Menu trends: 'Bland isn't acceptable anymore'

| by Alicia Kelso
Menu trends: 'Bland isn't acceptable anymore'

If you’re in the restaurant industry, you know consumer palates have changed dramatically throughout the past few years. They’re more sophisticated than ever and chefs and R&D departments have to respond often to remain relevant.

At the National Restaurant Show last week, four culinary experts shared their insight on emerging trends and offered their perspectives on why there has been such a significant shift in tastes. Key topics included:

  • What consumers want;
  • On-trend and emerging ingredients/flavors;
  • Should you incorporate something into your menu;
  • How to keep pace with fast changes;
  • LTO vs. signatures.

What consumers want

David Moore, VP of Marketing at Smoothie King, said today’s consumer wants authenticity, healthier offerings and a lot of flavor.

“Bland isn’t acceptable anymore. Guests have a new level of knowledge and recognize the ingredients. They want real food with real ingredients they can pronounce,” he said.

What brought on this change? Ray Martin, Executive Chef at RES Consultants, cited the Travel Channel, the Food Network and the Internet as the biggest drivers. Also, availability.

“What we see on these channels on TV we can now get in our local grocery store,” he said.

Gregg Frazer, VP of Operations and Corporate Chef at Voodoo BBQ, agreed about the proliferation of information shaping preferences, adding social sharing as another vehicle. “There is almost too much information,” he said.

On-trend and emerging ingredients/flavors

These more informed, sophisticated and curious consumers are more willing to try new flavors, Martin said, particularly spicy and bold flavors.

“I love fusion because it’s about people mashing flavors together that they discover go well. Using chiles as an ingredient is becoming big – Sriracha is a good example,” he said.

 Frazer agreed that spicy is on trend, but cautioned about overdoing it if you work in a chain. “For mom and pops, it’s different. The sky’s the limit,” he said.

McAlister’s Corporate Executive Chef David Gross said spicy is becoming more approachable, and lends itself to interaction.

“With spicy it’s fun, you can put some in the food and some on the side and let customers dial it up as much as they want. It allows them to interact with their food,” he said.

Should you incorporate something into your menu?

Just because something is on trend, however, doesn’t mean it translates automatically to your menu. Groll said it’s important to monitor guest feedback on social channels and to communicate directly with them on what their menu interests are.

“The Internet has allowed us to take on huge levels of info regarding trends and fads. We can actually ask guests directly what they want and design questions to know what they’re comfortable paying for it,” he said. “We can get very specific, asking them, ‘if we had this on the menu, would you come more frequently?’ We can engineer this process very succinctly and we’re very influenced by this.”

The media also exposes emerging trends to consumers, Frazer added, which explains why they trickle down to consumer requests.

“We never would have had GMO-free requests 10 years ago. Gluten, allergens, these are at the forefront now and they’re not going away,” he said.

At the end of the day, they agreed, you listen to your guest. “That’s who signs your check,” Groll said.

How to keep pace

But simply adding an on-trend offering isn’t that easy. Gluten-free, for example, requires training and non-cross-contamination efforts. Organic labels are also very specific and the “organic” demand has morphed into local and sustainable as well. Groll defines “local” as within a 250- to- 300-mile radius.

“The bottom line is it has to sell. We don’t want to have a veto vote, but you don’t need to have everything,” Martin said.  “We want to be as fresh and healthy as we can, but in a high volume concept it’s difficult to sustain.”

One way to keep pace is to focus on key words. For example, “organic,” versus “all-natural,” the latter of which may be easier to execute.

“It’s all about guest perception,” he said. “We’re in the fashion business. This season it’s all about natural, better-for-you, farm-to-table.”

“The guest will recognize that you’re making an attempt,” Martin added.

LTO or signature?

Innovation can be highly subjective, so some brands grapple with using it to enhance their core menu items or to launch a new LTO. Frazer said LTOs allow Voodoo to be creative.

“With LTOs, we want to upgrade. Instead of hoagies and bread from the supermarket, we’re going to do baguettes. We’re going to dial up the flavors in our proteins. Thirty percent of our sales are LTOs. They’re a great tool for us,” he said. “And hopefully they’re good enough to make it to the (permanent) menu.”

Martin, who previously worked at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, said the core menu is where operators should be making most of their money, but agreed that LTOs are a great way to gauge interest as long as they don’t require a large investment for equipment, operations, etc.

“A core menu is a core menu for a reason. If you have one or two signatures, it puts a halo over your menu,” he said. “If they have to come to you to get it, they’re going to. And by default, your other items are going to be good.”

Photo provided by Wikipedia.

Topics: Food & Beverage, Research & Development / Innovation, Trends / Statistics

Alicia Kelso
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine. View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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