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All for One, One for All – US Food Trends

20 July 2009

The latest chain-menu additions are all about helping diners conserve cash and calories, but the underlying trend is giving consumers what they want, exactly how they want it.

This article first appeared in the 1 July 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

The big theme shaping chain menus in 2009 is the drive to help diners tighten their belts, both literally and figuratively.

Yet looming over all menu-innovation decisions for Top 400 companies and other chains is the knowledge that consumers want more say in their dining experiences. Diners are looking for restaurants that will give them what they want to eat and drink, whenever they want to have it and at a price they're willing to pay.

"People want lower prices, period, but more than that, consumers just want control," says John Dillon, vice president of marketing and product development for Spartanburg, S.C.-based Denny's. "We're trying to capture every consumer mindset that walks into our restaurant."

Sounds like a tall order, but chains' recent game plans suggest that this approach of broadening menu choices to please more-demanding diners is gaining steam. In recent months, Denny's has introduced half-portions of signatures such as the Moons Over My Hammy breakfast, downsized meatloaf and other hefty dishes, added better-for-you choices including egg-white omelets and whole-wheat pancakes, and debuted the All Nighter snack menu with dishes starting at $2.99.

Meanwhile, a slew of pizza concepts, including Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino's Pizza and Pittsburgh-based Vocelli Pizza have added pasta lines; Miami-based Burger King is rolling out ribs; Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy's has introduced boneless chicken wings; and Louisville, Ky.-based KFC now touts grilled chicken. Even Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based The Cheesecake Factory, noted for its mountainous portions, launched a Snacks & Small Plates menu this spring.

"Even though we already have a great variety story, news drives the business," says Mark Mears, senior vice president and chief marketing officer. "It's really a different way to dine at The Cheesecake Factory. These dishes allow us to make [our] dining experience more accessible to more people."


More customer-friendly pricing isn't the only driver behind the push toward downsized servings, but it's a big part of the strategy. That's one reason why even companies such as Chipotle, which rarely changes its menu and never discounts, are getting on board.

Chipotle's Low Roller Menu, testing since April in the chain's home market of Denver, veers from the classic mix of hefty burritos and taco trios. Options include a chicken taco with salsa and lettuce and a choice of cheese or sour cream; a cup of roasted tomatillo, tomato and hominy soup; and a side salad of chopped romaine with salsa, cheese and chipotle-honey vinaigrette, all priced from $2.25 to $6.35. The new items offer more variety at affordable price points, says founder, Chairman and co-CEO Steve Ells.

Trimmed portions also let diners mix and match more on menus. Customers who want to try Atlanta-based Ted's Montana Grill's new chopped salad (with salami, artichoke hearts, corn, garbanzo beans, tomato, cucumber and basil dressed in vinaigrette) can order half-portions for $5 instead of the full size for $10 and still have room for a sandwich or entrée.

And of course, helping guests eat more healthfully often is a key objective. Sometimes, says Dillon at Denny's, "It's just being a good consumer advocate and making sure we aren't giving people too much food."


Still, more-manageable portion sizes are only part of what health-minded chain consumers are asking for, says Cammie Spillyards, director of culinary innovation for Dallas-based Chili's Grill & Bar. "We're hearing from guests about more transparency about what's in our items," she says, noting that sodium (which the chain is planning to reduce across the menu) and artificially occurring trans fats (eliminated in 2007) are among diners' top concerns.

Listening to their customers, more chains are offering special menus dedicated to more-healthful fare. At Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based Culver's Frozen Custard & ButterBurgers, the 500 Club Healthy Menu spotlights sub-500-calorie choices, such as the pot-roast sandwich with a side salad. The 400-calorie Lighter Fare menus from Einstein Bros. Bagels and Noah's Bagels feature such items as the Ancho Chicken Wedge-a wheat tortilla filled with chiles, jalapeÁ±o-salsa cream cheese and ancho-chile-marinated chicken, and an egg-white bagel sandwich with turkey sausage.

Chili's, which has offered Guiltless Grill dishes containing fewer than 750 calories and 25 grams of fat since 1993, added four new entrées to its lineup in February. The goal, says Spillyards, isn't just to create more-healthful options by relying on leaner proteins, steamed vegetables, and lower-fat and lower-calorie sauces, but also to make the choices sound appealing to guests.

"Words like ‘Buffalo chicken,' ‘honey-mustard glaze' and ‘carne asada' say to diners, ‘Hey, this isn't just a chicken breast and some rice.' It's not the old days of, ‘I have to suffer for my health," she says of new selections, including Carne Asada (spice-rubbed sirloin with fresh-squeezed lime juice and house-made pico de gallo) and a Buffalo Chicken Sandwich (grilled chicken breast with low-fat ranch dressing and Buffalo sauce).


Giving customers more control over how they use restaurants also means giving them the flexibility to eat what they like, whenever they like. Snacks, which offer the lower prices and smaller sizes that customers crave, are a prime example, and chains across segments are rolling them out.

