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Protein Makes Big Plays

Thin-sliced, medium-rare, premium beef is the foundation of the hugely successful Angus Three-Cheese-and-Bacon LTO at Arby’s. Photo courtesy of arby’s. Removing fat, sodium and additives while adding flavor brings a healthy glow to the center of the plate

By Monica Kass Rogers

As America rebounds from the recession, center-of-the-plate innovation projects that were on hold are now back on chain-restaurant test-kitchen calendars. It’s an exciting time, developmentally.

Chicken remains top of the roost, but turkey’s up and coming. Premium-beef burgers with a pedigree haven’t waned, but no-name commodity meats have. Oysters are hot; so is shrimp. Interest in alternative proteins, from tofu to quinoa, is definitely on the rise.

And finding ways to do all this with lots of flavor and less fat is very much a strategy.

One of the more interesting menus to take all of this into account is being unveiled this summer with the Palo Alto, Calif., launch of health-food-for-the-masses chain LYFE Kitchen, which hopes to total 250 units within five years.

A Chicago-based collaboration between former McDonald’s alums Mike Donahue and Mike Roberts, LYFE (Love Your Food Everyday) is positioned as a stealth-health fast-casual concept. Chef Art Smith, James Beard award-winner and former chef for Oprah Winfrey, was brought onboard to develop the menu, incorporating his love for “clean comfort” recipes. Smith is collaborating with chef-consultant, vegan-foods expert Tal Ronnen to build the core menu for LYFE. All items are under 600 calories.

“What I’m most excited about with LYFE,” says Smith, “is that we are using proteins that are humanely raised and cleanly produced and healthfully prepared and yet are priced and designed to be accessible and affordable to a large audience.”

Smith’s Un-fried Chicken is an adaptation of a family recipe for lightly brined and buttermilk-marinated chicken. But instead of dredging in white flour, he dips the breast in multi-grain crumbs and spices. And instead of  dropping the filet into a deep-fat fryer, he convection-oven roasts it. The crunchy-coated result will be served with fat- and sugar-free condiments on a multi-grain bun, plated with roasted butternut squash and Brussels sprouts as one of LYFE’s “signature plates.”

The company’s signature burger is fashioned of lean, grass-fed Niman Ranch beef, sprinkled with LYFE’s proprietary spicy Caribbean-styled seasoning and seared under a high-heat broiler to seal in the juices without added fat. The basic build includes romaine lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickle, agave-sweetened ketchup, and (upon-request) LYFE’s special sauce — a soy-mayo/Dijon mustard-and-spice blend — and cheddar, Swiss or goat cheese.

Blazing trails with alternative proteins, LYFE features quinoa in its Ancient Grains Bowl, a quinoa-and-farro pilaf with spices, onion and cooked greens. LYFE also will be offering a meat-free, soy-grain-vegetable blend fashioned into burgers and prepared in various other ways.

Smith says adding flavor with less fat, less sodium and minimal sweeteners (agave nectar is used; white sugar and corn syrup are not) to center-plate proteins meant choosing leaner cuts of beef, baking, grilling and roasting instead of frying, and developing flavorful spice blends, sauces and house-made pickles.

“Ultimately,” says Smith, “eating like this means you can have your comfort at the same time that you can have your health.”

Qdoba’s lean, slow-cooked pork or beef mini tacos both come in at under 400 calories per serving, with an extra charge of protein from Ancho Chile BBQ Beans. Photo courtesy of qdoba. PREMIUM PROJECTIONS
In March, Atlanta-based Arby’s launched a premium-roast-beef LTO — an Angus Three-Cheese-and-Bacon sandwich, featuring USDA whole-muscle, top-round Angus beef, roasted to medium rare and thinly sliced. Brian Kolodziej, vice president of product development and integration, reports that sales of the $4.99 sandwich (a good 75 cents higher than Arby’s typical sandwich) have been “incredible.” He says Arby’s believes the product line will drive its turn-around and likely move to the core menu.

Kolodziej is putting finishing touches on several more Angus roast-beef sandwiches for later this summer, including a cheesy French Dipper with thick gravy among them. But first up? A New England-style grinder, with garlicky pickles, banana peppers, lettuce, red onions, tomatoes and an herbed vinaigrette, which showcases the meat’s ability to “taste just as good in a cool, deli-style application as it does hot,” says Kolodziej.

In addition to the product’s premium appeal, the top round is 94 percent lean, giving it a “built-in health halo.” With that in mind, he is working on thin-sliced beef on a whole-wheat wrap with balsamic-feta vinaigrette.

