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Top 400 chains: Setting the Table – US Food Trends

25 July 2008

Price-pressured? Here are 30 chain-menu ideas priced below $5, $10, $15 or $20-and a few clues about the trends shaping the future.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2008 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

Chain-menu development is a complex calculation, and knowing what consumers want to eat is just part of the equation. Don't forget to factor in when they want to dine (anytime), how much food they'd like (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot) and what they're willing to spend (less and less). Then multiply it all by just the right ratio of comfort to innovation.

"Customers are always looking for new news to drive them into stores," says Scott Hudler, senior director of brand marketing for Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin' Donuts. "What will really drive traffic in the next six months-if not longer-will be whoever's most in touch with consumers' economic needs."

At Dunkin' Donuts, new "Oven Toasted" flatbread sandwiches and personal pizzas are priced around $2.49 for sandwiches and from $2.39 to $2.59 for pizzas. The hot, portable products target all-day grazers-a segment whose increasing importance is evident in the spate of snack-themed introductions that has followed the success of Snack Wraps at Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's.

Columbus, Ohio-based Wendy's and Oklahoma City-based Sonic added similar tortilla-wrapped chicken products, while Denver-based Quiznos Sub introduced downsized, folded flatbread sandwiches called Sammies. Lakewood, Colo.-based fast-casual chain Einstein Bros. Bagels is testing a Snack-Out menu that features mini bagel burgers, wraps or chicken quesadillas for $3.99 with a beverage.

"We've seen a growing trend of guests, specifically teenagers and moms, looking for a tasty selection of food in that snack period from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.," says Jim Hood, chief marketing officer for Einstein Noah Restaurant Group. "This test is designed to give guests a higher-quality option during that period."

Value is a Two-Way Street

A recent menu redesign at Glenview, Ill.-based Bar Louie was crafted around two goals: protecting margins against rising costs while adding more entrées and new proteins to broaden the concept's appeal beyond lunch and appetizers.

"What we're going for is more of the gastropub theme," says Corporate Chef Marc Wuenschel, who priced choices such as 6 ounces of seared ahi tuna coated in sesame seeds and Cajun spices and an 8-ounce flat-iron steak marinated in Worcestershire sauce, mustard and soy sauce at $14.99, a few notches higher than previous items.

"The flavor profiles are there, so people say, ‘For $15, I'm getting a great steak,' and for me as a restaurant person, I'm getting a little higher check average and still keeping [food costs] under 30%," Wuenschel says.

Cross-utilization plays a key role as well. Yankee Pot Roast, a new entrée, does double duty in pot-roast sliders, while blackened Ahi Tuna Bites offer an alternative to fried starters. Crabmeat stars in a crab-cake sandwich and makes cameos in spinach dip and bruschetta as an optional add-on.

Dallas-based fast-casual chain Corner Bakery Cafe brought in nearly a dozen new ingredients for its latest round of introductions. Most are produce items featured in three new recipes, among them Asian Edamame Salad with asparagus, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red bell peppers, carrots, green onions, basil and cilantro in ginger-citrus dressing, and Ginger-Asparagus Couscous with asparagus, red peppers, dried cranberries, toasted almonds, green onions and orange zest.

"Adding these ingredients gives me a great base for some really cool ideation in the next year or so," says Vice President of Food and Beverage Ric Scicchitano. "Produce is inherently expensive, and it's perishable, so there's risk, but it's not seeing the tremendous run-ups [in price] like everything else."

Give 'Em What They Want

Guest feedback, garnered directly or via sales figures, often inspires the menu updates that make the most impact. When a customer survey told Margate, Fla.-based Salad Creations that portions were too large, the company responded with the Sensible Sizing menu.

Signature and create-your-own salads now are available in sizes 25% to 30% smaller than before, with prices starting at $1 less. Surprisingly, check averages have gone up, says CEO Jeff Levine, who attributes the increase to more purchases of add-ons such as chips or bottled water.

"We decided we could be the antithesis of supersizing," he says.

In the wake of Carrollton, Texas-based T.G.I. Friday's success with its Right Portion, Right Price menu, other chains are rolling out their own downsized offerings. Pittsburgh-based Eat'n Park's Smaller Portions at Smaller Prices menu spans all dayparts, with choices including Bananas Foster French Toast and Baked Lemon Sole, while San Francisco-based casual-dining chain Pomodoro offers new dishes such as Risotto Salsiccia (sausage) in two entrée sizes.

