America's tastes today? Cauliflower on pizza; radishes as raw meat

| by S.A. Whitehead
America's tastes today? Cauliflower on pizza; radishes as raw meat

With rapid-fire delivery and an upbeat attitude, menu analyst and Kruse Company owner, Nancy Kruse, last week told a standing room only crowd at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago that these are rapidly changing times in food service, perhaps unlike any before experienced. In short, she said, a paradigm shift is underway and restaurants must adapt to the predominant market demands for lots of eat-at-home and healthful-eating options or fall by the food service wayside. 

All this is also happening against a backdrop of heavy industry regulation, heightened wage demands and — in the case of many chains — too much growth and expansion too quickly, Kruse said. There might never have been as critical a time as now for restaurant leaders to stay on trend with everything from innovative offerings to the conscientiousness with which they are sourced and delivered.

"This is the single biggest trend of the past decade — to [offer a menu] that is free from things like artificial ingredients but still 'animal-friendly,'" she said. "And it's surprising the velocity that this has moved through the industry with this trend."

Here are some of the main takeaways from her fascinating presentation on top menu trends and options.

Had enough of 'heathy' and 'environmentally sustainable'? ... Too bad. Here comes more. 

"Until recently the whole health issue has been at a low simmer in this business, hasn't it?" Kruse asked the audience. "The trend now — led very much by the millennial generation — is a holistic approach where it's about balance and it has now crossed over to speak to the entire customer base at large."

In Kruse's analysis of the issue, that means restaurateurs must put these things at the top of their purchasing and pricing priority lists:

  • Fresh ingredients.
  • Fewer ingredients.
  • "Free from" (additives and artificial) ingredients.
  • Animal-friendly operations and products.
  • Reasonably priced.

"This is the single biggest trend of the past decade — to [offer a menu] that is free from things like artificial ingredients but still 'animal-friendly,'" she said. "And it's surprising the velocity that this has moved through the industry with this trend. ...

"But the second thing to know is that consumers tend to use terms like 'no artificial ingredients,' 'cage-free,' 'sustainable' and 'antibiotic-free' interchangeably."

As examples of how this has recently affected the industry, Kruse mentioned the Italian fast casual concept, Fazoli's, whose leaders recently invested more than $1 million to remove 81 ingredients from their offerings to align with consumers' increasing demands for healthy, simple and sustainable food.

Likewise, McDonald's has made a similar, but smaller scale, move to remove problematic ingredients — such as artificial flavors, colors and preservatives — from its popular soft-serve desserts. And pizza brand Papa John's has said that the chain forks out about $100 million annually system-wide to clean up its offerings in similar ways. 

"What they're trying to do is attract millennial families," Kruse said.

Food for, by and of the people

Kruse said the days of inner-city food deserts and sky-high prices for sustainably raised produce are waning as healthful, environmentally responsible edibles of all kinds make their way into consumers' mouths. She said that a perfect example of this is Kroger's; with its ready-to-eat options, the grocery chain has put together an assortment of initiatives to "democratize" healthful food by pricing it reasonably and placing it front and center in its stores. 

This has led to a reversal in the way food trends start in the U.S., Kruse said. Until just recently, the trendiest eats had their beginnings in equally trendy eateries, but in a rare reversal, trends are now starting in supermarkets and then moving to food service. 

"Kroger, the second largest [grocery] chain in country ... spent well over $1 billion on The Simple Truth [brand of products] for all the people all the time, instead of 'Whole Foods, whole paycheck.' So they have democratized it and their customers are also your customers."

Denny's also has been a first responder and early adopter of the clean trend, removing trans fats, MSG and the like. "Consumers will spend more when there is a compelling sales proposition, and consumers say, 'Fewer ingredients are better for me,'" Kruse said. "So for Denny's ... this has been a home run."

Meat: It's (not necessarily) what's for dinner

The days of vegetarians and vegans being seen as wacky "outliers" have ended. Increasingly, the traditional question of "beef or chicken?" for dinner is giving way to "beets or carrots?", Kruse said. Today, 3–5 percent of Americans are vegetarians, and 2–3 percent are vegans who refuse to consume any animal-sourced products in any way.

Those two groups are now joined by occasional meat-eaters such as the so-called "flexitarians" and "reducetarians" to make up an ever-larger share of food service. 

Kruse said that the trend is driving center-of-the-plate vegetable-based entrees such as those below, which she mentioned as examples: 

  • Cauliflower blooms everywhere — In recent years, the nubby white vegetable has been making a name for itself as the star of entrees such as Pizza Rev's Cauliflower Power Pizza. Other examples of this vegetable in a leading role include California Pizza Kitchen's spicy buffalo cauliflower pizza. And then there's the No. 7 Subs Broccoli Classic, featuring cauliflower's green cousin.
  • Avocados all around — The popularity of this meaty fruit seems to go on forever, with creative new entrees such as Butterleaf's avocado bombs with umami glaze and Fritos chips. 
  • Lox-less luxury — Who says you need lox to have a bagel and lox? At vegan New York City deli Orchard Grocer, a bagel with lox and cream cheese comes with cashew cream cheese and "carrot lox." 

"The key with these is to lavish flavor on and treat [a vegetable] like you would a meat entree to make a vegetarian center-of-the-plate dish," Kruse said.

"So the  old rule was bigger is better, but the new rule is options are optimal. ... We are moving away from three meals a day to the 'snackification' of the American menu."


'Other' meatier meats

But meat eaters are not quite forgotten, according to Kruse, In fact, she said she's seeing an increasing trend toward out-of-the-ordinary meat sources — for instance, Arby's insanely popular venison LTO. 

"We can't get enough of that good macro protein," Kruse said. "There's a 10-year trend line showing demand for protein going up and here, again, it started with customers not getting enough of this stuff on grocery aisles. ... And now we're seeing things like ... Ledo Pizza's wild boar pizza, which is presented as a leaner, cleaner, more flavorful pork — and they've got it on pizza, salad and fettuccine."

In fact, at Burattino Brick Oven Pizza in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, they're using wild boar meat provided through a state-sanctioned wild boar control program to make pepperoni and sausage toppings for their pizzas, a news release said. Other meats prime for takeoff include items such as oxtail, lamb and duck, Kruse said.

Tongue traveling

Kruse said that confining ethnic eating to restaurant brands that serve Italian, Mexican and Chinese cuisine are "so twentieth century." Just about every culture is represented on the national restaurant scene today, but Kruse thinks a few in particular are poised to gain popularity, including: 

  • a complete array of Indian and crossover Indian cuisines, as both are healthful and spicy, characteristics that have proven extremely popular with the dining-out public;
  • Asian noodles of every sort — but especially ramen — are primed for takeoff from the days of dried-out varieties in a cup; and
  • Katsu, a Japanese form of pork or chicken schnitzel on a sandwich.

Side of the plate

Never underestimate the power of the costar to draw an audience. Kruse said snacks of all  kinds are increasingly starring as key features on restaurateurs' "in-the-black" bottom lines. In this category, Kruse mentions items such as quinoa, tater tots and grilled asparagus — or even offbeat fare such as radish carpaccio, French-fried asparagus or anything akin to Smashburger's veggie frites, which are flash-fried and dusted with Parmesan and parsley. 

"American consumers love fried food," said Kruse. "And importantly, we don't do it at home. So the  old rule was bigger is better, but the new rule is options are optimal. ... We are moving away from three meals a day to the 'snackification' of the American menu."



Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Food & Beverage, Trends / Statistics

Companies: National Restaurant Association, Papa John's, McDonald's, Kroger

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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