“Lean” is also built into the protein toppers for Denver-based Qdoba Mexican Grill’s newly launched Mini Street Tacos LTO. Three street-vendor-style tacos, soft mini corn tortillas folded around fillings, come with a choice of shredded pork shoulder (330 calories) or shredded ball-tip beef (360 calories) for $4.99. Both proteins are slow-cooked (the pork for six hours in a signature blend of spices, green chiles, jalapeños, bell peppers, garlic and onions; the seasoned beef for seven hours) and topped with a garnish of red onion and fresh cilantro. They get an extra protein boost from a side of Ancho Chile BBQ Beans sauced with Qdoba’s only slightly Americanized three-chile, chocolate and pumpkin-seed molé.

“We’ve always kind of balanced value with premium stylings and health considerations,” says Ted Stoner, Qdoba’s head chef. “This dish is a perfect example.”

Qdoba’s slow-cooked pork and shredded beef have been on the menu in other applications for five years, he says, “but it was always overshadowed by guests’ propensity to buy the chicken or steak burritos they habitually ordered. I always felt that if we did a ‘hero’ dish showcasing these proteins, they would have a chance to truly shine.”

Meanwhile, at Atlanta-based Moe’s Southwest Grill, Executive Chef Dan Barash also has been at work on beef betterment. The chain soon will launch beef barbacoa into a 20-store test.

The beef — part of the flank — is slow-cooked for 10 hours in smoky chile rojo sauce before being shredded and served on a burrito, quesadilla or rice bowl. The made-to-match toppings include roasted corn, pico de gallo, citrus sour cream and fresh cilantro. The barbacoa — like the 5 million pounds of sirloin steak Moe’s uses each year, is sourced from grass-fed, hormone-free herds in Uruguay and Australia.

Heading up menu development at the 1,944-unit Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Director of Culinary Innovation Amy Alarcon is constantly on the lookout for Cajun/Creole applications for her concept’s core product, chicken. Intrigued by the fact that “pepper chase,” a byproduct of hot-pepper sauce, has long been used to add potent flavor to all sorts of packaged food products, Alarcon started playing with pepper-chase powder as a seasoning for chicken-breast strips.

Cutting the strips just-so, Alarcon knew they’d twist and tangle into wildly whimsical shapes when deep-fried — just the right look for the “wicked”-hot seasoning powder. The result: Popeyes Wicked Chicken, sold for $3.99 in a snack box with Cajun fries, a buttermilk biscuit, ranch dipping sauce and a mini bottle of Tabasco Pepper Sauce. The item is Popeyes’ most successful LTO yet and this summer will become its first-ever to go global.

The hottest thing happening with chicken at Costa Mesa, Calif.-based El Pollo Loco is a more-nuanced sweet heat: Sweet Habanero Chicken, sauced with a guava, orange marmalade and habanero glaze that evokes the flavor of the Yucatan, will be an LTO this summer.

Featured four ways — as a taco, salad, bowl and flame-grilled chicken — Sweet Habanero Chicken is served with pickled onion, fresh-sliced avocado, pepitas and pineapple, which is grilled in-store and, says Executive Chef Jonathan Rogan, adds a wonderful aroma and caramelized flavor.

Chicken may be the chain-restaurant favorite, but turkey is segueing onto menus as a flavorful, versatile and healthful option beyond Thanksgiving. The surprise leader of the charge is 3,000-plus unit CKE Restaurants, which a few short years ago made much of the excesses of its 1,400-calorie Monster Burger.

Stating that its mainly male audience is now interested in alternatives to beef, Carpinteria, Calif.-based CKE just launched turkey burgers into six core-menu berths at both its Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. chains. Hardee’s offers a plain, a Mushroom Swiss and a Barbecue Ranch turkey burger. At Carl’s Jr., there’s also a plain turkey burger, plus a Teriyaki (with grilled pineapple and Swiss cheese) and a Guacamole (with pepper-Jack cheese). All are under 500 calories apiece.

Bruce Frazer, senior VP of product marketing and R&D for the chain, says the burgers were developed a year ago in partnership with Men’s Health and the authors of the magazine’s “Eat This, Not That!” books — folks who have been notoriously tough on Hardee’s menu offerings.

“Men’s Health met with us in our test kitchens,” says Frazer. “The idea was to develop a line of lower-calorie, better-for-you foods that would still taste indulgent. We tested salads, burgers, chicken sandwiches. But the turkey burgers were what really resonated in tests with our guests.”

Frazer says Hardee’s spent months analyzing and refining the recipes and had already done a lot of development work on turkey before Men’s Health entered the picture.

“We were pretty far down the road with the testing, but the difficult thing was figuring out how to keep the burger juicy, moist and flavorful without taking on a gamey taste.”

Now that CKE’s got turkey-burger traction (the turkey burgers are selling better than projected), “round two will be getting some of those other proteins where we would like them,” Frazer concludes.

