Here's a look at the top five and how to maximize their reach on restaurant menus:
1. New age stroganoff In regard to comfort foods, new age stroganoffs are leading the category with menu items such as Noodle's & Company's Mushroom Stroganoff, Hale & Hearty's Beef Stroganoff Soup and TGI Friday's Prime Rib Stroganoff. To make the most of this menu item, Kruse suggests operators use the dish as an omelet filling or as a topping for burgers and sandwiches.
Citing The Meatball Shop in New York City, Kruse said the most exciting work in the meatball category is not being done by chains, but by independents. The menu item is gaining in singular focus and encourages several ethnic spin-offs. Kruse said it also can be used an alternative protein, for breakfast/brunch or as a small bites menu item.
3. Bread Bowls
Not new to the comfort food trend are bread bowls. Used by restaurants across all segments of the industry, images of the menu item convey a message of abundance and comfort, Kruse said. There also is the opportunity for bowls to extend beyond bread, such as Uno Chicago Grill's offering of Golden Pumpkin Soup served in a squash bowl.
4. Melted sandwiches Next to center-of-the-plate, sandwiches remain the "hot" category on the menu. And culinary innovations in regard to hot sandwich offerings are keeping chains on the cutting edge. For example, Kruse said there has been a resurgence of the patty melt in addition to seasonal melts, such as La Madeleine's turkey and cranberry melt. Panera Bread also made waves with its new Cuban sandwich. Kruse said sandwich melts can be used to provide vegetarian, breakfast and open-faced offerings.
5. Oatmeal The oatmeal wars are heating up as Starbucks, Jamba Juice, Caribou Coffee and several others are starting to provide this early-morning staple. Kruse referred to the offering as "the vanilla ice cream of the industry" because it provides so many customization opportunities. The item can be incorporated into a brunch or lunch menu offering or can be paired with savory toppings for a dessert effect.