Introducing new flavors to the menu, reintroducing old ones, using food trucks as a place to get customer feedback and serving up a healthy pinch of nostalgia are all factors shaping today’s menus. A panel discussion at this year’s MUFSO in Dallas, TX, focused on traffic-driving trends.
The panel, moderated by Bret Thorn, senior food editor, Nation’s Restaurant News, featured Stan Frankenthaler, vice president, global product innovation & culinary for Dunkin’ Brands; RJ Melman, managing partner of HUB 51, SUB 51, Paris Club, Studio Paris, RPM Italian, M Street Kitchen and Stella Rossa Pizza Bar; and David Weber, founder and president of the NYC Food Truck Association (NYCFTA).
Everything Old is New Again
“People are nostalgic for things they grew up with as a kid, but this time, it’s handcrafted and with better ingredients, like a handmade Oreo cookie,” Weber said.
Flavors like pumpkin, gingerbread and blueberries that harken back to Grandma’s kitchen are “pulling at customers’ heartstrings,” Frankenthaler said. However, they’re now in the form of a white chocolate pumpkin latte or portable blueberry pancake bites.
While French cuisine saw its heyday a couple generations of chefs back, Melman said the Studio Paris concept seeks out ways to introduce the cuisine to a younger, hipper crowd.
Refreshed French classics have attracted Millenials who wouldn’t normally say, “Let’s go out for French food,” Melman said, citing a lighter version of coq au vin with roasted chicken breast, red wine and more vegetables than the original version.
Steak frites and crostini with lobster have proven to be shareable treats and the most popular small plate option is truffle and scrambled egg. Selling pieces of escargot one at a time generates far more sales of snails than packaging them as a whole order.
Global Sampling, Experimentation
Eating around the world and the fusion and playfulness that comes with it has been showing up everywhere from food trucks to fast casual to white tablecloth restaurants.
“The most popular food truck in every city is often a Korean-Mexican fusion concept, and that’s making its way to fast casual,” Weber said, adding that American eaters’ tastes reflect a shifting a geopolitical standpoint. “Keep an eye on Chinese and Brazilian food.”
Today’s customers don’t need a toned-down version of authentic ethnic flavors, the panelists agreed. What was once called “polarizing” could today become the next big flavor opportunity. And if something is too “out there” for customers, limited time offers are a great way to find out.
Limited Time Offers
Customers at Baskin-Robbins may not have been quite ready for Chocolate Lavender ice cream a couple years back, but Frankenthaler didn’t consider it a failure. Having 31 flavors allows for some experimentation.
The limited-time fundraising Firehouse 31 flavor (fiery hot with cinnamon red-hot candies) may not have been the biggest seller, but “hey, we have 31 flavors to choose from,” Frankenthaler quipped.
Food Trucks as a Food Lab
Much buzz is being generated by the food truck phenomenon: fresh, quality foods with global flavors that people are more than willing to pay a bit of a premium for. They’re also a tool for existing operations to test concepts at a lower cost and with built-in immediate feedback.
Weber started his food truck as a way to get a feel for what customers might be looking for at his New York bricks-and-mortar dumpling concept, Rickshaw Dumpling Bar.
“I see food trucks as another component of the restaurant business,” he said. When Weber wanted to test steamed dumplings vs. fried dumplings, he took his truck to the streets, and was surprised that the majority of customers were health-conscious, going for the steamed dumplings. So Weber changed his focus accordingly.
Options for Wellness
At Dunkin’ Brands, some of the biggest traffic-driving menu changes have meant more healthful options.
“It’s on customers’ minds,” Frankenthaler said. “People may not always choose something healthier, but they appreciate knowing it’s there.”