Menus in a crystal ball: Turning trends into action

Jan. 13, 2011

by Cari Price, Corporate Development Chef, Food IQ


End-of-year is a busy time for the prognosticators: Foodservice publications and experts across the country stay hard at work tracking new menu items, charting sales numbers, and digging deep to conjure golden nuggets of information about the trends that our industry will use to drive consumers to purchase.

With 2011’s unknowns still ahead, let’s look closer at a few of those golden trend-nuggets to discover what they can tell us about setting ourselves apart from the competition.

Early in 2010, Mintel Menu Insights identified restaurant-grown produce as a top trend in foodservice. Likewise, in the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot in 2010 Chef Survey, 88 percent of the participating professional chefs put locally-grown produce on top of the “hottest trends” list; restaurants with gardens will be the top concept, above street food and mobile food carts/trucks. Technomic predicted that traceability from farm to fork would be crucial in 2010 among consumers who increasingly want to know where their food is coming from.

A closer look at this trend reveals a genuine and growing consumer desire for the freshest food possible; a trend driven by a greater societal awareness of nutrition, environmental sustainability, the plight of family farms, and our economic environment. As Americans gradually increase their spending on food away from home, they’re telling us that they want their money’s worth — value they want demonstrated in a very specific way.

Although the local food movement began nearly a decade ago, 2010 saw a spike in consumer desire for fresh, local produce. Thanks to the trend experts, restaurateurs were prepared. Many operations were already building relationships with small regional farms to source local, seasonal ingredients. The more ambitious among them created their own gardens on rooftops, in backyards or in communal plots; some even began doing their own canning, pickling and butchering.

“Hyper-local” sourcing, as the industry coined this new phenomenon, is clearly impractical for the country’s biggest restaurant chains. So how did chains leverage this hot trend? The approaches were as varied as the operations themselves.

The fast casual segment has led the way in local sourcing efforts. The nationwide chain, Chipotle, refocused their marketing to proclaim “Food with Integrity,” part of their commitment to purchase organic and local produce whenever practical. Burgerville, a smaller regional chain, continues to partner with local producers for many of their ingredients, including those for seasonal LTOs. Five Guys, a fast-growing burger-and-fries concept, displays the origins of the potatoes used for their fresh-cut fries, and features bags of whole potatoes in their dining areas to communicate that freshness.

QSR chains have taken a more general approach to the trend, focusing on ingredient quality descriptors. In Wendy’s ‘You Know When It’s Real’ campaign (with real-versus-fake food comparisons and the recent launch of skin-on, natural-cut fries)…or McDonald’s launch of real fruit smoothies…or Hardee’s touting of hand-breaded chicken tenders… are we seeing a leveraging the local produce trend? Most likely, consumers view these well-publicized efforts as a step in the right direction. But whether those efforts are actually driving purchase behavior: The jury is still out.

Marketing campaigns that tout local sourcing, ingredient origins and “real” food will likely continue for some time. In fact, Mintel is now referring to this trend as transparency, indicating a much broader issue to be considered: Consumers, transparent in their own opinions and beliefs, will continue to demand more information about the what’s, where’s and how’s of the ingredients restaurants are using. In fact, Mintel predicts that more restaurants will open up their kitchens as a sign to customers that they have nothing to hide.

Transparency can take intriguing forms. Domino’s recently captured public attention with a campaign strategy that acknowledged customer complaints and reformulated products to reflect them. This “Pizza Turnaround” campaign included multiple ingredient changes and communications that addressed the origin of their tomato and cheese ingredients — a campaign they credit with an approximate 10 percent jump in same-store sales, proof of the success possible for big chains that truly understand those “golden trend nuggets.”

But where do successes like these come from? Not from the “golden nuggets” alone. Correctly identifying the trends and digging deeper to understand the insights that apply specifically to your operational considerations are the elements that help you connect your brand with consumers. And, for successful menu development, they’re only the beginning.

In the heavily competitive 2011 foodservice arena, chains must take a smarter approach to their menus. Today, it’s not just about executing new LTOs that hit on every trend in the pipeline, hoping to discover what resonates with consumers: That’s an approach too expensive and short-term for today’s environment. Chains must take a more strategic approach to using transparency to improve the quality of the core products most crucial to their brands. Is the quality is already good? Then the answer may live elsewhere.

Smart menu development is not about developing LTO roll-outs: It’s about understanding how your menu is relevant to today’s knowledgeable consumer. And keeping it that way.


Cari Price is the corporate development chef at Food IQ. The company's goal is to help restaurant operators create food with impact. Food that starts with true insight into a concept's business, its customers and its competition. Ideas with the culinary skill, experience and vision that help restaurant operators connect with their audience.

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability , Food & Beverage , Trends / Statistics

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