Interest in smaller portions reflects consumers' continued shift toward health-conscious dining. Chains are paying heed, with recent examples including Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A's new multigrain wraps and wheatberry bread; Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John's whole-wheat pizza crust and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Bonefish Grill's Mediterranean Diet-themed promotion.

"A lot of restaurants do things like serving chicken sausage instead of regular sausage, but we decided that if we're going to step into the healthy category, we're going to take a full step, not a half step," says Heather Gardea, vice president of food and beverage at Carlsbad, Calif.-based Carrows Restaurants.

The family-dining chain will launch several menu selections with reduced fat, calorie and sodium counts in September.

… And It's Not Just Home Cooking

Carrows' latest menu additions also respond to diners' cravings for foods they can't or won't make at home. That's one reason the company bolstered its seafood offerings, introducing easy-to-execute choices such as fillet of sole seasoned with lemon pepper, blackened or broiled salmon, and a Fisherman's Combo with pineapple-teriyaki grilled shrimp, beer-battered fish and breaded clams.

A spring Mexican promotion also performed well, as guests showed their willingness to explore more-authentic preparations, Gardea says. The menu included carnitas (slow-cooked pork shoulder with warm tortillas) and tortas, sandwiches of shredded beef or chicken with avocado, pico de gallo and chipotle aÁ¯oli on traditional bolillo rolls.

Emerging ethnic flavors are a common theme on contemporary chain menus. Dartmouth, Mass.-based upscale-casual chain Not Your Average Joe's debuted Cedar Wrapped Salmon with Moroccan tomato relish and romesco, a Spanish sauce typically made with red peppers, tomatoes, almonds, garlic and olive oil, while T.G.I. Friday's featured Peruvian Herb-Roasted Chicken with spicy aji chile sauce.

At Minneapolis-based Buca di Beppo, Tuscan-style fennel salami headlines a new entrée called Scampi Finocchiona, which also features roasted peppers, garlic, tomatoes and fresh fennel. An appetizer called Bucacini (fried risotto balls stuffed with a variety of savory fillings) is a take on Sicilian arancini.

"When you're doing a specialty cuisine, whether it's Italian or Asian or Mexican, the more authenticity and indigenous ingredients you can bring to the table to make it exciting for the guest, the more success you're going to have," says Carron Harris, Buca di Beppo vice president of food and beverage.


Under $5

  • $2.29: Double Chicken and Cheese Sandwich (two fried chicken patties, two American cheese slices, lettuce and mayonnaise) -Church's Chicken, Atlanta
  • $3.79: Fish taco platter with steamed rice & black beans or spicy Cajun white beans -Wahoo's Fish Taco, Santa Ana, Calif.
  • $3.99: Personal-size pizza with pepperoni or meatballs (extra cheese and vegetable toppings free) -Subway, Milford, Conn.
  • $4.49: Prime Rib Thickburger: One-third-pound Angus beef patty topped with thinly sliced prime rib, horseradish sauce, Swiss cheese and grilled onions on ciabatta, with au jus for dipping -Hardee's, St. Louis
  • $4.99: Big Bell Box Meal (Bacon Club Chalupa, Beef Crunchy Taco, Bean Burrito, Cinnamon Twists and large drink) -Taco Bell, Irvine, Calif. (above)
  • $4.99: Grilled chicken-pomegranate sausage on an onion roll with onions and peppers -Jody Maroni's Sausage Kingdom, Venice, Calif. (r.)
  • $4.99: Ranch Chicken Pizza (grilled chicken, mozzarella and Cheddar cheeses, bacon, roasted red peppers, tomatoes and red onions with ranch dressing) -Schlotzsky's, Austin, Texas

