Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Best of FlavorTop 10 Trends

A Canvas for Flavor Good carriers display the latest flavor trends at their best

Flatbread is the perfect carrier for unconventional topping combos; in Huntington Beach, Calif., Zimzala’s Fresh Fig Flatbread features wild arugula, toasted pistachios, balsamic vinegar, fried sage, goat cheese and tart apples.

A picture can’t be painted without a canvas. Similarly, the flavors of foods are showcased in their carriers—those workhouse menu items like soups, salads, breads, grains and proteins. When evaluating menu development, sometimes it’s a good idea to step back from examining the latest flavor trends to look at how these carriers themselves are changing.

Based on Technomic’s MenuMonitor and Digital Resource Library databases—both of which continuously track developments at national and regional chains as well as leading independent restaurants—here’s an overview of the latest trends in soups and salads, breads and sandwich formats, grains and center-of-the-plate proteins.

Souped Up
Fifty percent of consumers want to try new and unique soups. It’s no surprise that new soups exemplify the top food and flavor trends we see across menu parts, including global inspirations and better-for-you ingredients. Global inflections, herbal accents, spicy flavors and updated proteins provide new twists on everyday soups. Asian-style soups—particularly ramen soups—are growing in popularity. Hearty Moroccan soups are also moving to the forefront. Menu examples include:

  • Miso Beef Ramen Soup—Wagamama, Boston-based
  • Moroccan Lentil Soup—Pret a Manger, New York-based
  • Chicken Enchilada Soup—John’s Incredible Pizza Co., Southern Calif.-based
  • Potato, Kale & Chorizo Chowder—Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes

Healthy and gluten-free soups, as well as seasonal soups that underscore the freshness of produce, are another recent theme. Some examples:

  • Yellow Carrot Soup—Le Petit Cochon, Seattle
  • Tomato Fennel Soup—Figo Pasta, Atlanta-based
  • Vegetarian Winter Squash Soup—Panera, St. Louis, Mo.-based

A Deeper Shade of Green
Deep-green, pungent kale is without a doubt the trendy ingredient in new salads, with menu incidence at chains and high-volume independents up 54 percent this spring compared to last spring. Here is a sampling of just a few of the creative salads starring kale:

  • Superfood Kale Salad: Kale, mixed greens, maple-roasted carrots, grilled chicken breast, dried cranberries, slivered almonds and shredded Parmesan cheese, tossed in a maple-lemon vinaigrette—First Watch, Bradenton, Fla.-based
  • Shanghai Waldorf Salad: Chopped kale, endive, radicchio, apples, grapes, celery, grape tomatoes and candied walnuts in a light miso-lime vinaigrette—P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based
  • Peruvian Cobb Salad: Romaine, kale, aji amarillo chicken, plantain chips, Cotija cheese, Kalamata olives, chickpeas, tomato and aji amarillo-ranch dressing—Chop’t Creative Salad Co., New York-based

Another development is the resurgence of the chopped salad, which is now getting a second look from consumers. Some are looking for hand-chopped salads prepared with the customer’s choice of ingredients, while others gravitate to signature or chef-created chopped salads like the following:

  • Italian Chopped Salad: Black Forest ham, salami, olive salad, roasted red peppers, provolone, red onions, cucumbers and tomatoes with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette; Savannah Chopped Salad: Grilled chicken breast, dried cranberries, Gorgonzola cheese, honey-roasted almonds, tomatoes and cucumbers with sherry shallot dressing —McAlister’s Deli, Ridgeland, Miss.-based
  • Momma’s Homemade Chicken Chopped Salad: Romaine, tomato, bell peppers, cucumber, mozzarella, pepperoncini, Kalamata olives, light Italian dressing and a scoop of chicken salad with pecans —Firehouse Subs, Jacksonville, Fla.-based
  • Asian Chopped Salade: Roasted chicken breast, romaine, crisp cabbage, basil, cilantro, green onions, bell peppers and Mandarin oranges, tossed in sesame dressing with fried wontons and sesame seeds—Mimi’s Café, Irvine, Calif.-based