Cheesecake Factory’s Snacks and Small Plates
Cheesecake Factory’s Snacks and Small Plates
The variety in such entries ranges from El Pollo Loco's Grilled Chicken Tortilla Roll (with citrus-marinated grilled chicken, Jack and Cheddar cheeses and a choice of toppings for $1.99) to Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Krispy Kreme's personal-size cakes.

At The Cheesecake Factory, the Snacks & Small Plates menu includes trend-forward choices such as sweet-corn fritters and bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Parmesan cheese.

"We have 16 different tastes that can be shared as a pre-appetizer or mixed and matched for a snack or meal," Mears says. "We're not seeing ill effects on our appetizer mix, because the price point is so attractive, customers see it as a low-risk way to try new tastes."


Chipotles, sliders, mojitos-every few years, an ingredient or recipe makes such a big splash with chain consumers that it becomes a virtual menu must-have. So what's up next? R&I culled a list of the latest contenders:

Meatballs. Already huge among independent-restaurant chefs, meatballs make an ideal menu addition for chains for the same reasons they work for single-unit operations: They're affordable; they're simple; they're comfort food. Already on board: A spring promotion at Littleton, Colo.-based Champps Americana featured a Chicken Meatball Sandwich on a toasted hoagie roll with marinara sauce and provolone cheese; Concord, Calif.-based Round Table Pizza got into the act with the Meatball Marvel pizza and sandwich; and Dallas-based T.G.I. Friday's added a Meatball Sandwich on ciabatta.

Hot Browns. Sandwiches are about as close to recession-proof as menus get, and Philly cheesesteaks, Reubens and Cubanos have all had a turn as "the" hot build. Next up: the Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey sandwich blanketed in Mornay sauce (béchamel with cheese). Already on board: Atlanta-based J. Christopher's Kentucky Hot Brown layers turkey over toasted French bread with creamy cheese-and-bacon sauce. Meanwhile, Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based The Cheesecake Factory added the Hot Turkey Supreme, an open-faced turkey sandwich over grilled brioche and fresh spinach with white-Cheddar sauce.

Hybrids. Chain diners are notorious for craving new flavors that don't stray too far from recipes they know and love, so dishes that combine two or more well-established favorites seem a sure bet. Already on board: Carlsbad, Calif.-based Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill's All-American Taco delivers a char-grilled burger, American cheese, salsa, garlic-chipotle mayonnaise and lettuce inside a warm flour tortilla. San Diego-based Jack in the Box's Taco Nachos uses chunks of the chain's signature tacos as a base for Cheddar-cheese sauce, melted pepper-Jack cheese, jalapeÁ±os and salsa.

Hot dogs. This American classic isn't yet in high supply beyond dedicated concepts such as Carlsbad, Calif.-based Hot Dog on a Stick, but hot dogs' nostalgic, economical appeal means the ballpark favorite increasingly is cropping up on all kinds of menus. Already on board: Lakewood, Wash.-based The Ram Restaurant & Brewery recently featured beer-battered Crab & Shrimp Corn Dogs. Columbus, Ohio-based Rise & Dine Restaurants offers the Back to Basics Value Menu, built around regionally influenced dogs from Chicago, New York and Texas, as well as jalapeÁ±o-cheese and Reuben dogs.

Bowls. These all-in-one meals are back, and for good reason. They're fast, versatile and operationally simple. Already on board: Cypress, Calif.-based Chevys Fresh Mex's $7.99 Lunch Bowl offers ramped-up flavors such as grilled salmon with Mexican rice, tomatillo sauce and roasted-corn salsa, or chicken with house-made mole, rice and mesquite-grilled vegetables. At Jack in the Box, the Hearty Breakfast Bowl with scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage and Cheddar cheese was among the year's most successful debuts.

Fried potatoes. Potatoes are a cost-effective kitchen staple, and fried foods are always a home run, so it makes sense that operators are serving up multiple renditions of the crisp, golden treat. Already on board: Glendale, Calif.-based IHOP's Loaded Country Hash Browns featured toppings such as sausage, Cheddar cheese, grilled onions and country gravy, while Atlanta-based Hooters debuted Bleu Chips (fresh-cooked potato chips covered in blue cheese, bacon, diced tomatoes and green onions) and Lots-a-Tots (fried potato tots with cheese sauce, bacon, green onions and sour cream).


Discounts, value menus, coupons, buy-one-get-one deals-they're a big part of restaurant chains' tactics for getting diners in the door today, but are the short-term gains worth the long-term effects? Says industry veteran Chris Muller, professor and director at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management in Orlando: "It's almost always a bad idea."

Why? Discounting brings the danger of devaluing a brand. For example, offering an $11.49 chipotle-steak sandwich for $5 during a promotion tells customers that's what it's really worth; they'll think it's overpriced later on, Muller says. Instead, he advises launching aggressively priced limited-time offers to avoid undercutting core menu items.

Ironically, though, product giveaways-think Spartanburg, S.C.-based Denny's much-publicized Free Grand Slam Day in February-can really work, Muller says. "[Especially] if you're bringing out a new item, giving people the chance to taste it makes a lot of sense." However, "It doesn't work if you haven't planned for the process," he says, noting the product shortages that Louisville, Ky.-based KFC experienced after touting an offer for free grilled chicken on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

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