Can restaurant menus stretch beyond the expected? - SmartBrief

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Can restaurant menus stretch beyond the expected?

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I’ve lived in three distinctly different U.S. markets and traveled to several other cities, and I get the appeal of chains whose menus stay the same no matter where I roam. Casual chains can be great when you’re craving familiar comfort dishes, but they might not be the first places that come to mind when your adventurous inner foodie takes over.

Some chains are finding that others might feel the same way, The Wall Street Journal reported. Chains including Olive Garden, Applebee’s and T.G.I. Friday’s have been revamping menus and adding more sophisticated dishes to appeal to Americans’ increasingly sophisticated palates and to feed the cravings of a broader audience, from adventurous foodies to fans of the familiar.

Chains walk a fine line when they add flavors, because they risk alienating regular patrons. Gnocchi failed miserably at Olive Garden until chefs added it to soup and dubbed it a “traditional Italian dumpling,” the Journal reported. Also, the chain had to 86 pesto for being “too green” and capers “too unexpected.”

One reason casual chains look to upgrade their menus with less-than-typical fare is to bring in patrons willing to pay a premium for more sophisticated dishes, a trait that’s even more attractive in an economy that has many diners trading down. Fast-casual concepts have been the clear winner in consumers’ search for affordable meals that are still palate pleasing, and that fact hasn’t escaped casual chains. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers announced last month that it would launch a fast-casual chain, Burger Works, and others also are experimenting with fast-casual spinoffs. The CEO of Mama Fu’s trademarked the phrase “flex-casual” to describe eateries that offer table service some parts of the day and a less-pricey menu with fast-casual service during others.

Quickservice chains also are having better luck striking a balance between customers in search of the same burger every time and guests who often want to try something different. Even as they make sure they have enough low-priced items and dollar-menu choices to keep cash-strapped customers happy, chains including McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King are upgrading other parts of the menu. They’re adding items that tweak recipes just enough to make premium burgers more interesting without losing their appeal to core customers willing to pay more for upgraded sandwiches, such as the $4.99 BK Chef’s Choice that Burger King launched in the fall and the similarly priced Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy burgers.

Have you tried to foodie up the menu, only to find your guests preferred what they know? Tell us in the comments.