Offering unique and exciting food and beverage options can help restaurants rebound from sales lost earlier in the pandemic by giving guests a reason to return again and again. Adding new menu items based on trending flavors and formats appeals to consumers’ desire to try new things when dining out, and menu innovation doesn’t require a huge menu overhaul if new options are introduced in a strategic way, a panel of experts said during a session at the National Restaurant Association Show on Sunday.
The average number of items on restaurant menus has been steadily declining for the past several years, according to Technomic data shared by the research firm’s Dave Henkes. The number of items on many US menus fell off steeply in 2020 as restaurants streamlined offerings to focus on what worked best for off-premises. While menu size overall has been shrinking, the number of limited-time-offerings has been on the rise, growing by 31% between 2017 and 2021, Henkes said.
Updating menus frequently to showcase new items can help draw in diners looking for unique experiences that they can’t get from meals at home. Forty-two percent of consumers are more likely to try a new or unique flavor from a restaurant than when cooking at home, Henkes said, and consumers order new or unique items from restaurants more than 25% of the time.
Menu innovation may seem like a daunting task for restaurants battling with supply chain issues, labor shortages and rising food costs, but Henkes and Technomic Director of Menu Research & Insights Lizzy Freier shared examples of how many restaurants are getting creative with ingredients and preparations to update their menus in ways that won’t break the bank.
They organized these best practices into the 5 Ps of menu innovation:
Putting new dishes on the menu doesn’t have to mean adding an array of new ingredients to the inventory. There are many ways restaurants can innovate to create new SKU extensions using ingredients they already have in stock. Infusing classic dishes with new flavors or creating mashups that “combine the known and the unknown” can entice diners to try something new, Freier said.
At Bar Louie, macaroni and cheese became a filling for a grilled cheese sandwich – an innovation inspired by ingredients the restaurant already had in stock for its Macs & Stacks virtual restaurant concept. Steve Madonna, senior vice president of culinary for the 73-unit bar and restaurant chain, joined Henkes and Freier onstage to share his insights on menu innovation. He advised restaurant operators to consider not just ingredients when planning new dishes, but also cooking methods. For Bar Louie, the fryers were already operating at maximum capacity, so adding a grilled cheese cooked on the griddle made more sense for the kitchen workflow.
Supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic are forcing many restaurants to think outside the box when it comes to how they prepare ingredients, Henkes said. Giving a new or unusual treatment to a familiar ingredient can turn it into something new and noteworthy.
For example, freezing a cocktail that’s usually served on the rocks to give it a slushy texture, or charring vegetables to give them a deeper flavor and crispy exterior can give diners the experience of trying something new. Cooking methods that do double duty as shelf-life extenders – such as pickling, fermenting or preserving – can prevent a surplus of certain ingredients from spoiling while also creating new elements to add to the menu.
Proteins & Plants
Supply chain issues opened the door for restaurants to try out new proteins on menus, Freier said. When faced with a shortage of chicken wings, Wingstop pivoted to using chicken thighs, embracing the substitution by launching its virtual Thighstop brand. Other restaurants are also swapping out proteins based on what’s available – trying out more economically priced cuts of beef or substituting pork in dishes traditionally made with beef.
Chefs are also getting more creative when cooking with plants at the center of the plate, drawing inspiration from a wide range of dishes. At Helen in Birmingham, Ala., parsnips stand in for steak in an au poivre preparation, while Cucina 24 in Asheville, N.C., serves a squash saltimbocca with roasted squash wrapped in prosciutto and sage. These creative offerings show that “the sky’s the limit for the types of products to use and the types of dishes for inspiration,” Freier said.
Another way to put a new spin on classic menu items is to add a personalization option. Customized dishes allow customers to order something tailored to their tastes, and they can also have the added bonus of creating a feeling of exclusivity. Special items that are only available via a restaurant’s app or loyalty program create an “impetus for consumers to come back to that app and see what’s new,” Henkes said.
McDonald’s is tapping into the benefits of exclusive customized items with its menu hacks promotion. Customers can order via the chain’s app to get access to “secret” menu items such as the Land, Air & Sea sandwich, which combines the elements of a Big Mac, a McChicken and a Filet-O-Fish.
A key element of menu innovation is staying on top of trends to strike while the iron is hot when adding new items to the menu.
Looking ahead to some of the ingredients and inspirations that will be hot on menus this year, Technomic predicts that a very basic ingredient will step into the spotlight in new ways. Salt will go beyond a basic seasoning, taking center stage in cocktails and foods such as salt-cured fish and naturally salty ingredients like purslane and seaweed.
Bar Louie is embracing the trend with a margarita rimmed with strawberry salt, as well as a take on the classic Ranch Water cocktail that mixes salt right into the beverage to boost its flavor.
When it comes to adult beverages, flavor profiles are playing an increasingly important role as ABV takes a backseat for some consumers when choosing a drink. Low- and no-proof cocktails are predicted to keep growing this year, driven by Generation Z’s demand for healthier options when dining out.
While Madonna admits that alcohol-free drinks are “something we probably would have laughed at a few years ago,” he said Bar Louie has added more low- and no-alcohol beverages to the menu to provide options for consumers who want them.
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