Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Plate Shifts

Give diners control over portions by offering small plates that satisfy, like these Sweet Peruvian Corn Cakes served with roasted pineapple salsa and butter, part of Bahama Breeze’s new Small Plates menu. Photo courtesy of bahama breeze. Consumer demands for dynamic dayparts keep operators nimble

By Rita Negrete, Technomic, Inc.

The price/value equation means everything to today’s diners. The way customers interpret a concept’s price points relative to those of competitors’ options can hold great influence over whether they ultimately purchase foods and beverages from a specific concept.

Chain restaurant operators are employing a wide variety of menu and portioning strategies to favorably sway those perceptions. In particular, a range of portion sizes gives consumers a greater sense of control over how much they consume and spend during any given meal occasion. This strategy can be applied by restaurants to every menu category and every meal — as well as to dining occasions beyond the traditional definition of a “meal.”

Restaurants’ breakfast sales have grown steadily over the past few years, but consumer data shows that the market is not yet saturated and there are still plenty of opportunities. Technomic research shows almost half of consumers now occasionally purchase weekday restaurant breakfasts, compared to just one-third in 2009. For breakfast occasions, consumers generally place greater importance on convenience and speed of service than price; many are willing to pay more for a morning meal that saves time and fits their daily routine.

So it’s no wonder that more restaurants are adding breakfast. Taco Bell is rolling out its First Meal breakfast program in 10 states, with items ranging from bacon-and-egg and sausage-and-egg burritos for 99 cents to a $2.79 Grande Skillet burrito to $3.99 combo meals.

Wow Bao, the Lettuce Entertain You kiosk concept specializing in steamed buns stuffed with Asian-inspired ingredients, now serves breakfast bao filled with barbecued pork, coconut custard or eggs scrambled with other ingredients. And at Florida units of Crispers, the “Breakfast Redefined” daypart offers something unheard-of in a limited-service restaurant: a chef-manned omelet station that allows guests to customize with ingredients such as pepper bacon, turkey sausage, Gruyère cheese, green onions, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, roasted red peppers and spinach.

Health is a top trend to watch. Beyond lowfat or nonfat ingredients, restaurants signal health with whole grains. Denny’s Fit Fare menu includes breakfast options like the Fit Slam (egg whites with spinach and grape tomatoes, turkey bacon, an English muffin and seasonal fruit) and Harvest Oatmeal Breakfast (oatmeal topped with apple chunks, dried cranberries and brown sugar and served with milk, turkey bacon and seasonal fruit). IHOP is offering the Simple & Fit Spinach & Mushroom Hash Brown Stack, an under-600-calorie entrée served with a side of fresh fruit.

Along with its new line of breakfast bao, Chicago’s Wow Bao extends its rice-bowl offerings to the morning meal, with the addition of egg, bacon and cheddar or egg and spicy sausage options. Photo courtesy of wow bao. Portion flexibility — from mini-sandwiches to plentiful platters — offers options for appetites and budgets of all sizes. Typical of new petite items are Caribou Coffee’s 160-calorie Canadian bacon mini breakfast sandwich with egg and melted Wisconsin cheddar on a toasted mini ciabatta roll, or Chick-fil-A’s breakfast Chick-n-Minis — Chick-fil-A nuggets in mini yeast rolls lightly coated with a honey-butter spread. On the large end of breakfast sandwiches is Dunkin’ Donuts’ Big N’ Toasted, featuring two fried eggs, four slices of smoked bacon and a slice of American cheese on Texas Toast.

Breakfast platters offer satisfyingly large amounts of food along with variety. The limited-time Jumbo Breakfast Platter at Jack in the Box comes loaded with mini pancakes, scrambled eggs, hash browns and a choice of bacon or sausage for just $2.99. Perkins Restaurant & Bakery has added a variety of breakfast platters, including a Bacon ’n Cheddar Potato Flip Platter — a folded potato pancake stuffed with scrambled eggs, bacon and cheese, served with fruit, applesauce and a choice of hash browns or breakfast potatoes.

Lunch is where the crowds are. Technomic’s Lunch Consumer Trend Report found that six out of 10 consumers order lunch from a restaurant at least once a week, and almost four out of 10 do so two or three times weekly. Roughly a third of all lunch occasions include food from restaurants or other foodservice operations.

Almost half of consumers say they eat a wide variety of foods for lunch, so variety and customization options are important. During the week, fast, portable and inexpensive lunch options are top priorities at restaurants and other foodservice locations. On the weekend, however, these lunchtime preferences shift, and consumers pay more attention to customization and fresh preparation than to other attributes.

