Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Protein at a Premium

Creative portions like the petite tender value cut, prepared in this Mignonette Trio, are a perfect way for operators to offer economical cuts that appeal to consumers’ enduring love of steak. Photo courtesy of the beef checkoff No matter the menu positioning, protein is still the center of culinary innovation

By Cathy Nash Holley

As chefs and menu developers engage in new menu ideation, trends in protein play an important part of the process. And even as the center of the plate adapts to portion-size alterations and menu-item change-ups, the culinary-innovation emphasis still focuses on the flavor, technique and quality of the protein itself.

In a broad look at the factors driving protein innovations on menus of today and tomorrow, chefs, operators and industry experts have a lot to say. Some of the more-challenging drivers — pricing, health, sustainability and animal-welfare issues — are forcing operators to innovate. Other factors include the continued quest for culinary differentiation and the growing influences brought about by global cuisines. Whatever the motivator, protein innovation is happening at a fast clip in all segments and operators are finding success in keeping a creative culinary focus on the center of the plate.

SEAFOOD: Source-inspired Innovation
When it comes to fish and shellfish, many menu innovations are being driven by the public’s interest in sustainability, health and quality. Chefs and consumers care more today about these issues, and that’s having an influence on how seafood is menued.

“Consumer preference for wild, fresh and domestic seafood options is fueling the demand for wild and local varieties and a trend toward indicating the seafood source right on the menu,” says Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, adding that Louisiana provides nearly one-third of all domestic seafood consumed in the continental United States.

“Consumers want to know where it’s coming from, even if it’s not local,” says Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s Marketing Director Claudia Hogue. Source-minded chefs use seafood origin, in particular, to convey quality and flavor to their customers.

“I wouldn’t have done salmon if it wasn’t a wild Pacific fish,” says Pat Herring, director of research and development for Jason’s Deli. Last year, the company rolled out a wild Alaskan sockeye-salmon sandwich to much success. “At $8.29, it’s the most expensive sandwich on our menu,” he says. “Still, we served over 20,000 in April.” The Wild Salmon-wich is a grilled Pacific sockeye salmon marinated in balsamic vinaigrette on toasted herb focaccia with freshly made guacamole, Roma tomatoes, leaf lettuce and housemade smoked red pepper-cilantro aïoli.

Premium-source ingredients, including wild-caught seafood, are an important core value for Jason’s Deli.

“We’ve had wild Gulf shrimp in our seafood gumbo forever,” he says. “These can be pricey, and it would be real easy for us to go to a farm-raised product, but there’s just no comparison. We could replace it and customers probably wouldn’t even notice, especially in a gumbo, but that’s not how we measure quality.”

Underutilized species are also stimulating seafood innovation. These are species consumers might be less familiar with, but offer economical advantages, ample supply and a point of differentiation for operators.

For example, Alaska is seeing more pink salmon — the most abundant of salmon species and traditionally a canned product — going to filet and other value-added form, thanks to technological advances.

“This is a product that’s overcoming a stigma,” says Hogue. “A lot of people aren’t familiar with it, especially in fresh or frozen form. It has a lighter, more delicate texture, so it does very well in all segments.” Sole and rockfish are other underutilized species finding their way into more culinary applications.

Chefs are also looking at presenting seafood differently in the face of changing customer expectations.

“As with other proteins, we’re seeing smaller portions with bigger impact,” says Hogue. “Chefs are looking to how they can continue to menu it, but also looking at combining seafood with richer flavors and more interesting textures for a bigger impact and more zing than traditional lemon and butter.”

Such creative applications are taking place at The Ram, a casual-dining and brewhouse multi-concept based in Lakewood, Wash.

“Because of rising costs and guests eating healthier, seafood is challenging us to be more creative,” says Ram’s Executive Chef James Cassidy. “The larger portion of protein that used to be the ‘hero’ of the plate has now become more of what we call the ‘highlight’ of the plate, along with new and creative sides and garnishes.” Cassidy describes the technique of pairing low-cost items such as white-cheddar grits to enhance an Alaskan halibut, or a lemon beurre blanc and quinoa with seared Alaskan scallops.

One of the big things seafood has going for it is its inherently healthy perception. “According to the National Restaurant Association’s Hot Trends survey, restaurants who offer seafood have a competitive edge as consumers look for healthier meal options,” says Louisiana Seafood’s Smith. “The USDA’s new dietary guideline recommending at least two servings of fish/seafood a week reinforces that desire.”

