Six menu trends to watch (and one big opportunity)

Fennel, celery and butter may be trending on menus, but the biggest opportunity for restaurant operators and food manufacturers today is not an ingredient or flavor.

“I’ve been tracking menus for over two decades, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything come on as quickly and with as much underpinning of consumer support as the notion of transparency,” said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta. She and Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of Technomic, Inc., Chicago, discussed menu trends and opportunities during a presentation for restaurant operators attending Technomic’s Restaurants Trends & Directions Conference on June 24 in Chicago.

“(Whether it’s) free from steroids, antibiotics, hormones, artificial preservatives, colors, sweeteners, G.M.O.s… This is huge,” Ms. Kruse said.

McDonald’s recent commitment to sourcing chicken raised without human antibiotics may be the tipping point in food service industry, she added.

“Every week a major chain unleashes a new initiative, whether it’s Pizza Hut or Taco Bell, whether it’s Panera Bread, whether it’s Chick-fil-A or Dunkin’ Donuts or Subway,” Ms. Kruse said. “Every single one of you in this room, whether you are an operator or a manufacturer, will be impacted to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the nature of your concept, depending on the makeup of your customer base, and also to a certain extent depending on your geographical distribution.”

Consumers also seek authenticity, though the concept may be difficult to define.

“It’s one of those things consumers think they know it when they see it,” Ms. Kruse said. “The good news from your perspective as operators is that there are so many opportunities to deliver on authenticity.”

Seasonal ingredients, in-house preparations and local sourcing may convey the attribute to a consumer.

Beyond transparency, trending preparations on food and beverage menus include carbonation, barrel-aged and charring.

“Charring is the prep technique of the moment,” Ms. Kruse said. “It’s working across food categories. We see it in vegetables, charred fruits, charred meats. It’s kind of the next generation of smoking. It’s the result of two converging trends: Consumer interest in real foods… and the growth of new Nordic cuisine.”

Ms. Kruse and Ms. Hood Crecca identified six trending flavors and ingredients on the plate and in the glass. The key to capitalizing on opportunities in culinary development is balance, Ms. Hood Crecca noted.

“Balance in terms of flavor profiles, whether it’s in glass or on the plate, but also balance in terms of your menu,” she said. “Customers want healthy and indulgent, they want sweet and spicy, they want light but also rich and complex.”