This is part of NRN’s special coverage of the 2012 NRA Show. The show is held in Chicago, May 5-8. Follow all coverage on NRN’s ‘At the Show’ section, check out NRN blogs, Reporter’s Notebook, and Tweet with us using #NRNatNRA.
“There aren’t very many places where you can get a hot dog and a glass of wine and wear a cocktail dress,” said Matt Schein, senior director of brand marketing for Sonic, as he accepted the Nation’s Restaurant News MenuMasters award for best new menu item for the quick-service chain’s new line of hot dogs.
About 375 people dressed up on Saturday to eat hamburgers and hot dogs, doughnuts and buffalo wings, andsausage with truffled white beans and manchego espuma topped with carrot escabeche, at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. The crowd was celebrating culinary innovation at the 15th annual MenuMasters Awards, held by Nation’s Restaurant News and sponsored by Ventura Foods.
Master of ceremonies Chris Keating, associate publisher of the Penton Media Group, which includes NRN, credited menu development teams for helping the industry get through the difficult economic times in recent years.
“You didn’t huddle under the rain clouds when the economy was down. You got in the kitchen and got busy,” he said.
Jim Goggin, vice president of food service groups for Ventura Foods, kicked off the night as well. “Tonight is a celebration of food,” he said, “which is the lifeblood of the industry.”
Guests were treated to Santorini faro salad, shrimp creole, and Asian chicken lettuce wraps from The Cheesecake Factory, which won the healthy innovation award. Those items were party of the casual-dining chain’s new Skinnylicious line of lower calorie menu items.
“We had a lot of fun doing our Skinnylicious menu,” Cheesecake Factory founder David Overton said, adding that 50 items on the menu now fit the low-calorie criteria for the category.
Cheesecake Factory’sde cuisine Brandon Cook said when Overton charged the culinary team with the project, he said none of the items should taste like “diet food.”
Wendy’s served miniature versions of its W hamburger, which won the award for best line extension. Dunkin’ Brands pulled out the stops, serving iced coffee and tea, samplings of Dunkin’ Donuts’ new bakery sandwich line and Baskin-Robbins’ mini cake bites as well as a variety of the sister chains’ doughnuts and ice cream.
Dunkin’ vice president for global product innovation and culinary, Stan Frankenthaler, won the MenuMasters Innovator award for introducing such an array of new items for the two brands.
Philadelphia-based chef José Garces was inducted into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame for building a successful, multifaceted restaurant empire while also earning his chops as a celebrity chef within just seven years. His team served chicken sausage with carrot escabeche.
“It’s been a great ride, fast and furious,” he told attendees.
Buffalo Wild Wings served a selection of its signature chicken wings and accepted the award for best menu revamp, which research & development director Sylvia Matzke-Hill said was 18 months in development.
Quaker Steak & Lube served its Smokin’ Tires BBQ Pork Wrap, its BBQ O’ Ring Cheesesteak and two of its signature cocktails as chief executive John Longstreet, senior director of food and beverage Kate Malaniak and senior director of marketing Marla Pieton, accepted the award for best limited-time offering for the chain’s Shake Wrap & Roll promotion of new drinks, wraps and sandwiches.
Longstreet said he was honored to be in the company of such “iconic brands” like those who won MenuMasters Awards this year and in the past.
“I can’t tell you how excited we are with that,” he added.
The Trendsetter award went to Mama Fu’s, a “flex-casual” chain based in Austin, Texas, that offers fast-casual service at lunch and table service at dinner.
The chain won the award for its Bánh Mì sandwich.
“We’re a 13-unit chain about to be 1,000, so look out,” chief executive Randy Murphy said, adding that the award was validation that Mama Fu’s was doing something right.