High-volume operators recognize the opportunities this represents for foodservice.

“As people look to eat healthier, demand for more fish/seafood choices will continue to grow,” says Beto Rodarte, chef de cuisine for Chili’s, a Brinker concept. The chain just rolled out a new grilled shrimp taco offering, and is testing other shrimp and seafood products, including new fish species.

“One of the challenges for chefs is to continue to find creative ways to prepare and present chicken breast,” says the National Chicken Council’s Tom Super. Here, chicken tenders top a Chopped Watercress Salad with Asian-orange dressing. Photo courtesy of national chicken council. BEEF: Spread the Love
If there’s one protein that conjurs up craveability, it’s beef, from humble ground applications to upscale steaks. Although operators are facing challenges around pricing, they know that consumers still crave beef. To meet the needs of cost-conscious consumers, operators are featuring more economical cuts and smaller portions — 24 and 21 percent of operators, respectively, according to Technomic research.

“Conversely, many consumers see steak as a great ‘reward,’ or as a meal perfect for celebration and indulgence,” says Trevor Amen, director of market intelligence for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA is a contractor for the Beef Checkoff Program). “Operators are responding by continuing to offer bone-in cuts, which has resulted in record sales of T-bone and porterhouse steaks over the past five years — up $8 million from 2010.”

More operators are leveraging consumers’ love for beef by featuring it in applications beyond just the main entrée.

“By menuing steak as an ‘ingredient,’ operators can serve the beef as appetizers or small-plate dishes at lower price points, and actually net a higher profit per steak than if sold as center-of-the-plate,” Amen adds.

With value a major driver at Chili’s restaurants, “we try to respond to that in a creative way,” says chef Rodarte. The chain made some changes to its steak program, including replacing the 11-oz. sirloin with 6- and 10-oz. portion sizes, both offered at lunch and dinner. “By bringing the size options down, we’ve actually seen an increase in interest and sales,” he says. In addition to center-of-the-plate offerings, Chili’s features steak as an ingredient in items like its new Cheesesteak Sandwich of seasoned, shaved steak with a cheese sauce. Rodarte points out that alternative cuts of steak also fit into Chili’s value-focused protein program.

“We need to continue to look toward alternative cuts that deliver the same quality and flavors our customers demand,” he says.

Darren Tristano, executive VP of Technomic, agrees that alternative cuts are an effective strategy going forward, and advises utilizing these cuts of meat with slow-and-low cooking techniques or different seasonings “to bring out the flavor and improve the texture without having a higher priced product.”

The key with beef is to bring a broad range of beef options to a broad cross-section of consumers.

“Even classic steakhouse brands like Morton’s and Fleming’s are now doing burgers, taking inspiration from burger bars,” notes Tristano.

NCBA’s Amen points to menu-item diversity as a solid tactic to generate beef sales and interest.

“While one patron is looking for an indulgent steak dinner, another may be looking for a more optimal portion of a lean cut,” he says. “Broad trends like slicing steak to reduce portion size or serving traditional yet on-trend bone-in cuts can be applied to any restaurant menu.”

When it comes to beef’s menu descriptors, premium attributes resonate with most customers. Technomic research found that 69 percent of consumers agree that high-quality cut descriptors (like sirloin or tenderloin) convey a premium product, while 66 percent respond to variety descriptors (like Angus and Wagyu). Natural, grass-fed and organic descriptors (39, 37 and 35 percent, respectively) also convey a premium perception to consumers. Technomic also found that roughly a third of consumers have a positive response to price increases with “steroid-free,” “hormone-free” and “antibiotic-free” beef.

“Because beef is such a broad ingredient, it comes down to premium positioning,” says Tristano. “More consumers want to know where it comes from and how it’s raised.”

CHICKEN: Beyond the Breast
Chicken remains the most popular protein on American menus, making it a perennial favorite for culinary innovation. Creative portioning, global applications, new cuts and uses, positive health cues and premium quality indicators are all factors fueling menu development.

“Chicken has long been recognized for its versatility, affordability and its nutritional benefits as a lean, center-of-the-plate protein,” says Thomas Super, VP of communications for the National Chicken Council. “We’re seeing more sandwiches using whole muscle breast meat appearing on menus as well as chicken being used more creatively as a topper for any number of different salads. And, there is a greater acceptance today of the use of dark meat, and not just in ethnic dishes,” he adds, noting that popular cuisines like Asian and Latin serve as a gateway to increased use of dark-meat cuts.