Upscaled salad proteins are another trend, bolstering consumer perceptions of salad as a hearty, craveable entrée. Both limited- and full-service operators are elevating salad recipes with premium proteins:

  • Wild Salmon & Quinoa Pot Salad: Wild hot smoked sockeye salmon, quinoa mix (red quinoa, edamame, peas, parsley), cage-free egg, grape tomatoes, arugula and lemon—Pret a Manger, New York-based
  • Rice Noodle Salad with Ginger-Soy Prime Top Sirloin with napa slaw, basil, mint, snow peas, cilantro, scallions, roasted peanuts and chile‐lime dressing—Houlihan’s, Leawood, Kan.-based

Beyond Basic Bread
When it comes to bread—menued either as part of a sandwich or on its own—the trendiest carriers are not traditional breads at all. The flatbread craze is still going strong, while waffle sandwiches are becoming mainstream.

Flatbread appetizers topped with aromatic herbs, robust vegetables and spicy ingredients are cost-effective offerings that allow operators to cross-utilize cheeses, proteins and other components to create craveable starters. Chili’s introduced a successful line of flatbreads last year, and Subway launched its Flatizza flatbreads this year after testing them in 2013. Dunkin’ Donuts offers its new Multigrain Flatbread as the platform for its Sliced Turkey Breakfast Sandwich and as an option for any sandwich on the menu. Taco Bell unveiled a Flatbread Sausage Melt as part of its new breakfast menu and is testing two varieties of Chicken Flatbread Grillers. Other recent flatbread introductions:

  • Black & Blue Steak Flatbread with Parmesan sauce, blue cheese crumbles, Cajun‐seasoned barbecue steak, red onions and a six-cheese blend; Shrimp Po’ Boy Steak Flatbread with Louisiana fried shrimp, Parmesan cream sauce, green peppers, onions, mushrooms and andouille sausage, topped with creamy chipotle sauce; 6-Cheese Flatbread with tomato-basil sauce and a six-cheese blend—Ruby Tuesday, Maryville, Tenn.-based
  • Pear, Pig-N-Fig Flatbread: Pulled pork, grilled pears, caramelized onions, fig jam and Brie—Bar Louie, Addison, Texas-based
  • Lobster & Mozzarella Flatbread: Chunks of cold-water lobster, roasted red peppers, mozzarella and lobster sour cream on a thin flatbread—Seasons 52, Orlando, Fla.-based

Waffle sandwiches are being rolled out primarily in quick-service chains. Burger King is testing a Chicken & Waffle Sandwich. Taco Bell kept last year’s much-discussed Waffle Taco when it launched its nationwide breakfast menu this year; it’s available in two versions—bacon and sausage—both with scrambled egg, cheese, and syrup on the side. Most recently, White Castle rolled out Belgian waffle sandwiches, including an all-day Chicken & Waffles Sandwich featuring a fried chicken breast filet topped with country-style gravy, as well as two breakfast versions: Sausage, Egg and Cheese and Bacon, Egg and Cheese.

Meanwhile, independent restaurants are also beginning to push waffles to new extremes with savory flavors or piled-on ingredients:

  • Basil Waffle with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and cheese; Sausage Waffle with sausage, tomatoes and cheese—Bistro Mediterranean, Washington, D.C.
  • Fig Waffle: Belgian waffle filled with sun-dried figs, topped with blueberry, chutney and cannoli cream—Café 72, Ewing, N.J.
  • Tropical Fruit Waffle Boats topped with peaches, mango, pineapple and kiwi—The Organic Grill, New York City

Grain and Seed Goodness
The current fascination with exotic grains as carriers has a good deal to do with health awareness. Consumers are finally getting the message that whole grains are good for them. And unlike wheat, some of these grains and seeds (including quinoa, buckwheat, millet and amaranth) are naturally gluten-free and thus compatible with celiac diets.

