Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

By Cathy Nash Holley
January 9, 2020

As we’re compiling this special collection of 10 trends that will impact menus in the coming years, we take a step back to consider the underlying themes. Doing so gives us a reading on the interplay between the foodservice industry and consumer preferences. Within this set of trends, three macro themes have emerged.

One overarching trend is a maturation of menu evolution. Within this year’s topics, you’ll notice that many of these trends aren’t necessarily introductory concepts. Bowls, honey, global brunch, Eastern Med, non-alc innovations: These themes already have a firm footing in the U.S. menu-development playbook, yet nuanced movements today are keeping them in growth mode. This also indicates a purpose-driven and thoughtful adaptation of menu trends rather than a rush to market, giving space for chefs and menu developers to pause and refine established trends that lock in consumer loyalty.

Another thread weaving through these trends is a growing emphasis on functionality. This has largely been a consumer-driven movement, primarily seen on retail shelves or in at-home consumption. Now, foodservice operators are starting to tap into that increasingly important driver, recognizing that the mindset of consumer awareness isn’t diminishing as they enter foodservice settings.

It should come as no surprise that flavor remains top of mind here—as a menu-development objective, a creative strategy and the ultimate payoff. Many of these trends are a result of chefs pushing the boundaries with familiar ingredients or concepts, opening up new opportunities with the benefit of an enriched, signature flavor experience. Smoked or roasted fruits become an anchor for a bowl build. Culinary techniques significantly alter the profile and applications of honey. And fermentation becomes an enormous flavor-building opportunity. Of course, the ever-present interest in flavor is what drives both menu creativity and consumer intent, propelling menus into 2020 and beyond.

A special call-out to Managing Editor Katie Ayoub, whose trends expertise and commitment to delivering quality editorial make this issue stand out.

Looking Back

Given that this is our special Top 10 Trends edition, and as publishers and editors are in the habit of doing at the turn of a new decade, I thought I’d take this as an opportunity to reflect. I cracked open our Top 10 Trends issue from 2010 to review the trends we profiled a decade ago. Doing so is a good reminder that trends are really a reflection of the times, mirroring the consumer mindset of a particular period.

Perusing our 2010 issue is indeed like opening a time capsule. This set of trends reflects the inclinations of that year: The economy was still in transition from recession to recovery, and, appropriately, trends reflected consumers’ yearning for comforting, nostalgic fare, which can be seen as a security blanket in wobbly times.

In 2010 we highlighted the advent of the modern American tavern, with menus of inspired comfort fare, pickling programs and handcrafted cocktails—all served in a casual neighborhood environment. Deep-fried classics were making a comeback: hushpuppies, fried chicken, onion rings and doughnuts were picking up traction, offering crispy comfort for all. “Rustic is the new artisan” was the theme in our rustic revolution trend, conveyed in everything from farmhouse tables to bone-in proteins. And nostalgic desserts offered a taste of childhood memories. This was the time when cupcakes emerged as the pack leader, with other sentimental sweets like whoopie pies and sundaes following suit.

While comfort was the biggest driver, there were a few cutting-edge trends in 2010, revealing consumers’ baby steps back towards adventure.

Hotter sauces were a big topic in 2010, with much of the focus on Mexican-inspired chiles and applications. In 2009, jalapeño made up half of the chile mentions on menus, and poblano was the growth leader here. Interestingly, not a mention of Sriracha in the whole article. “International” sandwiches was another theme of the year, with the banh mi breaking onto the scene, following in the path of other “exotic” handhelds like the Mexican torta and the Italian panini.

Reviewing trends from a decade ago feels a bit like looking back on a bad hairstyle—it’s easy to note how much we’ve evolved, how we now know better. But trends will always be there to keep us honest, mirroring our truest sentiments through our beloved food and drink patterns. Here’s to another decade of evolution.


About The Author


Cathy Nash Holley has been Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Flavor & The Menu since the magazine began nearly 20 years ago. With its annual Top 10 Trends issue, Flavor & The Menu is a valuable resource for the foodservice industry, serving as a source of flavor and menu trends, strategies and innovation. In addition to overseeing the media brand, Cathy also serves as President of The Flavor Experience, an annual foodservice conference held each August, and is past-president of the International Foodservice Editorial Council. A native of the west coast, she resides in Maine with her husband and twin 18-year olds.