This article first appeared in the 1 November 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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Memorable accompaniments can mean the difference between meals that stand out and those that are just plain standard. That's why even though french fries once again rule as the top-selling menu side, this year's Menu Census offers plenty more news worth noting about attention-getting sidekicks.
Macaroni and cheese, for one, is making an impressive run on menus, with nearly 40% of operators ranking the nostalgic favorite among their top three sellers in the grains, pastas and legumes category. In the noncommercial sector, that figure jumps to 60%.
Also finding favor on the accompaniment front are sweet-potato fries, currently on 18% of menus and capturing the top spot among potato dishes operators are thinking of adding to their repertoire. Sweet potatoes, actually not potatoes at all but rather an edible root, also show up on menus with increasing frequency in mashed and baked recipes as well.
Soup, a complement well-suited to sandwiches and salads as well as more-elaborate entrées, is garnering interest in kitchens beyond most-often-menued choices such as chicken noodle, clam-seafood chowder and tomato. Seafood bisque, Asian soups and vegetarian chili are the top three recipes operators are thinking about adding.
More insights into on-trend sides and accompaniments abound in R&I's 2007 Menu Census:
Risotto: Nearly one-third of operators already serve this creamy, slow-cooked rice dish, and it ranks second among grains, pastas and legumes under consideration for menu addition.
Asparagus: Menued at 43% of commercial and 58% of noncommercial operations, asparagus ranks among the top three vegetables that operators say are increasing in sales.
Whole-wheat pasta: Given consumers' steadily increasing interest in whole grains and more-healthful dining, it's not surprising that whole-wheat pasta tops the list of grains, pastas and legumes that operators are thinking of adding to their menus. Noncommercial operators especially are keen on introducing whole-wheat pastas to customers.
Mixed vegetables: Tomatoes, broccoli and carrots fly solo as the most commonly menued vegetables, but the choices chefs are considering adding to menus represent a mixed bag. Steamed or grilled vegetable platters, roasted vegetables and vegetable casseroles top operators' lists.
Couscous: Couscous is offered at a whopping 40% of noncommercial operations and the same percentage of fine-dining kitchens.