeles, where bacon graces every dish; and Streetza Pizza of Milwaukee, which serves such innovative riffs as crab leg pizza and s’mores pizza.
Keeping it real is on the revolutionary front of innovation, Kruse said.
“That doesn’t just mean freshness or flavor, but goes way, way beyond that,” she said. Authenticity takes into account preparation, provenance, product quality and how items are promoted, she added.
Artisanal preparation techniques are on the rise, Kruse said, noting that words like grilling, frying, toasting, smoking, aging and pickling are popping up on menus more frequently. Such techniques can be found in all segments, with quick-service chain Carl’s Jr. pushing hand-scooped shakes and hand-breaded chicken, and numerous operators, including Five Guys, Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out, all selling fresh-cut fries.
In terms of provenance and promotion, more restaurateurs are showcasing their ties to farmers and dairies on websites and in advertising. For instance, Eat ‘N Park boasts its association with more than 20 such producers, and Annie Meyers is heralded as the forager for the Spotted Pig in New York. Some Red Lobster commercials even feature the fisherman who caught the seafood.
And product has become more authentic, as exhibited by Bertucci’s Rustic Tortas, Grand Lux Café’s Avocado & Heirloom Tomato Salad, and Smashing Tomato’s Neapolitan Pizza, which is certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, or AVPN.
“All of you are being pushed to respond to new evolving demands from the customer regarding authenticity,” Kruse said.