Economic recovery is often reflected in culinary trends. Improved consumer confidence tends to foster exuberance in restaurant kitchens as chefs experiment with new flavors, combinations and techniques.

However, although macroeconomic indicators currently show improvement, food and beverage trends are retrenching a bit this summer as restaurateurs see customers double-down on the familiar.

Back to Basics, but better

Omni Hotels and Resorts’ cocktails jumped 20 percent when it did away with its drink list that had signature cocktails with many of the mixology flourishes that seem so popular. The hotel in its place presented a pared down list of Manhattans, Martinis and Mules.

Omni Hotels and Resorts' cocktails

The cocktails still had distinctive flourishes — the four Manhattans each had a unique combination of whiskey, vermouth and bitters — but they were easy for customers to understand and easy for bartenders to make.

This tactic is being reflected in the quick service segment, where Krystal has introduced Stackers — simply double-decker sliders — and Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have introduced their Big Chicken Fillet Sandwich, an improved version of their chicken sandwich, for which the sister chains replaced batter-fried chicken tenders with a hearty five-ounce breast and served it on the baked-in-house buns that they reserve for their premium sandwiches. Both of those items are permanent additions.

Wendy’s is reflecting the back-to-basics approach by bringing back last summer’s limited time offers: the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger and accompanying Pretzel Pub Chicken Sandwich.

Food with roots

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In a recent trend-mapping report, CCD Innovation, a food and beverage product development company, pointed to the difference in how consumers look at foods promoting health and wellness now compared to during the economic doldrums of 2009.

Then, consumers were responding to functionally fortified and highly engineered food. Now they’re turning to spices, berries, roots and nuts that are “healthful traditional food and ingredients. Then, exotic superfruits such as açaí and goji berries were trendy, now interest is growing in local and seasonal fruits. Then, Americans were looking for quick bursts of energy from guarana and caffeine. Now they’re looking for the sustained energy of natural sources of protein and fiber such as lean meat and whole grains.

Fogo de Chão's strawberry, endive and spinach salad

That’s reflected in the summer berry salad recently introduced by Friendly’s Ice Cream. It’s made with grilled chicken and summer berries on baby spinach with toasted almonds and a three-cheese blend. Similarly, Fogo de Chão is offering a strawberry, endive and spinach salad, as well as one with quinoa, edamame and roasted corn.

Meat as a condiment

Of course bacon continues to be a popular hamburger topping, but this summer other meats are going on top of meat in a continuation of the protein trend we’ve seen all year and a certain more-is-better approach being taken on occasions when customers want to splurge on calories.

Texas BBQ Thickburger

That’s reflected in Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s seasonal special, the Texas BBQ Thickburger, for which the chains’ charbroiled 100 percent Black Angus beef. The Thickburger patty is topped with smoked beef brisket in spicy mesquite barbecue sauce, as well as fried jalapeño and onion strips and melted American cheese. Similarly, Red Robin is topping its beef patty with chopped smoked brisket, provolone and grilled onions, along with two different barbecue sauces for a summertime LTO called The Colossus Burger.

Seasonal fruit

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Strawberries, the harbinger of spring, were on an unusually large number of chain menus this spring, and that bodes well for watermelon this summer, which is at the top of Datassential’s seasonal index for the summer, appearing on 289 percent more menus at this time of year than at other times. It’s on Brick House Tavern & Tap in its seasonal Watermelon Cucumber Splash, which combines vodka, watermelon, lime, soda and cucumber, as well as in the Red, White and Blueberry salad at Newk’s Eatery, which is spinach, topped with chicken, strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, pecans and feta in fat-free raspberry vinaigrette.

Newk's Eatery's Red, White and Blueberry salad

You can also expect to see more peach on menus as summer progresses — such as in the Seasonal Harvest Salad at Veggie Grill, made with char-grilled peaches, romaine, arugula, avocado, Roma tomatoes, shaved beets, toasted pecans and quinoa, served with citrus vinaigrette.

Do-it-yourself

This could refer to the ongoing trend of consumers flocking to fast-casual restaurants that lets them customize everything, or of chefs at independent restaurants curing their own meat, making their own pickles and fermenting their own kimchi, but in this case it reflects chain restaurants doing more work in the kitchen.

In rolling out its new menu earlier this year, Hard Rock Café renewed its commitment to preparing more items in-house. Hooters’ executive chef, Gregg Brickman, introduced March Madness specials earlier this year.

Hooters' blackened Mahi Sandwich

He gave his cooks more responsibility by having them make the pico de gallo and guacamole for the nachos he was testing. He also had them bread the chicken tenders, fry pickles and blacken mahi mahi. Brickman said the moves not only allowed him to control quality better, but it gave his staff more pride and dedication in their work.

Expect to see more of that this summer as customers seek more freshness cues, and restaurants look for ways to differentiate themselves.

Contact Bret Thorn: bret.thorn@penton.com
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary