The reason fast casual pizza concepts are taking off has much to do with the staggering demand for customization. The trend is being driven by the ubiquitous Millennial generation.
"Nobody likes to have it their way more than Millennials. It is really the age of customer control," said Nancy Kruse, president and restaurant industry analyst at The Kruse Company. She provided a presentation on "Menu Trends 2013: What's Hot, What's Not, What's Next" Thursday, hosted by the National Restaurant Association.
Being mindful of menu trends is more important than ever, she said, as pipelines grow exponentially due to customer demand. For example, in the first month period of 2012 alone, 1,640 new entrees were introduced at the top 250 chains, and 1,415 LTO entrees were rolled out. There were also 459 new sides, 410 new appetizers, 397 desserts and 371 sandwiches making their debut on menus.
"Your patrons are programmed by this. The bar is constantly being raised in terms of customer expectations and all of you have to be on top of your games," Kruse said.
Menu must haves
To keep pace, restaurants across all segments "must have" items with the following attributes offered:
"If you can't deliver on these, you're at a serious disadvantage," Kruse said.
One way to deliver on the "freshness" attribute is by offering local ingredients. Operators should also communicate their availability, whether vague — "fresh blackberries from the Northwest" — or more specific, "Oregon blackberries from Liepold Farms."
Current menu flavor trends are being influenced by ethnic foods, increasingly sophisticated palates, experimentation, chef sensibility and approachability, Kruse said. It's important to make unknown flavors less intimidating.
"Customers love to experiment, but within boundaries. You need to make unfamiliar flavors approachable. One way to do that is through flavor synergy. If you want to tempt the American diner to try something new, make it sweet. We tend to be predisposed to sweet," she said.
That said, sweet can be mixed with heat, salt and savory ingredients to encourage experimentation.
Sweet/heat combo examples include Rubio's Mango Habanero Pineapple Salsa, Erbert & Gerbert's Luna sandwich with sweet chili coleslaw or Pizza Ranch's sweet chili pizza. Papa Murphy's jumped on board in 2011, introducing the Thai Chicken deLITE, topped with sweet chili sauce and sprinkled with onions, red pepper flakes, zucchini, mozzarella and chicken.
Although the sweet/salty marriage isn't new, it has just recently made its way into the mainstream — Cinnabon and Culver's, for example, rolled out salted caramel treats just this week.
Sweet and savory is also an option, though Kruse said it's a more sophisticated approach. Burger 21's Ahi Tuna Burger — with caramel soy, sriracha, avocado and pickled cucumber — is an example of this combination.
Kruse predicts sour to be the next profile in the pipeline. There are a variety influences pushing this trend, such as Korean cuisine, pickles/pickling, vinegar/vinaigrettes, Greek yogurt and feta cheese.
The three 'zations'
Beyond flavor fusion, other menu trends include the three "zations" — premiumization, customization and miniaturization. "Premium" menu mentions have jumped from 69 in 1997 to 138 in 2012. Premium refers to the notion of getting something good for not a lot of money, Kruse said, and the trend began in the retail space with big box chains such as Target selling designer fashions.
The concept of premiumization has trickled into every segment, including QSR. For example, Burger King's branded "premium chicken menu" was introduced last year, as was Taco Bell's Cantina Bell menu.
One "premium" category pizzerias can take advantage of is with craft and local beers. Premium beers are following the growth of local/premium food offerings and are even making their way into cooking methods. Kruse predicts there will be an uptick in the use of beer and spirits as an ingredient, and that "beer is arguably the hottest single ingredient being used in food menus."
The customization trend is being driven by Millennials. Burger King got the ball rolling on the idea 30 or so years ago with its "Have It Your Way" tagline, and Chipotle brought it into the 21st century, Kruse said. Now, customers are being handed the reigns at sushi, pizza, sandwich and yogurt concepts.
However, there has been some pushback to this trend from chefs not willing to give up such creative control. California's Umami Burger, for example, doesn't allow modifications.
"They're holding the line and saying if you don't like it, go somewhere else. But at the end of the day, you'll be accommodating customer requests in a controlled fashion," Kruse said.
Finally, the miniaturization demand is driven by a variety of influences, such as sharing, experimenting, portion control, cost control and daypart flexibility.
"We're becoming a snacking nation," Kruse said. "It's a huge opportunity."
Photo courtesy of Pie Five.