Quality: the Q Factor – US Food Trends

02 August 2007
Quality: the Q Factor – US Food Trends

On Top 400 menus across all segments, one trend is a given: diners demand quality.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 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 Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

What is the key driver of restaurant menus? It's the industry's eternal question and the answer, although never entirely static, always encompasses the voice of customers.

Witness the "artisan" pizzas with "aged prosciutto" at Concord, Calif.-based Round Table Pizza; soft-serve ice cream swirled into "fresh-baked" waffle cones at Minneapolis-based Dairy Queen; and "made-to-order" guacamole from Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based The Cheesecake Factory.

The Top 400 chain menus are peppered with descriptors that spotlight the call to quality: Sought-after terms such as "house-made," "organic" and "sustainable" are increasingly common as operators across dining segments strive to create more-upscale perceptions of their brands.

"Telling guests our guacamole is made to order lets them know it's fresh. In the front of our menu, we let people know that everything is made to order," says The Cheesecake Factory's Howard Gordon, senior vice president of business development and marketing. "That's what guests are looking for."

Another force behind new menu items is the trickle-down effect-the flow of ideas from fine dining to casual restaurants, from fast casual to quick service, and from casual dining to family dining. In short, such between-segment trading can take place anywhere.

Combination plates offering multiple appetizers or entrées, popular in casual-dining in recent years, are showing up on quick-service menus in the form of sampler meals such as Louisville, Ky.-based KFC's Boneless Variety Bucket (chicken strips, boneless honey-barbecue wings and popcorn chicken) and San Diego-based Jack in the Box's Sampler Trio (stuffed jalapeÁ±os, mozzarella sticks and bite-size chicken pieces).

Family-dining chains, including Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Marie Callender's and Carlsbad, Calif.-based Coco's Restaurant & Bakery, tout seasonal menus, while casual-dining and fast-casual concepts embrace the comfort-food craze still sweeping independent restaurants, evidenced by The Cheesecake Factory's Crispy Pork Tenderloin with Macaroni and Cheese and Cary, N.C.-based Bear Rock Cafe's Meatloaf Marsala.

Armed with beefed-up research-and-development facilities and dedicated corporate chefs (many of whom began their careers in fine-dining kitchens), chains can react instantly to diners' constantly changing hungers.

Further dictating chain menu evolution are the diverse consumer needs addressed by each chain segment-quick service, fast casual, family dining and casual/upscale-casual restaurants.

QSR: Does the Q Really Stand for Quality?

Pinched by encroachments from fast-casual, the quick-service segment rebounded with a wake-up call. Breakfast is a $65 billion market, and these chains are looking to grab their share.

Later this year, Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy's will debut a.m. menus that feature Custom Bean coffee, French Toast Sticks and Buttermilk Frescuits in 20% to 30% of its North American locations. St. Louis-based Hardee's tossed a new protein into the morning mix with a turkey-laced Breakfast Club Sandwich, and even concepts not typically associated with breakfast are on board with the early hours: Milford, Conn.-based Subway added toasted omelet sandwiches at its 8,000 U.S. locations that serve breakfast, and Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell is testing morning choices in four markets.

Upping the ante is Miami-based Burger King's Breakfast Value Menu, with 10 items for $1 to $1.39 each (Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's offers breakfast value options in several markets). Two new products, a ham-omelet sandwich with honey-butter sauce and snack-friendly Cheesy Tots, kicked off BK's February launch of the menu.

"Consumers always are looking for warm, on-the-go solutions that feel like a meal," says John Schaufelberger, BK's vice president of product marketing and innovation. "That's why most of our items have multiple ingredients, such as egg and a protein, and why we offer more side choices."

As the breakfast battle plays out, QSRs' recent spate of snack offerings-inspired by an industrywide trend that most observers agree has huge sales potential-has remained somewhat below the radar. Among those leading the way are Columbus, Ohio-based White Castle's Buffalo Chicken Bites, KFC's Fish Snacker and Jack in the Box's Spicy Chicken Bites. Never one to sit by idly, McDonald's recently added Cinnamon Melts-small cinnamon rolls sold all day-to its menu.

Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin' Donuts continues to march beyond breakfast with regional tests of pizza, chicken biscuits and flatbread sandwiches. At Nashville, Tenn.-based Captain D's, where battered seafood once was the dominant offering, guests now find grilled Alaskan salmon, tilapia and catfish or shrimp skewers, as well as pasta bowls topped with shrimp or chicken and boldly flavored sauces. Upgraded salads and sandwiches are in the works, and side-dish choices have doubled to include options such as macaroni and cheese and garlic mashed potatoes.

"QSR consumers now expect more of a flavor experience instead of just getting filled up," says Mark Miller, Captain D's director of research and development.

Fast-Casual Fast-Forwards

Still the hottest-growth segment, fast-casual companies are upping the innovation ante with new menu additions. Vietnamese-style Pho Noodle Bowls in vegetarian and chicken varieties proved to be one of the year's most successful introductions at Newark, Calif.-based salad concept Fresh Choice, while Dallas-based Corner Bakery Cafe rounds out a traditional morning lineup of eggs, breakfast sandwiches and French toast with its new Crunchy Honey Banana Oatmeal, topped with granola, toasted almonds, dried cranberries, sliced bananas and honey.

MaggieMoo's Ice Cream & Treatery's unique ice-cream cupcakes (pictured below), which were rolled out in response to the surge of consumer interest in cupcakes, now provide a point of differentiation for the chain.

Like their QSR brethren, fast-casual chains also seek to broaden customer bases by expanding into new menu categories. Bear Rock Cafe and Deerfield, Ill.-based Cosi now offer dinner entrées; Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Baja Fresh Mexican Grill has added dessert; and Chicago-based Potbelly Sandwich Works has introduced made-to-order salads.

For Atlanta-based Moe's Southwest Grill, mixing up the menu in 2007 meant launching its first-ever limited-time of-fer: the Chicken Club Quesadilla.

"The idea is to take everyday products people are already eating and give them our Southwestern-Mexican flair," says Daniel Barash, senior director of operations and product development. "LTOs show consumers we are working to bring them back, and that we are as much interested in them as they are in us."

Family Dining Grows Up

Paying attention to the winning ideas of operators across dining segments is paying off for family-dining chains looking to shed their staid images. Taking a page from fine dining, several savvy concepts now feature seasonally inspired selections: Marie Callender's winter "fireside favorites" lineup included Braised and Slow-Roasted Pot Roast, while Bayou BBQ Shrimp highlights the spring menu at Coco's Restaurant & Bakery.

Global influences, deeply ingrained in contemporary American dining, also have found their way into fast-casual kitchens. The Tropics menu at Columbus, Ohio-based Max & Erma's features jerk pork chops with grilled jalapeÁ±o and sweet-potato-banana mash, and the Taste of Tuscany promotion at Madison, Wis.-based Country Kitchen includes entrées such as Sausage & Peppers Rustica and Tuscan Sun-Dried Tomato Penne.

Taking a page from QSR and casual-dining, several family-dining brands are turning their attention to bigger and better salads. Nashville, Tenn.-based O'Charley's reaches for Mediterranean flavors to create Greek Chicken Salad with roasted red bell peppers, kalamata olives, red onions and feta cheese. Cranberry Pecan Chicken Salad stands out among the new Big Farm Salads at Columbus, Ohio-based Bob Evans.

Also finding their way into fast casual are upgraded kids' menus built around more-creative options and healthful choices. At Denver-based Village Inn, new choices center around finger foods and dippable items such as French Toast Sticks, Grilled Cheese Dunkers and baked graham or cheese crackers.

"If you have young kids, you know how much they can control the meal period," says Village Inn President Jeff Guido. "We tried to bring more fun to the food and offer choices to let kids choose the components of their meals."

Casual Chains Get Fancy

Trickle-down trends from independent restaurants are injecting excitement into casual-dining kitchens. Neapolitan-style pizzas-crispy, thin-crust pies scoring big with American audiences-have debuted at Dallas-based Boston's The Gourmet Pizza in Caprese and Extreme Mushroom varieties. Wild-caught monkfish, a favorite in upscale dining rooms, was a recent seasonal spotlight at Tampa, Fla.-based Bonefish Grill, where fillets were wrapped in prosciutto and then pan-roasted.