Under $10

  • $5.99: Tuscan Herb Chicken Carver (sliced rotisserie chicken with lettuce, tomato and Tuscan herb spread) -Boston Market, Golden, Colo.
  • $5.99: Baked whole-wheat penne topped with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions and cheese -Happy Joe's Pizza & Ice Cream Parlor, Bettendorf, Iowa
  • $5.99: Double Chili-Cheese Burger Combo (two patties topped with chili, American cheese, tomatoes, onions, dill pickles and mustard) -Carl's Jr., Carpinteria, Calif.
  • $6.99: Grilled Steak Fajitas (skirt steak, onions and peppers with chopped tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, sour cream, guacamole and tortillas, served with rice and beans) -Pollo Tropical, Miami
  • $7.29: Southwestern Cobb Salad (romaine lettuce, choice of protein, bacon, mango, cucumber, cheese, pico de gallo, olives, cilantro and guacamole-ranch dressing) -Moe's Southwest Grill, Atlanta
  • $8.75: Risotto Pescatore (Italian carnaroli rice with mussels, clams, shrimp and cala mari) -Pomodoro, San Francisco (above) $9.29: Wild Alaskan Grilled Salmon Salad (salmon, greens, grape tomatoes, dried cranberries, walnuts, pepper-cucumber slaw and raspberry-maple vinaigrette) -Saladworks, Conshohocken, Pa. (r.)
  • $9.95: Wok-Fired Coconut Chicken Curry (chicken breast with straw mushrooms, bamboo shoots and lemongrass in a red coconut-curry sauce with tropical fruit salsa, golden raisins, roasted peanuts and coconut flakes) -Elephant Bar, La Mirada, Calif.

Under $15

  • $10.25: Chicken Marsala (sautéed chicken with mushrooms and marsala sauce over bowtie pasta) -Nothing But Noodles, Scottsdale, Ariz. (r.)
  • $11.99: Orzotto with Mushrooms & Prosciutto (orzo cooked risotto-style with mushrooms, prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Boursin cheese) -Bravo! Cucina Italiana, Columbus, Ohio
  • $11.99: Mom's BBQ Meatloaf with mashed potatoes, peas and fried onion strings -Bar Louie, Glenview, Ill.
  • $12: Almond Crusted Chicken (crispy, curry-marinated chicken breast with coconut-lime sauce, snow peas and carrots over brown rice) -Stir Crazy, Chicago
  • $12.95: Za Jiang Mein (thick noodles topped with Sichuan pork and vinegar-chili pepper oil) -Big Bowl, Chicago
  • $13.99: Key West Citrus Mahi (grilled fillet seasoned with a special herb blend and topped with mango-papaya salsa over rice pilaf) -O'Charley's, Nashville, Tenn.
  • $14.99: Scampi Finocchiona (shrimp sautéed with Tuscan fennel salami, roasted peppers, fennel, roasted garlic and tomatoes) -Buca di Beppo, Minneapolis
  • $14.99: 10-ounce flat-iron steak with garlic mushrooms and griddled sweet onions -Mimi's Café, Tustin, Calif.

Under $20

  • $16: Lemongrass Prawns with Garlic Noodles -P.F. Chang's, Scottsdale, Ariz.
  • $16.50: Smoked pork loin with honey-ancho barbecue sauce -Austin Grill, Bethesda, Md.
  • $16.99: Full slab of ribs with baked sweet potato and green beans -Texas Roadhouse, Louisville, Ky.
  • $17.99: Mediterranean Tuna (grilled tuna steak and Mediterranean tomato sauce with garlic, olives, rosemary and capers) -Ted's Montana Grill, Atlanta
  • $18: Yuzu Halibut (seared halibut braised in yuzu broth with crispy rice, shiitake mushrooms and spinach) -RA Sushi Restaurant, Scottsdale, Ariz.
  • $19.95: Crawfish Platter (half fried crawfish, half crawfish étouffée with dirty rice) -Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, Houston
  • $19.99: 6-ounce Filet Mignon and Wild Fire Shrimp -Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, Wichita, Kan.


Can They Deliver?

Richmond Heights, Mo.-based Panera Bread's failed experiment with pizza (the ill-fated Crispani) isn't keeping other fast-casual and quick-service chains from tossing their own versions into the ring.

  • Customers choose among six varieties of French-bread pizza dubbed Pizzaah! at Deerfield, Ill.-based Big Apple Bagels.
  • Smyrna, Ga.-based Atlanta Bread Co. counts Margherita Pizza as one of its most-successful menu additions in the past year.
  • Thin-crust, 18-inch organic pizzas now are available via delivery or in stores from Seattle-based Organic To Go.
  • Flatbread pizzas from Deerfield, Ill.-based CosÁ¬ come in individual and "dinner" sizes.
  • Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin' Donuts' 5-inch personal pizzas are part of the chain's new "Oven-Toasted" platform.
  • Denver-based Spicy Pickle; Austin, Texas-based Schlotzsky's and Milford, Conn.-based Subway all offer personal thin-crust pizzas.
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