What is in this article?:
- Nancy Kruse, Bret Thorn look back at 2013 menu trends
- Vegetables, upscale breads lead year's trends
In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they break down the year’s top menu trends.
Vegetables, upscale breads lead year's trends
The following is Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s take on 2013 in food.
Happy holidays, Bret, and thanks so much for the most thoughtful gift. As you know, end-of-year predictions tend to bring out my inner Grinch. With every writer and consultant worth his or her salt feverishly issuing culinary prognostications, I always feel so inadequate. Like, what’s left for me to say? So your interest in a menu highlight reel, a glance backward rather than a look forward, is a Grinch-dispensing, relief-inducing gift of the first order.
And 2013 is a very good year to look back on, especially if you’re a vegetable lover. Circumstances combined to create the perfect storm for increased produce consumption: Meat prices remained volatile, consumer health concerns grew, the gluten-free craze devolved into craziness, and chefs innovated like mad.
Who would have forecast that overlooked and underutilized cruciferous vegetables would take chain menus by storm this year? Yet they were everywhere. P.F. Chang’s added Brussels sprouts to its Harvest Vegetable Quinoa “Fried Rice,” LongHorn Steakhouse hit the jackpot with Brussels Sprouts au Gratin, and Mendocino Farms in Los Angeles added cauliflower to its Curried Couscous Salad. The latter chain also offers Marinated Red Beet Salad with citrus vinaigrette, a possible harbinger of greater use of underappreciated root vegetables. Indeed, reliable menu bellwether The Cheesecake Factory has already embraced the beet, as with the Beets with Goat Cheese and the Santorini Farro Salad with beets and feta cheese that appear on the SkinnyLicious bill of fare.
While you might not dub 2013 the Year of the Potato, I’d contend that the category was pretty darned interesting, with a raft of new items and applications that added value and decommoditized the side of the plate.
You point out that Burger King launched Satisfries, with 30-percent less fat and 20-percent fewer calories. I would point to the other end of the spectrum as well, where Top Round Roast Beef, a new-driven, fast-casual sandwich operation in Los Angeles, reintroduced beef tallow as a frying agent, a cheeky move that elevated the finished product into a crave-worthy treat. Mimi’s Cafe, in the midst of a concept repositioning and menu overhaul, promises to put a little more joie in your vivre and delivers with revitalized classics like the potatoes Provençal that accompany the Sole Meunière and the mushroom-infused au gratin potatoes alongside the Bistro Bavette Steak. By the way, Mimi’s also serves lovely Grilled Salmon & French Lentils. French lentils, Bret. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see more of them on menus in the future?
It’s counterintuitive, considering the explosion of gluten-free, but 2013 will also go down as the Year of Beautiful Breads. Gluten-avoiders notwithstanding, chains unleashed their inner bakers with a plethora of specialty breads.
Wendy’s, a prime mover behind the better-bun bonanza, hit a home run with the popular Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger on a pretzel bun, then moved on at year’s end to the Bacon Portabella Melt on brioche. And everywhere you went, you ran into flatbreads. A lighter pizza that delivers hefty margins, flatbreads became a go-to item on casual-dining menus. Chili’s — which touts its line as bold, new and freshly baked — offers the classic Margherita with a southwestern twist of roasted garlic aïoli and cilantro-ranch pesto. Ruby Tuesday’s Crispy Flatbreads include Four Cheese Bianca with a blend of Italian cheeses. And Maggiano’s has expanded their appetizer flatbreads to five, including Chicken and Roasted Pepper. Bread was flat at leading burgermeisters, too. Wendy’s promoted a pair of Flatbread Grilled Chicken Sandwiches as a limited-time offer, while McDonald’s added McWraps, grilled or crispy chicken with fresh veggies in a flour tortilla, to the permanent menu.
Finally, I think this has been another banner year for corporate chefs, many of whom find themselves caught in the crossfire of customer demands, management expectations and economic challenges. But despite it all, they perform with wonderful creativity and style. So here’s to them, Bret, and here’s to you, too. I look forward to a 2014 filled with more of our monthly exchanges. And no, that’s not a prediction, but a fond hope and happy expectation. Cheers!
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.