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What's Big on Restaurant Menus? – US Food Trends

18 February 2010

Culled from trends, testing and lots of experience, these are the top items operators across the industry trust to anchor their menus.

This article first appeared in the 1 December 2009 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 Kelly Smith Killian, Editor-in-Chief

Developing successful menus means balancing creative preparations with familiar dishes known for strong sales. That explains why, for example, 66% of commercial operators make room for Caesar salad on their menus, according to R&I's 2009 Menu Census, but interpretations vary from simple assemblies of romaine lettuce, Caesar-style dressing, Parmesan cheese and croutons at Heathrow, Fla.-based Ruth's Chris Steak House to avant-garde renditions such as the Signature Caesar Salad with "Parmesan fluff and a brioche ‘Twinkie'" at Graham Elliot restaurant in Chicago.

Trends, innovation and new flavors keep menus exciting, but chefs also understand the importance of giving diners what they know and like. R&I's biennial Menu Census survey (its results summarized here in course-by-course lists) addresses both of these sensibilities, detailing the most widely offered items from breakfast to dessert, as well as the dishes chefs are thinking about adding.

Those who lament that popular equals pedestrian need only consider burgers. Two years ago, fewer than half of fine-dining operators reported having cheeseburgers on their menus, and 52% offered hamburgers. Today, hamburgers are on 63% of upscale operators' menus and cheeseburgers are on 60%, in every incarnation imaginable, helping the ubiquitous dish earn its title this year as the country's favorite sandwich.

WHAT'S ON THE MENU?

Every two years, R&I asks commercial and noncommercial operators to share what is currently on their menus and what they're thinking of adding. Here, a snapshot of what's most-often menued, increasing in sales and gaining interest. The symbol * indicates an entry new to the top five compared with 2007; due to rounding, like percentages do not necessarily indicate a tie.

BREAKFAST

Eggs in every form are morning stars, but operators also see an opportunity to meet diners' demand for more-healthful options with chicken or turkey sausage, fruit plates and smoothies.

Meaty Breakfast Burrito wrap
Meaty Breakfast Burrito wrap

COMMERCIAL - Most Menued -

  1. Eggs (fried, scrambled or poached) 61%
  2. Bacon 57%
  3. Toast 54%
  4. Ham 52%
  5. Omelets/frittata 52%

Increasing in sales: Fruit plates, eggs, omelets/frittata
Might add to menu: Breakfast burritos/wraps with egg, chicken/turkey sausage, smoothies C

NONCOMMERCIAL - Most Menued

  1. Eggs (fried, scrambled or poached) 88%
  2. Bananas, pancakes* (tie) 87%
  3. Unsweetened cold cereal 83%
  4. French toast* 82%
  5. Toast, yogurt* (tie) 81%

Increasing in sales: Breakfast sandwich with egg, oatmeal/hot cereal, bagels
Might add to menu: Breakfast burritos/wraps with egg, yogurt parfaits, chicken/turkey sausage NC

SOUPS

Nostalgic favorites remain the leading choices of commercial and noncommercial operators, but hearty chilis and some globally flavored bowls are gaining traction, too.

Vegetable pho soup
Vegetable pho soup
COMMERCIAL - Most Menued

  1. Clam or seafood chowder 39%
  2. French onion 36%
  3. Tomato 34%
  4. Chicken noodle 33%
  5. Vegetable 29%

Increasing in sales: French onion, clam or seafood chowder, beef chili
Might add to menu: Corn chowder, seafood bisque, French onion

NONCOMMERCIAL - Most Menued

1. Chicken noodle 84% 26. Tomato 83%

  1. Vegetable 73%
  2. Broccoli and cheese 64%
  3. Beef chili 62% Increasing in sales: Chicken noodle, beef chili, broccoli-and-cheese
    Might add to menu: Tortilla, Asian noodle, French onion, turkey or chicken chili

SALADS

The classics dominate commercial menus-especially at hotels (85% report having Caesar salad on the menu)-while non-greens-based salads are more popular with noncoms.

COMMERCIAL - Most Menued

  1. Caesar 66%
  2. Caesar with chicken, shrimp or other protein 60%
  3. Tossed green salad 54%
  4. Coleslaw 37%
  5. Cobb* 30%

Increasing in sales: Caesar with protein, Caesar, Cobb
Might add to menu: Steak salad, Greek salad,iceberg wedge NONCOMMERCIAL - Most Menued

  1. Tossed green salad 79%
  2. Coleslaw 70%
  3. Fruit salad 68%
  4. Pasta salad 68%
  5. Cottage cheese 62%

Increasing in sales: Taco salad, fruit salad, Caesar with protein
Might add to menu: Asian chicken salad, Asian noodle salad, grain-based salad

SANDWICHES

Burgers regain their post at the top of the category, taking out turkey and chicken-breast sandwiches, the leaders in 2007.

Panini
Panini
COMMERCIAL - Most Menued

  1. Cheeseburger 68%
  2. Hamburger 66%
  3. Grilled chicken breast 64%
  4. Bacon cheeseburger* 54%
  5. Turkey 49%

Increasing in sales: Wraps, cheeseburger, club sandwich
Might add to menu: Wraps, panini, pastrami

NONCOMMERCIAL - Most Menued

  1. Hamburger 91%
  2. Turkey 89%
  3. Cheeseburger 87%
  4. Ham 85%
  5. Grilled cheese* 85%

Increasing in sales: Wraps, panini, grilled chicken breast Might add to menu: Mini burgers, pita sandwiches, grilled-vegetable sandwiches

APPETIZERS

Chicken wings and chicken strips/fingers/tenders have long ruled the roost as the No. 1 appetizer, but mini burgers tempt operators as another way to market beloved burgers.

