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Whether the chicken came before the egg, or vice versa, doesn't matter because they're both menu superstars.
Nancy Kruse, president and restaurant analyst at The Kruse Company, provided an overview Thursday of the hottest menu newsmakers, and also predicted what the next trends will be in the product pipeline. Highlights include:
Chicken is the "protein of the moment" as evidenced by its menu growth from 2009-2012. In that time, poultry listings increased 12 percent. More specifically, chicken fingers listings jumped 10 percent; chicken wings were up 19 percent; and chicken toppings on pizza grew 26 percent.
Kruse said there is currently an influx of fine dining chefs jumping into the chicken space, with concepts such as Pecking Order (Chicago), Yardbird (Miami) and Bantam + Biddy (Atlanta).
The protein's popularity crosses prep methods too, from fried chicken, to spicy, to cold fried chicken. Kruse predicts significant growth in the "better-chicken" segment in the near future.
"The better-burger segment (Five Guys, Smashburger, etc.) is getting crowded. But with all of these chefs itching to get into fast casual, and more frequent locally grown, organic ingredients, watch for the emergence of (better chicken)," Kruse said.
Current examples include Zaxby's and Chix. KFC's new spinoff — KFC eleven — is also leveraging this trend.
The popularity of eggs is influenced by their protein content, versatility, cost efficiency, ethnic compatibility and comfort image. Eggs are appearing across dayparts, on burgers, sandwiches, even on pizzas, such as L.A.-based Pitfire's Green Egg and Ham pizza.
Kruse said the crunch/texture element is a sensory appeal that has been underexploited. But it's growing — use of the word "crunch" in menu descriptions was 195 in 2008, and 226 in 2012.
Some concepts are embracing this trend by using protein skin as part of the dish — chicken skin at Catbird Seat in Nashville, Tenn., or salmon skin at Chicago's Yusho, for example. The Smith & Wollensky chain features a cracklin' pork shank on its menu.
Kruse anticipates this trend to move in the opposite direction eventually, with "silky smooth" textures brought forth by ingredients, such as avocado and cow's milk cheese.
Even though proteins have always held the menu spotlight, Kruse said there is about to be a "veggie-rama" from here on out.
"Vegetables are underexplored, but I think we're going to see treatment of vegetables with the same care and creativity as proteins," she said.
Some concepts are leading the way, such as New York's No. 7 Subs, which sells a roasted cauliflower sandwich.
The hottest vegetable of all right now is corn. Kruse said its versatility has led to its rebound — from corn dogs (Sonic) to grits and corn bread. Even bartenders are rediscovering corn with a resurgence of white/clear whiskey.
Finally, Kruse expects the next big ethnic cuisine to be Greek, influenced by more accessibility (Greek yogurt products have grown 100 percent in the retail space throughout the past couple of years) and high-profile chefs such as Michael Symon and Cat Cora.
"While Chicago, Detroit and Tampa is used to (Greek food), the rest of the country is just now discovering it. It's a great comfort food," she said.
Greek yogurt has hit the mainstream, with TCBY leading the way, and Pinkberry offering it as a base for its savory tomato basil and sunflower cucumber options. Other chains such as Miami Subs Grill and zpizza have also pushed Mediterranean cuisine into the forefront.
Kruse thinks that region will continue to provide Americans with menu inspiration in the near term.
"Mediterranean used to mean just Italy, then Spain. Now it's Greece. I think it will continue to move around the area and will soon hit Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, particularly drawing from its street foods," Kruse said.
A benefit of Greek cuisine is its heavy focus on sauces, dressings and condiments, which can be exploited. These, and other ingredients, should be publicized as much as possible by operators.
"Tell your customers everything. Take credit for everything that you do. Reveal your ingredients, reveal what you're doing in the back of the house," Kruse said. "Toot your own horn. Your most important sales vehicle is your menu."
Read more about menu trends.
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