Beyond revealing chefs' favorite foods and techniques, lineup additions show how operators and menus are in perpetual forward motion.
This article first appeared in the 1 September 2006 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
These often-subtle shifts can signal updated business strategies or changing market environments, or they may reflect chefs' individual whims or development paths. Whatever the impetus, new menu creations are all about growing and getting ahead.
"Recipe development walks a fine line because diners are creatures of habit," says Ron Eyester, executive chef-partner at upscale-American Food 101 in Atlanta. "But even people who order the same thing all the time will judge you as complacent if you don't stay aggressive about updating menus."
Much of Food 101's fare highlights American comfort-food classics. To keep pace with the evolution of his guests' expectations, Eyester believes that approachable ethnic items are in line with the concept. He hopes that Seared Tuna With Toasted Sesame-Vegetable Lo Mein, recently added to the menu, helps bridge the restaurant's foundation with future success. In the dish, bucatini noodles stand in for traditional soba to add body and integrate the dish's Asian heritage into the menu.
For most chefs-especially those in chain and noncommercial segments-the desire to broaden culinary horizons with new menu items is balanced by the need to advance in small, comfortable steps. After all, every new idea ultimately must be approved by a kitchen's No. 1 arbiters of taste-customers.
That's why grilled-chicken kebabs served with warm pita and tzatziki sauce were an ideal concession-level addition at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, says Executive Chef Jeramie Mitchell, who works for Buffalo, N.Y.-based Delaware North Cos. Sportservice.
"We have to stick with big sellers like hot dogs and nachos, but in general we're moving toward a more-healthful style by using grilled items and ethnic flavors," he says.
Pushing the Limits
Creativity plus comfort often fuel the need for growth on the chain circuit as well. Both Coppell, Texas-based CiCi's Pizza and Dallas-based T.G.I. Friday's are banking on this strategy, adding recipes designed to nudge forward their segments' traditional culinary boundaries.
Mac-and-Cheese Pizza debuted this spring at CiCi's, building on the comfort-food appeal of the company's core product while embracing a growing interest in unique offerings. After scoring with spinach-Alfredo pizza-a stretch in its family-dining niche-CiCi's wanted to add another product to follow the same path, says Chief Marketing Officer Tom Koenigsberg.
The company chose curly cavatappi over elbow macaroni for visual impact and ridges that trap the cheese sauce (a proprietary, shelf-stable product developed with a vendor). Spread over the chain's standard pizza crust, the pasta is sprinkled with mozzarella cheese and baked.
T.G.I. Friday's, meanwhile, looks to make a splash with 20-plus introductions meant to shift diners' notions not just of Friday's but also of the entire casual-dining segment it inhabits. Among the innovative options are tempura-style green beans with wasabi-ranch dipping sauce and Sizzling Triple Meat Fundido, a deconstructed pizza dip of melted cheese, crumbled sausage and pepperoni served with deep-fried bread sticks.
"Consumers see casual dining as a sea of sameness, and we're going to differentiate ourselves on food," says Senior Vice President of Marketing Terri Snyder. "We're taking the route of offering unexpected flavors for the category. For flavors that are expected, we're going a cut above."
Making a Statement
At chef-driven restaurants, new recipes showcase progressive and personal cooking styles. Favored ingredients, signature techniques and experimentation are the tools of the trade when it comes to putting one's own stamp on the menu.
Chef-owner Gray Kunz says a recent addition of steamed black bass with grilled shrimp, watermelon and coconut sauce brings together multiple elements shaping his culinary philosophy at Café Gray in New York City.
Slow steaming brings out the best in the delicate fish, which he wraps in plastic to trap flavor. He uses liquid that forms on the steaming tray to start a sauce with coconut milk, butter, lemon and lime juices, and cayenne pepper. To serve, toasted rice flakes are sprinkled over the bass, complemented with a sweet-tart watermelon-and-tomato duo.
"This dish has the sense of soft and crunchy, sour and sweet, hot and cold. It offers texture, flavor, spiciness and sweetness, and that's what I do, generally," Kunz says.
For Executive Chef Christophe David of NoMI at the Park Hyatt Chicago, menu updates offer opportunities to delve deeper into the French contemporary style he developed in Paris. Such changes also cement his culinary ownership of a concept launched by a previous chef.
The latest representation of David's food philosophy is poached Maine lobster with beef marrow, a nontraditional marriage that modernizes the French seafood preparation. A garnish of mushroom duxelles speaks to the entrée's classical influence, while conventional lobster sauce updated as a foam takes the dish further forward.
A Step Ahead
For independents and noncommercial facilities as well as chains, the drive to stay ahead of the market keeps new menu ideas flying thick and fast.
"There's always the debate over whether we need new items because we're in such a positive growth phase, but you don't want to give anything up to competitors in terms of guest trial, either," says Ted Stoner, director of strategic product development for Denver-based Qdoba Mexican Grill.