At The Ram, a new item takes inspiration from the quirky but classic all-American pairing of chicken and waffles. The brewery-focused concept is testing Big Horn Hefeweizen waffles with buttermilk fried chicken. “We use the thigh and leg which have the most flavor, but we wrap in the micro-brew and its growing popularity,” says chef Cassidy.

Gourmet chicken sausage is another emerging menu trend. In Providence, R.I., Derek Wagner’s house sausage is made of chicken thighs, sage, cayenne, pepper, onions and garlic. San Francisco-based Pasta Pomodoro recently added a garlic-Parmesan chicken sausage to its offerings, cross-utilizing it as a pizza topping and as a grilled entrée.

Chicken’s positive health attributes appeal to aging restaurant-goers. Technomic’s Poultry Consumer Trend Report found that, for 67 percent of consumers, “trying to eat more healthfully” is the reason behind their choice of chicken in restaurants, followed by affordability (42 percent).

At Jason’s Deli, Pat Herring sees the need to place emphasis on wellness. “As people eat more healthfully, we as an industry have to continue to develop sandwiches and menu items with chicken and turkey,” he says. One such development is Jason’s new Artisan Club, a chicken club with goat cheese and pepper jelly on nine-grain artisan bread.

As with other proteins, chicken is also the focus of a growing eco-consciousness. More consumers care about the treatment and source of poultry, according to Technomic research. Fifty-six percent placed importance on “humanely raised” when it comes to poultry, 51 percent noted “sustainability” and 45 percent specified “free range” as important.

“Like with other proteins, corporate social responsibilities come into play with chicken,” says Technomic’s Tristano. “We’re seeing pressure from not only advocacy groups but from younger demographics who really care.”

To address common concerns about how suppliers raise chicken and how operators market it, the National Chicken Council’s Super points out two facts about the American poultry industry: “First, it’s important to note that chickens raised for meat (i.e. broilers) are not raised in cages and shouldn’t be confused with the hens that lay table eggs,” he states. “Second, chickens raised for meat are never given added hormones or steroids — it is illegal in the United States.”

As the industry continues to respond to awareness of such factors, chefs will continue to focus on quality and culinary creativity.

“Chicken takes so well to flavor and ingredient adaptations,” says Herring. “People are going to continue to follow innovations in poultry.”

Showcasing lamb’s versatility, Matthew Accarrino of SPQR in San Francisco uses local lamb from Napa Valley Lamb Co. in creative applications like tomato-and-olive-braised lamb meatballs with polenta. Photo courtesy of american lamb board. PORK: Pulling Innovation Ahead
Over the past few years, cutting-edge chefs have embraced all parts of the pig and have reignited in-house curing and sausage-making, all key drivers of evolving pork trends, says the National Pork Board’s Marketing Director Stephen Gerike.

“Now, we’re seeing housemade charcuterie evolving into cooked products: rilletes, cooked hams, mortadella,” he says. “Cooked charcuterie is a much safer DIY approach and it still gives chefs the ability to offer signature, high-quality items.” Gerike predicts that as more trendsetting chefs make their own hams and cooked deli meats, we’ll see an elevated quality in sandwich meats and brunch offerings in higher volume settings.

“We’re also seeing that as chefs start to cure and hot-smoke their own hams, that is bringing more notice to smoked loins, cooked shoulders like the classic picnic hams and other primal cuts” he says.

Pulled pork is another product undergoing menu innovation.

“It took awhile for pulled pork to find its niche and it was originally limited to pulled pork in barbecue sauce,” says Gerike. “Now we’re seeing chains looking at better-quality pulled pork that is a more-adaptable, non-sauced product.” These products enable greater cross-utilization in more creative and globally inspired ways; for example, pulled pork that can be served with Asian, Cuban or Italian profiles. “This is the next evolution in pulled pork,” says Gerike.

Firehouse Subs is one operation pushing pulled-pork innovation beyond traditional barbecue. Its new King’s Hawaiian Pork & Slaw Sandwich was inspired by the beloved sweet bread; the sandwich stacks hardwood-smoked pork and pepper-Jack cheese with Firehouse’s tangy Hawaiian coleslaw, all served on a King’s Hawaiian sweet sandwich bun.