Beyond the burger format, “turkey is one of those proteins that is actually very traditional and very versatile in Mexican cooking,” says Qdoba’s Stoner. Slow-cooked and shredded and seasoned in a light sauce of fried tomatoes, onions and smoky chipotle chiles, turkey is commonly used as the base for a Mexican dish called tinga. In addition to adding flavor, the slow cooking renders any fat out of the turkey, says Stoner, who is developing a turkey tinga product for Qdoba.

“The big benefit in working with a boldly flavored protein, as opposed to just creating one dish, is that you can apply that protein so many ways: taco, burrito, salad, soup. You have the potential to reach a lot more guests.”

Pepper Bacon & Eggs, launched in March as part of a “Baconalia” LTO, has been a huge hit with Denny’s customers, who soon may find a sausage counterpart on the chain’s menu. Photo courtesy of denny’s. SWIMMINGLY SUCCESSFUL
Given greater guest interest in bold seasonings, lower carbs and less fat, it’s no surprise that seafood — which is a great, low-calorie carrier for flavor — is selling so well.

Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Tossed, a salad/wrap/soup concept with five locations around the country, created an unusual shrimp filling for one of its low-fat whole-wheat “crêpe” wraps: cayenne-pepper seasoned shrimp with baby spinach and a sweet salsa of strawberries, sweet bell peppers, red onions, cilantro and lemon juice. According to Tossed VP of Operations Lou Palermo, the $8.95 Spicy Shrimp and Strawberry Salsa Wrap LTO “tested really well” and has been selling at a pace that may merit a return next menu revision.

“People want something a little different, with a lot of flavor and freshness that won’t destroy the nutritional value of the finished dish. Pairing spiced shrimp with the sweet-savory freshness of a strawberry salsa fits that demand,” says Palermo.

The Shrimp ’n Scratch-made Grits on Lebanon, Tenn.-based Cracker Barrel’s new spring menu marks the first time the chain has offered a made-from-scratch grits recipe targeted for the dinner guest. Director of Product Development Bill Kintzler says the recipe begins with grits, flavored with Colby and Parmesan cheese, “all brought together with some savory and buttery components.” The dish comes on the heels of the successful Low Country Boil shrimp entrée Cracker Barrel featured last year.

“That got us thinking that we could try even more adventurous shrimp recipes,” says Kintzler. Following that hunch, along with the Shrimp ’n Scratch-made Grits this season, Cracker Barrel also introduced a new Shrimp Po’ Boy, which features a dozen buttermilk-batter-fried shrimp topped with lettuce, tomatoes and tartar sauce on a cheddar roll.

Two-unit Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago had taken mussels off its menu three years ago, but offered them to brisk sales again this spring, served in a spicy, Thai-style red curry broth. Oysters are also “real hot right now,” says Steve LaHaie, senior VP, who points out that producers are bringing more new oyster varieties onto the market. This year alone, Shaw’s has added seven new oysters to its menu, pushing the number it sells throughout the year up to 35.

“Better priced, more-casual seafood options like oysters, shrimp and mussels just make sense,”says LaHaie.

LaHaie also finds that lake fish is growing in popularity. Perch, simply sautéed and served with cole slaw, sells well, as do walleye (with a horseradish crust) and whitefish (sautéed with lemon butter and served with a mushroom/artichoke salad.)

Robert Okura, VP of culinary development for The Cheesecake Factory and its sister concept, Grand Luxe Café, says the same fish varieties are gaining in popularity at Grand Luxe. “They give us a way to cater to regional tastes,” says Okura.

With greater interest in plant-based diets, alternative proteins are making inroads into the multi-unit restaurant realm.

At Chicago’s Protein Bar, a four-unit, fast-casual chain from founder Matt Matros, rolled into the protein-rich breakfast/lunch/dinner menu mix are some very creative non-meat options. Quinoa — the highest non-meat source for protein — figures prominently as a hot-cereal breakfast bowl, rolled into wraps, and as the base for various meat and veggie bowls.

“It’s in 90 percent of our recipes,” says Matros. “Twenty percent of our overall breakfast sales are quinoa. When you consider that’s up against granola and oatmeal, you can see that quinoa really is gaining ground. People like the fact that it’s gluten free. And a lot of our guests tell us that they are looking for more non-meat protein options.”

Matros hasn’t yet started dabbling in seitan and tempeh, meaty soy products. To date, California-based vegan fast-casual Native Foods Café claims the “best seitan and tempeh” title, with a menu centered on chef/founder Tanya Petrovna’s made-fresh-in-house dishes. She recently joined with new business partners to put the seven-unit concept on the expansion track; three Chicago units will open this summer.


About The Author

Monica Kass Rogers

Monica Kass Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer based in Evanston, ill.