The latest in-vogue beef products are garnering menu play, too. All-natural Angus beef now dominates steak selections at Los Altos, Calif.-based Black Angus Steakhouse. Trendy flat-iron steak headlined Atlanta-based Don Pablo's Mexican Kitchen's "Let's Get Flat" promotion in mesquite-grilled entrées this spring, and Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurants menus a teriyaki-sauced version of the fashionable cut.

As diners delve deeper into global cuisines, casual-dining menus are following suit with recipes shaped by regional ethnic specialties. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang's China Bistro continues its exploration of China with the Flavors of Yunnan menu, where dishes spotlight ingredients unique to the southwestern province, such as cured ham, cheeses and numerous varieties of mushrooms and chiles. At Lubbock, Texas-based Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy, house specialties hail from interior and coastal regions of Mexico. Tilapia Veracruz, a spin on traditional huachinango a la veracruzana, swaps traditionally used red snapper for the milder tilapia; it is sautéed with shrimp, scallops, tomatoes, poblano peppers and olives.

"Competing enchilada to enchilada doesn't really let us differentiate ourselves from other Mexican restaurants," says Chief Operating Officer Dirk Rambo. "These dishes bring true Mexican culture to our menu."

Word Play

A few well-seasoned words go a long way toward triggering orders, as the following menu debuts demonstrate:

  • Herb-Crusted Center-Cut Sirloin (O'Charley's)
  • Hearth-Baked Dinners (Cosi)
  • Tuscan Chicken Rustica (Marie Callender's)
  • Mojito Shrimp Salad (Fox & Hound Pub & Grille)
  • Flame Thrower Chicken Sandwich (Dairy Queen)
  • Rustic Pizza (Papa Gino's)
  • Bistro Chicken Press (Atlanta Bread Co.)
  • Homestyle Meatloaf (Denny's)
  • Frescuit Sandwiches (Wendy's)
  • Extreme Mushroom Pizza (Boston's The Gourmet Pizza)
  • 3 Hour Pot Roast (Bear Rock Cafe)
  • Tropical Stacked Salad (Max & Erma's)

Sweet Nothings

Desserts are sweet ways to build check averages. Scouting the Top 400 menus reveals a few thematic approaches to the final act.

  • Banana-rama: Oklahoma City-based Sonic's banana-pudding shake, Minneapolis-based Dairy Queen's Banana Cream Pie Blizzard and Atlanta-based Cinnabon's Banana Cream Chillatta all point to desserts with appeal.
  • Handy ideas: Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Baja Fresh Mexican Grill's churros and Atlanta-based Atlanta Bread Company Bakery Cafe's Sour Cream Crumble, Raspberry Ripple and Pumpkin Sour Cream Swirl dessert bars show that grab-and-go can successfully invade the dessert course.
  • Update cheesecake: Nashville, Tenn-based O'Charley's Crème BrÁ»lée Cheesecake; Taylors, S.C.-based Fatz Cafe's Mango-Guava Mousse Cheesecake; and Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based The Cheesecake Factory's Tres Leches Cheesecake all show that the enduring favorite enchants with new flavors.
  • Shake it, baby!: Creative milkshake flavors such as blackberry at San Diego-based Jack in the Box and hazelnut-marionberry at Beaverton, Ore.-based Shari's Restaurant tempt diners to ice cream.

Sizing Things Up-Or Down

Chains finally may have found the secret to trimming serving sizes. The key, if recent strategies are any indication, is to make sure the price-portion equation balances out.

  • Dallas-based T.G.I. Friday's Right Portion, Right Price menu is one much-publicized example, and Columbus, Ohio-based Brio Tuscan Grille is taking a similar tack. The chain counts lower-priced Small Plates lunch items among its most successful introductions for 2007. Among the 10 items om the menu are a half-portion Lasagna Bolognese with salad; Petite Chicken "Under The Brick"; and a 4-ounce filet mignon.
  • At Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based The Cheesecake Factory, Senior Vice President of Business Development and Marketing Howard Gordon says new Weight Management Salads (shown) have taken off. The five selections have less than 590 calories, thanks to low-calorie dressings and servings that are smaller than the chain's typical hefty plates but larger than its lunch portions.
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