“We’re not positioning this as a barbecued pork sandwich,” says Firehouse Subs co-founder Robin Sorensen. “To me, we have more to gain by talking about King’s Hawaiian and smoked pork than to use the term ‘barbecue.’ Our goal is to try to find something unique that nobody else has done.”

Sorensen tested other proteins, but the slow-smoked pork enabled him to achieve his goals of a unique and richly flavored product. “The pork turned out to be a great fit here. It’s very tender with such a wonderful flavor with smokey notes to balance the sweet roll, the hot sauce and the coleslaw,” he says. “So far, this sandwich has been the most successful LTO test we’ve ever done.” The sandwich is rolling out systemwide in June.

For Michael Cappon, executive chef of Isabella in Conshohocken, Pa., the tapas format represents a way to menu new and lesser-used cuts of pork.

“People are starting to realize that what we used to consider as leftover parts really are the best parts of the animal,” he says. “With pork, we’ll use a tenderloin for specials, but the two parts I like to use the most are the belly and the cheeks.” Isabella is a contemporary Mediterranean tapas restaurant, which allows Cappon flexibility in protein cuts and options.

“The small-plate movement provides chefs the liberty of not having to worry about the center of the plate as much,” he says. “The cuts I like to use are very rich, and couldn’t really translate to a center-plate item  — you couldn’t eat six ounces of pork belly! A tapas format gives people a chance to sample proteins they wouldn’t otherwise try.”

LAMB: a New Identity
As a protein option, lamb is gaining culinary momentum from the current emphasis on local sourcing, global influences and alternative cuts. Over the past decade, lamb’s culinary identity has been morphing from the rack of lamb with mint jelly to more innovative cuts that appeal to a younger demographic.

“Lamb customers — both chefs and consumers — are a well-educated, demanding crowd that’s interested in where their food comes from and how it’s raised,” points out Megan Wortman, executive director for the American Lamb Board. The board emphasizes connecting chefs with lamb growers; its Chef to Shepherd Program is helping chefs’ efforts to work with local growers, and therefore creating new menu opportunities for lamb.

One of the challenges in working with local growers is the need to move the whole carcass — “They can’t just sell racks,” says Wortman. “This, in turn, is creating a renewed interest in the art of butchery,” she adds, pointing to a variety of new cuts and uses such as ground lamb in burgers, meatballs and shepherd’s pie; innovative lamb sandwiches; lamb neck, belly and shoulder.

“Neck and belly have been really hot,” she notes. “Sirloins are also becoming more common, and they’re a nice portion size for restaurants.”

Wortman points out that for chefs that can handle it, tip-to-tail is a lot less expensive than ordering prime cuts like loin and rack. For Executive Chef Matthew Accarrino at San Francisco’s SPQR restaurant, working with whole lamb “has allowed me to explore uses for traditionally less sought-after cuts and new uses for other cuts like leg. Recently, I’ve been seaming out the leg muscles and creating a mousse from the trimmings, which I wrap around the leg muscle and then poach. It’s a different treatment than roasting the leg whole,” he says.

According to Datassential MenuTrends, lamb is also seeing growth in the appetizer/bar menu category, with operators offering small plates like “lollipop” chops and lamb sliders.

“Lamb takes on whatever flavor profile you love. It has an affinity to ethnic flavor profiles, and with the culinary mash-up trend, it’s a natural when it comes to protein carriers,” says Wortman. “Lamb is an exciting opportunity for the new generation of foodies.”


About The Author

Cathy Nash Holley

Cathy Nash Holley has been publisher and editor-in-chief of Flavor & The Menu magazine since it began nearly 18 years ago. Cathy started her publishing career with Diversified Business Communications, where she worked as an editor for Seafood Business and National Fisherman magazines. In 1998, she joined Media Unlimited Inc., to develop Flavor & The Menu, taking over as owner in 2013. In addition to overseeing the magazine, Cathy gives presentations on flavor trends at industry events, and also serves as President of the International Foodservice Editorial Council. Cathy hails from the Oregon Coast, but for the last 20+ years has lived in Maine with her husband Lex and teenage twins. She enjoys travelling, hikes with her dog Freeda and downtime with the family, and good food or drink, especially anything with Mexican flavor profiles and a cocktail with either Mezcal or St-Germain.