Chicken Mango Salad, Stoner's first creation since joining the fast-casual chain in December, is testing in two markets. The entrée takes Qdoba's "nouveaux Mex" style to the next level by introducing a new element-salsa with mangoes, pico de gallo, cucumbers and red bell peppers-into a well-accepted foundation of shredded romaine and adobo-marinated chicken in a tortilla bowl. Diners also can refresh regular menu items with the sweet-and-spicy addition.
At Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda, Md., a new small-plates menu section aims to place the recently renovated restaurant more in line with the metropolitan feel of the city's recent downtown residential and retail development. Executive Chef Mallory Buford's goat-cheese tartlet with beet tapenade anchors the lineup, delivering the tangy cheese-cut with mascarpone for sweetness-piped onto crispy phyllo, draped with tapenade and finished with ground pistachios.
David Martin, director of culinary services and national executive chef for Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho Health Care Services, is taking the contractor's hospital fare forward by looking back. He's turning to old-school techniques such as poaching and braising to impart deep flavor while introducing the more-healthful preparations toward which the menu is shifting.
For Asian Poached Salmon, served both at cafe display stations and on patient trays, employees use induction cooktops to quickly cook the fillets in aromatic broth spiked with ginger, garlic, lemon, celery and onion. The fish is perched on lo mein noodles and topped with julienned vegetables.
"My environments are not places people go to celebrate anniversaries or birthdays; they're not special-occasion operations," Martin acknowledges. "They're where people eat lunch every day, and if I don't keep it interesting, I lose them."
On the Move
New recipes showcasing updated cooking styles and ingredients aren't the only way operators are redefining menus.
At ballparks across the country, hot dogs are a big part of the experience, but Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp. is upgrading concession-level choices with locally inspired fare ready to tempt fans hungry to branch out. "Some people may not want chicken wings and nachos, and they aren't afraid to spend $16 for a lobster roll," says Ron Abell, executive chef of premium services at Boston's Fenway Park. Made to order in front of customers, the traditionally prepared sandwiches feature lobster (purchased cooked and shucked) tucked into New England-style toasted buns. Clam rolls and chowder also joined the menu in Boston, and local chains regionalize offerings at other parks across the country.
Prompted by student feedback that indicated interest, a test program from Compass-owned Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services allows students to do some cooking themselves. Under supervision, they heat precooked chicken with onions and prepared sauces such as curries or tikka masala, pour them over rice and add vegetables. They also can brush assembled panini sandwiches with olive oil and press them to desired crispness.
Menus change quarterly at the Park Hyatt Chicago's NoMI, but that's not often enough for Executive Chef Christophe David to showcase local and seasonal ingredients. That's why he launched plats du jour, rotating daily specials that let the kitchen highlight more-fleeting produce and proteins and also test-run new recipes.
Foretelling success of new menu items is more art than science, often unpredictable and capricious. A good clue, though, is how closely these introductions reflect American diners' evolving palates and preferences, as noted in the examples below.
Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services, Rye Brook, N.Y.
Success story: Indian Salad With Broiled Pollock Fillet
Why it works: The Compass-owned contractor is relying more heavily on ethnic-influenced components including curry paste, mint, cilantro and raita to deliver high-impact flavor in better-for-you menu additions.
Di Pescara, Northbrook, Ill.
Success story: Potato-Crusted Halibut
Why it works: The summer debut reveals Chef Mychael Bonner's dedication to seafood products at the height of their seasons; diners love the boost in taste and texture the potato crust supplies.
Mel's Diner, multiple locations
Success story: Sanibel Chicken Salad (baby greens, grilled chicken, dried cranberries, candied pecans, orange segments, blue cheese, cucumbers and honey-bacon vinaigrette)
Why it works: The hearty salad illustrates the Bonita Springs, Fla.-based chain's shift toward the more-healthful choices and higher-end ingredients its customers crave.
Mimi's Cafe, multiple locations
Success story: Citrus-Garlic Shrimp and Asparagus
Why it works: The Tustin, Calif.-based chain's goal is to highlight fresh, seasonal ingredients such as asparagus while offering contemporary preparations as found in the recipe's citrus marinade.
Success story: Veal Meatballs With Chorizo-Green Pepper Sauce and Mojo Verde
Why it works: Meatballs, or albÁ³ndigas, are a tapas classic, and veal offers diners a lean, savory alternative to the many pork presentations on the menu.
Timpano Italian Chophouse, multiple locations
Success story: 32-item Rat Pack Martini List including The Starlight Martini, with premium gin, pomegranate juice and cucumber twist
Why it works: The Orlando-based chain's first venture into specialty martinis targets the young, professional crowd who are willing to pay more for top-shelf liquors and unique presentations.