A desire to explore new frontiers of global cuisine, however, may be just as important. Quinoa was eaten by the Incas, amaranth by the Aztecs. And two wheat products increasingly seen in restaurants—bulghur and couscous—are closely linked to Middle Eastern cuisine.

Quinoa is the most frequently seen; it appeared 254 times on the menus of the Top 500 chains and leading independents in the first quarter of 2014, compared to 170 mentions in the same period last year—about a 50 percent increase in a year. Some items that highlight this exotic carbohydrate:

  • Harvest Vegetable Quinoa “Fried Rice”: Wok-tossed red quinoa with spiced butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, wok-charred corn, snap peas, carrots, zucchini and green apples topped with a sunny-side egg—P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based
  • Miso-Grilled Salmon over Stir-Fried Quinoa with steamed edamame, house-pickled cucumber and Shaoxing sauce—Houlihan’s, Leawood, Kan.-based
  • Pesto Chicken Quinoa Bowl; Cherry Chicken Quinoa Bowl—First Watch, Bradenton, Fla.-based

There’s plenty of room, though, for other ancient and ethnic grains to expand on menus. Some recently seen items:

  • Bombay Bowl: Millet, buckwheat, herb-roasted vegetables, steamed kale, cannellini beans, cilantro-curry sauce, coconut milk, almonds and hemp seeds—Veggie Grill, Southern Calif.-based
  • Baked Lemon Sole, Quinoa, Asparagus, Citrus Sauce—Panini Café, Southern Calif.-based
  • Shrimp with Vegetable Couscous featuring red pepper, eggplant, farro, tomato, zucchini and roasted-garlic oil—Carmel Café & Wine Bar, Tampa-based

The Meat of the Matter
Beef, pork, chicken, a little seafood: The traditional range of proteins in the American diet is a narrow one. For many reasons—from rising prices to health considerations, from a wider awareness of global cuisines to a growing hunger for quality and novelty—diners are now searching out something different at the center of the plate. As a result, we’re seeing greater variety in both animal proteins and vegetarian. Pork is on the rise, appearing in regional barbecue items; Hispanic and other global fare; charcuterie and pulled-pork sandwiches. Lamb is also getting more time in the spotlight, as evidenced by these innovative applications:

  • Mediterranean Burger with a lamb patty, cucumber relish, roasted red pepper, roasted tomato and red curry chèvre—Bailey’s Range, St. Louis, Mo.
  • Lamb Chop Fondue featuring lamb chops, green chile-cheese fondue, Chimayo tortillas and roasted sweet potatoes
    —Elway’s, Denver

Consumer data also points to an increase in consumption of game. In polling for Technomic’s Center of the Plate: Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report, more than a fifth of consumers aged 18‐to 34 said they’re eating more game meat such as bison and venison than they did a year ago. Some recent menu items include:

  • Peppercorn Bone-in Bison Ribeye; Bison Burger; Country-Fried Bison Steak—Texas Land & Cattle Steak House, Dallas-based
  • Rancher’s Bison Burger: Half-pound lean bison burger topped with goat cheese, pepperoncinis and smokehouse bacon—Gordon Biersch Brewery, Chattanooga, Tenn.-based
  • New Zealand Venison Chop: Oak-grilled and served with a rich venison and mushroom ragout—Seasons 52, Orlando, Fla.-based
  • Sausages: Wild boar andouille, pheasant, elk, smoked duck, smoked venison—Blue Palms Brewhouse, Los Angeles

Beyond meat, look for more edgy applications in seafood as well as a proliferation of creative vegetarian proteins:

  • Nacho Mama’s Oysters: Fried Gulf Coast oysters and garlic aïoli on fried wontons with housemade habanero salsa and fresh cilantro—Max’s Wine Dive, Texas-based
  • Tempeh Reuben: Spice-smoked tempeh piled high on rye with sauerkraut, caramelized onions, vegan Russian dressing and Swiss cheese—Portsmouth Brewery, Portsmouth, N.H.
  • Sofritas: Shredded non-GMO tofu braised with chiles and spices; a protein option for burritos, tacos, bowls and salads—Chipotle, Denver-based

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