Menu Masters

Premium offerings at quick-service burger giants, pizza at a casual-dining chain and a surprisingly successful ancient grain are all being recognized for excellence with 2014 MenuMasters Awards.

Presented by Nation’s Restaurant News and sponsored by Ventura Foods, the awards honor outstanding foodservice research and development. Winners have created menu items that NRN’s editorial board has judged to have had a significant impact on the industry.

Chili’s Grill & Bar, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, First Watch, Joe's Crab Shack and True Food Kitchen will all be honored for menu items introduced this year.

Kansas City, Mo.-based chef Michael Smith, who has been named Chef Innovator of the year, will also be honored.

Additionally, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, known as the “Too Hot Tamales,” will be inducted into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame. The celebrity chefs elevated the culinary conversation about Mexican food with their Los Angeles-based restaurant Border Grill.

“Restaurants that responded to consumers’ growing demand for premium items scored well with the editorial team this year,” NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn said. “They also were impressed by True Food Kitchen’s ability to draw customers with food that was good for them, and by the impressive sales by First Watch of a quinoa-based product.”

Best New Menu Item: Flatbreads from Chili’s Grill & Bar

New kitchen equipment at this 1,550-unit subsidiary of Brinker International Inc., including a conveyor impinger oven, have allowed Chili’s to transform its offerings with Flatbreads in flavors such as Margherita, Chipotle Chicken and California Grilled Chicken. The new items have caught the attention of female guests, as well as financial analysts, who have praised the innovation and low food cost of the item.

Best Menu Line Extension: Premium McWraps from McDonald’s

The burger giant turned its Snack Wraps into meals with these large flour tortillas stuffed with grilled or fried chicken and vegetables such as cucumber, lettuce and tomatoes. The March 2013 launch of Chicken & Bacon, Chicken & Ranch and Sweet Chili Chicken varieties was successful enough that the chain followed up in October with the Southwest Chicken Premium McWrap, a limited-time offer of grilled or crispy chicken with cilantro-lime sauce, spring greens, tomatoes, Cheddar-Jack cheese, tortilla strips and habanero-ranch sauce.

Best Menu Revamp: Joe’s Crab Shack

Joe's Crab Shack's lobster and shrimp pot pie

This Ignite Brand’s subsidiary brought the crab back to Joe’s Crab Shack, along with a re-emphasis on its southern heritage, with items such as crab-stuffed lobster, BBQ Dungeness crab and new variations on its classic steampot, as well as moonshine cocktails, southern-fried Maine lobster and shrimp and Cheddar grits. The 130-unit chain also brought back the lobster pot pie introduced in 2012, but this time with the addition of shrimp and a biscuit crust.

Menu Trendsetter: True Food Kitchen

Fox Restaurant Concepts founder Sam Fox was skeptical when he was approached by natural food advocate Dr. Andrew Weil about opening a restaurant based on his anti-inflammatory diet. But the concept’s approach of “honest food that tastes really good,” has resonated with customers, who flock to the seven True Food Kitchen locations for Tuscan kale salad, pictured above, and spaghetti squash casserole, as well as bison burgers, street tacos and grilled steelhead salmon.

Food that’s genuinely both nutritious and delicious puts True Food Kitchen at the forefront of menu trends that are likely to propel it into a successful future.