Spicy chicken wings
Spicy chicken wings
COMMERCIAL - Most Menued

  1. Chicken Wings 46%
  2. Chicken strips/ fingers/tenders 42%
  3. Onion rings 33%
  4. Mozzarella sticks 33%
  5. French fries* 32%

Increasing in sales: Chicken wings, calamari, chicken strips/fingers/tenders Might add to menu: Mini burgers, flatbreads, stuffed jalapeÁ±os/peppers NONCOMMERCIAL - Most Menued

  1. Chicken strips/ fingers/ tenders 37%
  2. Chicken wings 31%
  3. Chips and salsa*, garlic bread* (tie) 25%
  4. Mozzarella sticks 24%
  5. Nachos* 24%

Increasing in sales: Chicken wings, chicken strips/fingers/ tenders, pizza (as appetizer)
Might add to menu: Mini burgers, bruschetta, Asian lettuce wraps

CENTER-OF-THE-PLATE PROTEINS

Some of the most -significant differences between commercial and noncom menus show up among main attractions, with commerial kitchens favoring pricier seafood and meat items.

Steak with BBQ sauce
Steak with BBQ sauce
COMMERCIAL

Most Menued / Seafood

  1. Salmon 53%
  2. Grilled/broiled/ sauteed shrimp 42%
  3. Scallops* 39%
  4. Breaded and fried shrimp 37%
  5. Crab cakes 36%

Most Menued / Meat

  1. Rib-eye steak 38%
  2. Filet mignon 38%
  3. Strip steak 32%
  4. Pork ribs* 28%
  5. Prime rib, sirloin steak (tie) 27%

Most Menued / Poultry

  1. Grilled chicken breast 60%
  2. Chicken strips/ fingers/tenders 53%
  3. Chicken wings 43%
  4. Sliced turkey 31%
  5. Grilled/broiled chicken 27%

Increasing sales: Salmon, crab cakes, filet mignon, strip steak, grilled chicken breast, chicken strips/fingers/tenders
Might add to menu: Calamari, crab cakes, hanger steak, short ribs, duck, chicken pot pie

NONCOMMERCIAL
Most Menued / Seafood

  1. Canned tuna 84%
  2. Cod/Scrod 83%
  3. Breaded and baked fish portions 73%
  4. Breaded and fried shrimp* 64%
  5. Tilapia* 62%

Most Menued / Meat -

  1. Meatballs 79%
  2. Meatloaf 73%
  3. Roast beef 68%
  4. Beef stew 66%
  5. Baked ham 62%

Most Menued / Poultry -

  1. Chicken strips/ fingers/tenders 72%
  2. Sliced turkey 69%
  3. Turkey breast* 64%
  4. Chicken nuggets* 60%
  5. Grilled chicken breast 59%

Increasing in sales: Salmon, tilapia, meatloaf, pulled pork, chicken strips/fingers/tenders, grilled chicken breast
Might add to menu: Scallops, tilapia, beef and pork ribs, chicken pot pie, rotisserie chicken

SIDES

The reigning sides hold their places as compared with 2007. Sweet-potatoe fries continue to make their way onto more menus (offered at 25% of operations versus 18% two years ago)..

Sweet potato fries
Sweet potato fries

COMMERCIAL

Most Menued / Potatoes

  1. French fries (straight cut) 54%
  2. Baked potatoes 39%
  3. Mashed potatoes (flavored) 33%

Most Menued / Vegetables

  1. Broccoli 46%
  2. Mushrooms 41%
  3. Carrots 40%

Increasing in sales: French fries (straight cut), sweet-potato fries, onion rings, asparagus
Might add to menu: Sweet-potato fries, house-made potato chips, asparagus

NONCOMMERCIAL

Most Menued / Potatoes

  1. Mashed potatoes (plain) 85%
  2. Baked potatoes 69%
  3. French fries (straight cut) 68%

Most Menued / Vegetables -

  1. Broccoli 90%
  2. Carrots 89%
  3. Green Beans 88%

Increasing in sales: Baked potatoes, sweet-potato fries, broccoli
Might add to menu: Sweet-potato fries, spiral/curly/waffle fries, steamed/grilled vegetable platter, sugar snap peas

DESSERTS

Other than cakes and pies, these are the most-offered desserts. Bread pudding and other homey treats ege out fancier specialties, and fresh is an increasingly popular choice.

Brownies
Brownies

COMMERCIAL - Most Menued

  1. Brownies 40% Cookies 79%
  2. Hard ice cream 39%
  3. Cookies 33%
  4. Bread Pudding 29%
  5. Crème brÁ»lée 27%

Increasing in sales: Hard ice cream, brownies, crème brÁ»lée
Might add to menu: Mini desserts, crème brÁ»lée, cobblers/crisps, dessert samplers/flights

NONCOMMERCIAL - Most Menued

  1. Cookies 79%
  2. Brownies 71%
  3. Fresh Fruit 63%
  4. Cobblers/crisps 58%
  5. Bread pudding* 47%

Increasing in sales: Cookies, fresh fruit, brownies
Might add to menu: Gingerbread, mini desserts, frozen yogurt, éclairs/cream puffs

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