Bold flavors, round-the-clock snacking and innovations both large and small were the focus of the Menu Building Innovations panel at MUFSO. Connectivity between customers, chefs and manufacturers was also a theme.
Panelists included Diana Duddy, national account manager, Sweet Street Desserts; Steve Logan, research chef-culinary services manager, Ventura Foods; and Tony Seta, director culinary services/Corporate Executive Chef, Butterball Foodservice. Nancy Kruse, president, The Kruse Company & columnist, Nation’s Restaurant News, served as moderator.
Snacks, spicy street food and customization
The panel began by identifying what they see as the biggest trends of today compared to ten years ago.
“In a word: snacking,” Duddy said. “We started to see it with the emergence of the ‘4th meal’ and even the ‘5th meal.’ It’s pervasive in all segments of the industry. People are looking for a mid-morning, afternoon and late night snacks.
The snacks can range from mini desserts and coffee to wine and tapas, with many other tastes in between. Snacking is a mark of tough economic times, Duddy said, with people from different generations seeing it as an affordable indulgence throughout the day.
Logan cited street food as the biggest influence on menu development today versus a decade ago.
“Specifically in terms of spicy flavors,” he continued. “We just weren’t exposed to the street foods of places like Southeast Asia ten years ago.”
Seta pointed out that, years ago, Cajun food turned out to be more of a fad than a major trend, but it did prep consumers’ palates for stronger flavors on menus.
“Cajun food also led to more authenticity on the menu,” Seta said. “Ten years ago, you rarely saw Thai food the way you do now. And we also have the bold, spicy flavors of Hunan and Szechuan cuisine.”
Dessert moves up
Continuing to reflect on the state of menus ten years ago, Kruse said that dessert has seen a major resurgence.
“Dessert is not a cast-off anymore,” she said.
Duddy agreed. “There has been a mind-shift regarding desserts—both shareable and full-size,” she said. “We are developing menu ideas that appeal to a diverse customer base. The dessert is the last impression of the entire meal, so you have to make sure it delivers.”
Social media means that plating desserts and other menu items is more important than ever, “because someone is taking a picture of that plate for Instagram,” Duddy said.
Customers are ‘more passionate,’ connected to product development
Social media has led for more of a dialog between those developing menus and those enjoying what’s on the menu, Logan said.
“I feel more passion about the menu from customers,” he said. “We’re challenging one another to create interesting and risky combinations.”
The competition from food trucks—ratcheting up the possibilities for fresh and new menu items—is also keeping bricks-and-mortar operations on their toes.
The connectivity that results, “the food coming directly from the chef’s hands to the customer,” has upped the game in a great way, Seta said, leading to more culinary innovations than ever before.
“Innovations take many forms,” said Logan. “You have your big game changers, but it can also take the form of small, incremental changes over time. One of the trends we’ve identified is farmers markets. So we looked at what that means: the fresh produce, and what people are doing with it.”
The identification of the farmers market trend let to the development of a new line of salad dressings designed specifically to go with farm-fresh vegetables.
Duddy added that development of Sweet Street products has taken into consideration issues important to customers, like cage-free eggs and greener packaging.
Customers also are leading to more health-conscious products for the center of the plate, Seta said, referring to the ‘health halo’ surrounding turkey.
“It can be a substitute for other proteins,” he said. “We can now take a turkey breast and turn it into uniform-size cutlets. Turkey Benedict with fried eggs and Hollandaise sauce even has a perceived health halo.”