The price points of concepts using a what-you-get-for-the-money strategy may not be the lowest, but consumers consider both the cost paid and the amount of foods and beverages being received when determining value. In some cases, one price can result in multiple meals, such as eating half of a Subway Footlong now and half later. In other cases the strategy allows individuals to completely satisfy their appetite; the all-you-can-eat buffet at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, for example, provides customers with the opportunity to determine what quantity creates the maximum value for their $6.99. While some consumers seek abundance in a foodservice lunch, others find value in “just enough, but not too much.” From the operator’s perspective, the lower price points that consumers seek are easier to accomplish with smaller portion sizes.

Lunch combos are offering more variety and flexibility along with simplified ordering and attention-getting price points. Mimi’s Cafe’s Express Lunches are one such example: In a promotion of $15 in 15 Minutes or Free, customers can choose from two soup-and-salad combos or half artisan sandwich combos, guaranteed in 15 minutes.

In the past year, four out of 10 consumers have cut back on away-from-home dinner purchases, largely because they have less money to spend on dining out. It’s imperative for operators to recognize the importance of today’s value equation and to stay on top of dinner and late-night trends, such as combo meals, smaller portions or shareable items, in order to more effectively identify opportunities for growth.

Value is, of course, the key positioning for dinner entrées in limited-service restaurants; low-priced offerings that can easily be bundled for a quick and affordable meal for one person or a whole family can succeed in drawing customers to LSRs in the evening.

At Mimi’s Cafe, value-boosting options allow customers to add a course to a meal at low cost. For $2, guests can add a cup of tomato-and-basil bisque to go with their fresh-sliced turkey sandwich. Photo courtesy of mimi’s cafe. Now, full-service restaurants are increasingly promoting dinner values as well, with bundled meals and affordably priced family dinners to go — while also emphasizing “premium” as part of the value equation for entrées. Appealing adult beverages, appetizers and desserts are also essential to boost check averages.

Chain restaurants are using a number of value strategies to lure dinner business, from “two-fers” to multi-course combo meals. Permanent menu items and recent LTOs include Chili’s $20 Dinner for Two, which features one shareable appetizer and two full-size entrées. Popeyes Louisana Kitchen’s Buy One, Get One Bonafide Chicken is another example — with the purchase of a three-piece chicken dinner, customers get a two-piece chicken dinner for free.

Small plates are a key area of opportunity, for two reasons. Seven out of 10 consumers say they skip dinner at least sometimes, citing lack of hunger or eating a late lunch instead of dinner. That means smaller portions or shareable menu items could be opportunities for operators to boost incremental traffic and sales during the dinner daypart. Second, the Millennial customer base tends to congregate over food and drinks during late-afternoon and late-night hours; they’re looking for craveable menus featuring smaller portions, mix-and-match options and multi-person samplers they can share with friends over drinks.

Operators and suppliers are emphasizing snacking menus by developing a new mix of craveable options to draw customers during these afternoon and late-night hours. For example, the upscale Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar has found success with its “5 for 6 ’til 7” program — a late-afternoon bar menu offering $6 cocktails and $6 food items including a rotating assortment of Prime Burgers. More recently, Fleming’s moved to offer its guests more flexible dining options beyond the happy-hour timeframe with a new Small Plates menu of seven items, a mix of new introductions and items adapted from Fleming’s entrée list, priced from $15.50 to $22.95. Choices included Sliced Filet Mignon, Jumbo Shrimp Scampi Skewers, New Zealand Petite Lamb Chops, Ahi Tuna Skewers, New Bedford Scallops, Filet Mignon Skewers and Lobster Tempura. Fleming’s promotes the new menu in a variety of ways, such as choosing a small-portion alternative to an entrée, ordering a small plate as a starter course, or mixing and matching a few small plates to share among friends.

California Pizza Kitchen offers eight smaller, shareable items including new menu items like Mediterranean Focaccia (herb-cheese focaccia served with Mediterranean olive oil and Parmesan) and Crispy Mac ’N Cheese (classic mac-and-cheese lightly fried with panko and served on creamy cheese sauce).

Available at both lunch and dinner, Bahama Breeze’s new small plates menu features Caribbean-inspired items like Truffled Yucca Fries, Mojo-Marinated Pork and Sweet Plantains, Sweet Peruvian Corn Cakes and Chicken Empanadas, with prices starting at $2.99.

Being creatively nimble across dayparts is the name of the game. An operation’s ultimate ability to adapt meal offerings to address the value, portion and flavor demands of today’s consumers will determine their success.


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