Maintaining menu relevance in the New Year

By Mindy Armstrong,
Director of Insights & Innovation, FoodIQ

Around this time each year, we all anxiously await New Year trends predictions. In our industry, the predictions will spur the compiling of countless PowerPoint presentations, will become the topic of many conference discussions, and will hit the wall in many ideation sessions. From a menu development perspective, this is important. These predictions will not only inspire us, but will allow innovators to vet their validity for purposes of menu placement.

What are the top predictions and which of these have staying power? As objective as we try to be, it is the consumer who makes the final decision in what stays hot and what fizzles out. With that said, here are a few that we're watching:

  • Authenticity versus real
  • Regional goes deeper
  • Exploration into the alternative
  • Less is more appealing
  • Nontraditional shines bright

Trends with staying power

Authentic and real food as a consumer desire is here to stay. In fact, according to Flavor & the Menu, 88 percent of consumers feel that real and authentic factors mattered to them when eating out. However, while the definition of "authenticity" is loose and relative, "real" is mandatory. Sharing the story of the central ingredients or the dish origin, educating the audience on the history of the cuisine or including the diners in the "behind the scenes" inspiration that led to the build are all ways to connect the dining experience to the consumer.

Micro-regionalization of favorite regional cuisines is in full force as flavor experimentation continues and consumers' familiarity increases. Although this is not a new concept or trend, it brings more attention to distinct areas and will give access to regions that might not have had much exposure before. Some examples include: Southern cuisine being explored more deeply, Latin American regions being viewed from a new perspective, as we saw with Peruvian introductions, and the ever-popular Asian regional cuisines, such as Filipino, getting smaller as the many opportunities within the cuisine are exposed.

Exploration into the alternative — non-meat and meat proteins, dairies, and flours — brings exciting opportunities to the table. From a cost perspective, seeking non-meat based proteins and less expensive cuts will be necessary. Chicken is obvious, but what about goat, rabbit and pigeon as a consideration? From a flavor perspective, this offers a new palate from which to explore. Pastas made from bean flours, starches built with a healthier base, heirloom produce gaining traction, and dairy-free choices give a new way to think about the possibilities.

Less is more as a consumer trend is giving permission to simplify, lighten up, and be spontaneous. According to The Futures Company, consumers are over "over the top" and ready for smarter adaptations without the fluff. As it relates to menus, this is giving way to elevation of simpler foods, such as rustic and peasant fare. Beans, interesting grains, and comforting starches are a natural starting point for exploring within this trend.

Nontraditional options are shining bright in the food and beverage arena as consumers explore outside of the norm. Restaurants move into retail spaces to meet consumers where they are and snacking opportunities are moving beyond fried fare and salty snacks. Nontraditional is in and appealing as an entry point to healthier ways of eating, as a refined version of sampling and as a modern take on convenience.

Flavor tracking as a tool

Beyond the annual trend predictions, tracking flavors and their awareness levels from a consumer standpoint throughout the year will keep your menu relevant. Noting emerging flavors through mainstream flavors offers a glimpse into where the true opportunity may lie.

As we know, consumers are curious. Mature audiences (i.e. Boomers) are becoming adventurous eaters, and younger audiences (i.e. Millennials) continue to be adventurous. Leveraging regions and familiar cues as a way to make the introduction to new cuisines and menu items gives consumers permission to experiment. Sometimes an emerging flavor profile will do just the trick. For instance the Aji Amarillo Chile is an emerging flavor profile, but is ubiquitous in South America. Tying into familiar forms is a perfect entry point for introducing Peruvian cuisine on your menu.

It's a stepping stone

Mainstream flavor profiles are tried and true and a safe choice when dining out. However, exposure to ethnic menu items and ingredients, even if the introduction is subtle, will drive growth in awareness and enthusiasm of new cuisines. The fun part is found in the mash-ups: combining cuisines and flavors bridge the gap between the well-known and the brand-new, while also nourishing appetites with originality.

Tracking annual market trends will allow you to determine your place and opportunity in the marketplace, while tracking flavor trends throughout the year will allow you to maintain menu relevance for your core consumer groups. Although equally important, keeping the predicted trends of 2014 in perspective is key. Start with your audience and determine their desires and needs. This will be your guiding post. From there, find the balance between familiar and exotic to drive menu innovation that your brand can own with items that can be believed in by your guest.

Read more about menu trends.

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