At the 2016 National Restaurant Association Show, Visitors Get a Taste of New Menu Trends
At the 2016 National Restaurant Association Show, Visitors Get a Taste of New Menu Trends

From simpler ingredients to a new-found love for comfort food, here are the next five areas of menu innovation to look out for.

The food service industry is operating in extraordinary times. Old rules are being replaced by new realities. And what’s driving it, of course, is the consumer.

Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., in Atlanta, describes this as a “perfect storm” of persistent economic challenges, political uncertainty and a major generational change that has sparked a profound transformation of consumer behaviors and aspirations. These shifting consumer attitudes and appetites are ultimately changing the way restaurants approach their menu research and development.

During the 2016 National Restaurant Association Show, Kruse identified fives areas of menu innovation that restaurants need to start paying attention to.

Simple is Better

“Consumer demand for simple ingredients has moved into the mainstream with extraordinary velocity,” Kruse said. “Consumers are demanding foods that are clean and free—from artificial sweeteners, antibiotics and GMOs.”

Kruse believes that restaurants like Panera Bread and Chipotle both showed that it really is possible to deliver on a clean food promise in a mass-market context. Now, major chains are jumping on the bandwagon.

“It would be easier for me to tell you who is not engaged somehow in cleaning up the menu,” Kruse added.

Kruse added that recent innovation centers on “simple,” a descriptor that, while undefined, may resonate more with mainstream consumers than words like “organic” and “non-GMO.”

“If you’re the average consumer, you may not understand the concept of organic, and if you don’t know what organic means, you sure don’t know what GMOs are. Simple is all-encompassing. We are just now beginning to see this consumer-friendly approach to simplicity making its way into restaurants.”

Down with Dieting

“This is not a good time to be in the diet food or beverage business or the weight loss center business because consumers are staying away from those programmed regimens in droves,” Kruse said. “What they’re really doing is taking a more holistic approach and asserting their control over their lives.”

This starts with a heightened focus on plant-centric dining. Not only are plants replacing meat on menus to align with healthier lifestyles, they’re also replacing grain-based dishes, such as noodles being substituted by zucchini.

Kruse added that this can also be seen in soft drinks. Once avoided because of artificial sweeteners and refined sugar, brands like PepsiCo have launched a line of drinks made with certified cane sugar—and it’s changing the way people consume soda.

“Watch the consumer acceptance of cane sugar, pure cane sugar and organic sugar. Research shows that when consumers see an identifier like certified fair trade sugar, they perceive it as a healthful food,” Kruse said.

Comfort Food is Making a Comeback

Remember when fat was unfairly demonized? We’ve come a long way since then. Kruse says we’re in the midst of a “fat revolution,” and Millennials are leading the charge. This demographic is far more likely than older generations to use lard, beef tallow and duck fat in their meals.

Fried foods have emerged as a comfort food favorite, too. Nashville hot fried chicken in particular is having a moment on menus.

“We will continue to have a love affair with fried foods. First, because fried foods taste so darn satisfying. Secondly, because from your perspective as operators, this is an area where consumers really don’t feel comfortable at home. We’re not adept at making great fried chicken,” Kruse said.

All-Day Breakfast

The fact that most consumers enjoy eating breakfast at nontraditional times is nothing new, but only recently has it represented a major opportunity for menu innovation.

McDonald’s national launch of all-day breakfast earlier this year ignited the fury, prompting other restaurant chains to add creative breakfast items to the menu. Carl’s Jr., and Hardee’s, for example recently introduced a breakfast sandwich on an Auntie Anne’s pretzel bun, and White Castle debuted a waffle breakfast slider.

Other mid-scale restaurant chains have dished up new twists on their morning meals, too.

“IHOP, Denny’s, Cracker Barrel and Shari’s are absolutely doing wonderful work, and they’ve got the sales numbers to prove it,” Kruse said. “Now, they’re benefiting from the convenience breakfast trend, but the notion of creative, satisfying breakfasts around the clock 24/7 is right in their wheelhouse.”

Ethnic Flavors

More and more consumers order ethnic foods because they are looking for something a little different—and it’s inspiring restaurant operators to explore new areas of the world in the kitchen.

Chefs are combining global flavors with familiar formats—falafel is popping up on burgers and gochujang, a fermented condiment with a touch of sweet heat, is appearing on menus as “Korean barbecue sauce.” This helps making the leap from the familiar to the unfamiliar a little easier.

So what’s next in ethnic food trends? Kruse is predicting Cuban flavors.

“There is a direct line as far back as we can go between what’s happening in the world and what’s happening in your pantries. It’s not just by coincidence that Middle Eastern cuisine is trending, and it’s not just by coincidence that I expect we will see more Cuban food appearing on meus around the country,” Kruse concluded.