Menu innovation doesn’t require a major menu overhaul if new options are introduced strategically, a panel of experts said during a session at the National Restaurant Association Show.
Posted: May 23, 2022
Offering unique and exciting dining options can help restaurants rebound from lost sales earlier in the pandemic by giving customers a reason to come back again and again. Adding new menu items based on trending flavors and formats appeals to consumers’ desire to try new things at the restaurant, and menu innovation does not require a major menu overhaul if new options are available. introduced strategically, a panel of experts said during a session at the National Restaurant Association Show on Sunday.
The average number of items on restaurant menus has steadily declined over the past few years, according to Technomic data shared by the research firm’s Dave Henkes. The number of items on many U.S. menus fell sharply in 2020 as restaurants streamlined their offerings to focus on what worked best for offsite. While overall menu size has shrunk, the number of limited-time offers has increased, increasing 31% between 2017 and 2021, Henkes said.
Frequently updating menus to feature new items can help attract diners looking for unique dining experiences they can’t get at home. Forty-two percent of consumers are more likely to try a new or unique flavor at a restaurant than when cooking at home, Henkes said, and more than 25% consumers order new or unique items from restaurants. time.
Menu innovation can seem like a daunting task for restaurants struggling with supply chain issues, labor shortages and rising food costs, but Henkes and the chief technology officer of Menu Research & Insights Lizzy Freier shared examples of how many restaurants are getting creative with ingredients and preparations to update. their menus in a way that won’t break the bank.
They’ve organized these best practices into the 5 Ps of menu innovation:
Putting new dishes on the menu doesn’t necessarily mean adding an array of new ingredients to inventory. There are many ways restaurants can innovate to create new SKU extensions using ingredients they already have in stock. Infusing classic dishes with new flavors or creating mashups that “combine the known and the unknown” can inspire diners to try something new, Freier said.
At Bar Louie, macaroni and cheese became the filling for a grilled cheese sandwich – an innovation inspired by ingredients the restaurant already had in stock for its Macs & Stacks virtual restaurant concept. Steve Madonna, senior vice president of cuisine for the chain of 73 bars and restaurants, joined Henkes and Freier on stage to share his thoughts on menu innovation. He advised restaurateurs to consider not only ingredients when planning new dishes, but also cooking methods. For Bar Louie, the fryers were already operating at maximum capacity, so adding a grilled cheese cooked on the griddle made more sense for the kitchen workflow.
Supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic are forcing many restaurants to think outside the box when it comes to how they prepare ingredients, Henkes said. Giving a new or unusual treatment to a familiar ingredient can transform it into something new and remarkable.
For example, freezing a cocktail that’s typically served over ice to give it a gooey texture, or charring vegetables to give them a deeper flavor and crisp exterior can give diners the experience of trying something new. Cooking methods that extend shelf life — such as marinating, fermenting, or preserving — can keep a surplus of certain ingredients from spoiling while creating new items to add to the menu.
Proteins & Plants
Supply chain issues have opened the door for restaurants to try new proteins on menus, Freier said. Faced with a shortage of chicken wings, Wingstop turned to using chicken thighs, embracing the substitution by launching its virtual brand Thighstop. Other restaurants are also substituting protein based on what’s available – trying more economically priced cuts of beef or replacing pork in dishes traditionally made with beef.
Chefs are also getting more creative when cooking with plants in the center of the plate, drawing inspiration from a wide range of dishes. At Helen in Birmingham, Alabama, parsnips take the place of steak in a peppery preparation, while Cucina 24 in Asheville, North Carolina, serves saltimbocca squash with roasted squash wrapped in prosciutto and sage. These creative offerings show that “the sky’s the limit for the types of products to use and the types of dishes for inspiration,” Freier said.
Another way to put a new spin on classic menu items is to add a customization option. Custom dishes allow customers to order something tailored to their tastes, and they can also have the added benefit of creating a sense of exclusivity. Special items that are only available through a restaurant’s app or loyalty program create an “impulse for consumers to come back to that app and see what’s new,” Henkes said.
McDonald’s is leveraging the benefits of exclusive personalized items with its menu hacks promotion. Customers can order through the chain’s app to access ‘secret’ menu items such as the Land, Air & Sea sandwich, which combines elements of a Big Mac, McChicken and Filet -O-Fish.
A key part of menu innovation is staying on top of trends to strike while the iron is hot when adding new menu items.
Looking ahead to some of the ingredients and inspirations that will be on menus this year, Technomic predicts that a very basic ingredient will be honored in new ways. Salt will go beyond a basic seasoning, taking center stage in cocktails and foods such as salted fish and naturally salty ingredients like purslane and seaweed.
Bar Louie is embracing the trend with a strawberry salt-lined margarita, as well as a take on the classic Ranch Water cocktail that mixes salt directly into the drink to enhance its flavor.
When it comes to adult beverages, flavor profiles are playing an increasingly important role as ABV takes a back seat to some consumers when choosing a beverage. Low and no-proof cocktails are expected to continue to grow this year, driven by Gen Z demand for healthier dining options.
While Madonna admits soft drinks are “something we probably would have laughed at a few years ago”, she said Bar Louie has added more low-alcohol and non-alcoholic drinks to the menu to provide options to consumers who want them.
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