“Everyone in this room has the great privilege to work in the coolest industry in the world,” Nation’s Restaurant News publisher Chris Keating told a roomful of restaurateurs as he introduced the winners of the 16th annual MenuMasters awards, presented by NRN and sponsored by Ventura Foods.

“The people in this room and what they’ve contributed to the industry … just knock it out of the park,” Jim Goggin, Ventura’s senior vice president of foodservice groups, told the audience of about 400 attendees of the gala, held at the Drake Hotel.

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The awards, which honor culinary innovation, were presented to a diverse array of teams. They ranged from the creators of Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos and the developers of Red Lobster’s first pork chop, to Jonathan Sawyer, chef-owner of the Greenhouse Tavern and other dining destinations in Cleveland, who won this year’s Innovator award for his varied cuisine and cutting-edge stride in environmentalism.

“It’s an honor being mentioned on this stage with you guys,” Sawyer told the crowd, following a reception at which they sampled his stuffed duck zampone.

Papa John’s Pizza won the award for best limited-time offer for its Buffalo chicken pizza. Sean Muldoon, the chain’s senior vice president for research and development, quality assurance and supply chain, said the MenuMasters was an award his team had set out to win years ago, “and I can’t believe we’re here.” He said the MenuMasters logo was now incorporated into their marketing for the award-winning pizza, which was in the process of being rolled out globally.

“We’ll cherish this award for a long time,” he said.

The award for best menu revamp went to Red Lobster, which completed the biggest overhaul of its offerings in the chain’s history, including the addition of dishes such as Parmesan-crusted chicken and a pork chop.

Senior director Danielle Connor said, “We have some very, very talented chefs who really enjoyed not working with seafood for awhile. We’re really privileged to be here.”

Taco Bell won the award for best new item for its Doritos Locos Tacos. By far the most successful item in the chain’s history, the premium taco has registered more than $500 million in sales, Keating said.

Taco Bell chief executive Greg Creed said the company hired 15,000 people as a consequence of the new item. “For all those people who think innovation is dead in the United States, ‘live más!’” he said, quoting one of Taco Bell’s slogans.

Noodles & Company won the award for best line extension for its slow-braised, naturally raised pork, which is now available as an addition to all of the chain’s entrées.

Tessa Stamper, Noodles & Company’s executive chef and director of culinary, said she had been excited ever since she learned she won the award. Joking that it had been her job for the past year-and-a-half to taste delicious pork as the item was fine-tuned, she said the new offering was not just a line extension, but also an extension of the brand’s philosophy to source the best ingredients it can find.

The Menu Trendsetter award went to Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant for its Asian BBQ Pork Belly Nachos. “I snuck into this event about nine years ago, and I thought I was so slick,” founder and chief executive Tim McEnery told the audience. “I never thought I’d be standing up here.”

The award for Healthful innovations went to Silver Diner for its new kids menu, which was developed in part by having young guests test the food. He said he was particularly honored when he spoke with Jonathan Sawyer and José Andrés at the MenuMasters reception, “and they said ‘Wow, you guys are really trendsetting.’”

Andrés, head of ThinkFoodGroup in Washington, D.C., was at the party to be inducted in the MenuMasters Hall of Fame. While accepting the award, he regaled the audience with complaints that his 12-seat Minibar restaurant was losing $150,000 a year and invited Taco Bell to sponsor it.

He said that fine-dining chefs often think they are “the pope,” and that chains are devils, but that all of them have the opportunity to create great jobs and make the world a better place.

“In this room we have companies and individuals that feed the big world,” he said, marveling at the massive sales of Doritos Locos Tacos. He said everyone in the restaurant industry should invest in creativity and work together to help solve the nation’s ills.

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