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Food: What All the Fuss Is About – US Food Trends

25 September 2007
Food: What All the Fuss Is About – US Food Trends

Consumers' heightened dining expectations have operators adding upscale touches to their offerings.

This article first appeared in the 1 September 2007 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. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>

By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor

At Fat Head's South Side Saloon in Pittsburgh, grilled pepperoni and sautéed hot banana peppers augment expected burger toppings. In Portland, Ore., hipsters, foodies and seniors alike are drawn to the wood-fired pizzas, roasted local vegetables and house-cured salumi served at Ken's Artisan Pizza. And students at the University of New Hampshire in Durham occasionally have the chance to try macaroni and cheese dressed up with lobster. No matter the segment, consumers seem to appreciate menus with an element of restrained fuss.

The Raw Materials

Although upscale items are not new, consumer response to them has changed. Just over a decade ago, McDonald's first premium burger, the Arch Deluxe, flopped. Marketing campaigns for quick-service and casual-dining chains often built brands by promoting straightforward food. Not so now.

"Diners definitely have an appreciation for better ingredients, for fresher ingredients, for unique ingredients," says Tom Sadler, chief concept officer of Hurricane Grill and Wings in Stuart, Fla. "Our servers and managers have conversations all the time with guests about wasabi or anchos or habaneros. These are conversations that we wouldn't have had 10 years ago."

A recent menu overhaul at Woburn, Mass.-based Ninety Nine has been the most successful menu launch in the company's history. Additions include grilled filet mignon with applewood-smoked bacon and grilled asparagus, grilled turkey panini, and seared vegetable dumplings. Menu standards also were recast, with lemon-crusted salmon becoming cedar-plank salmon served with a sweet orange-bourbon sauce.

The goal is to find ways to give customers an experience worth seeking out. "When we did internal guest taste panels, [guests] told us flat-out, ‘If I can make this at home, why will I come here for it?'" explains George Tagarelis, vice president of research and development at Ninety Nine.

Consumers can and do make burgers at home, but that's not stopping them from getting their burger fix at restaurants. Bob Andersen, who opened Mooyah Burgers & Fries in Plano, Texas, saw an opportunity to deliver a burger that sends clear quality signals (the eatery's motto is "Just burgers. Just fries. Just better."). Mooyah's buns are baked daily; the burgers are never frozen; and the fries are hand-cut. "People want a higher-quality product, but they also want convenience and value," Andersen says. "And I think that's what's driving our business."

Upscale touches also come from offering fine-dining elements in casual spaces, as in wine bars, where proprietors transfer wines and stemware from white-tablecloth environs to casual, sophisticated spaces.

Rich Vallejo, marketing-and-event director for Swirl Wine Bar in Chicago, says upscale serviceware appeals to well-heeled consumers who aren't always looking for a formal experience. "We're not too upscale, but we're not your Irish pub," he says.

Good Naturally

Sourcing organic and natural items also brings in an upscale aura. Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group, The Americas Division, formed a partnership with Portland, Maine-based O'Naturals, a fast-casual company, to franchise stores in its B&I, school and healthcare sectors. The first Compass-run unit opened at the Timberland corporate headquarters in Stratham, N.H.

"There's no difference between colleges or hospitals or business-and-industry," says Will Chizmar, head of marketing for Compass' business-and-industry services. "[Clients] are interested in really good-tasting foods that also are made with natural, organic ingredients,"

Natural and organic has been an integral part of menu development for Big Bowl. The Asian chain, owned and operated by Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, had low-performing pork dishes. Once a switch was made to sustainably raised pork, servers had talking points from which to sell the dishes, and the food followed through with rich, concentrated flavors.

Going for natural and organic products isn't easy, but Matt McMillin, vice president of culinary operations for Big Bowl, says it's worth it. He recommends starting with high-volume items to make a strong statement. "I don't think organic lemons really make an impact," he says. "But if you're doing it with your chicken and pork, that's what really makes the difference."

How High Is Upscale?

George Tagarelis, vice president of research and development for Woburn, Mass.-based Ninety Nine restaurants, won't use the term upscale to describe the changes he's made to Ninety Nine's menu. "‘Upscale' can get you into trouble and turn your focus in the wrong direction," he says. "We prefer ‘polished'."

For Bob Andersen, president of Plano, Texas, burger restaurant Mooyah, "gourmet" is a descriptor to stay away from. He prefers the term premium.

The reason for eschewing words such as upscale and gourmet in quick and casual dining is to avoid driving away customers who might associate upscale and gourmet itemms with too-fussy, too-pricey preparations. Tagarelis puts it this way: "You can't push [the menu] to the point that you start becoming known as a sophisticated restaurant."

And there remain plenty of consumers who prefer comfort food without epicurean accents. Says David May, director of auxiliary services for the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H.: "They still like their pizza and their chicken nuggets and french fries."

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