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Whether they are called starters, small plates or shareable foods to eat before the entrée, appetizers are very on-trend now — especially those that provide a creative showcase for proteins. Operators say that not only do consumers enjoy starting their meals with small portions of chicken, pork or other proteins, but appetizers that feature the right combination of flavors also can drive impulse sales, raise the check average and even encourage repeat visits.
According to market research firm Datassential, appetizers that provide a twist on old favorites are especially popular now. Menu mentions of topped fries in the form of poutine are up 323 percent over the past four years, while buffalo chicken dips are up 212 percent over the same period. Among the fastest growing proteins in appetizers are ingredients like pulled chicken, which is up 92 percent over the past four years, and shredded chicken, which has increased 83 percent.
“Current starter trends lean toward the indulgent with many fried items topping the list, including poutine, tater tots, arancine and fried pickles,” says Claire Conaghan, senior account manager for Datassential. “Comfort and nostalgia are also themes with mac and cheese and deviled eggs both increasing in menu penetration.”
Appetizers are a great vehicle for encouraging guests to try something new, says Tom Sacco, president and chief executive of Homestyle Dining LLC, parent of the Ponderosa and Bonanza steakhouse chains and Cole’s Backyard Grill. “This gives them a chance to try things that are inexpensive before the main course, and the safety valve is—they can fall back on the ribeye,” Sacco says. “They can try something a little more cutting edge, a little more trendy, at a price point they are comfortable with, in an environment they are comfortable with.”
Consumers also are looking for bold, but not necessarily spicy flavors, Sacco says. The company's restaurants have been promoting three appetizers recently. The Chicken Banh Mi slider contains chicken breast, pickled red onions, romaine leaf tips and wasabi aioli, served on Hawaiian rolls, which lend sweetness to the sandwich. The Smoked Carnitas Street Tacos feature pulled pork, corn tortillas, pickled red onions, chipotle cabbage slaw, barbecue crema (sour cream and barbecue sauce) and chopped cilantro. The Sweet and Spicy Candied Bacon is oven-baked and gets its crisp texture from a rub made from brown sugar and Cajun spices.
The appetizers all have price points of less than $6, and if the new items are popular with guests, they will likely return. “At the end of the day it’s all about traffic,” Sacco says.
Shareable appetizers also are on-trend because sharing the food makes it seem less risky, according to Datassential. “In fact, aside from being easily handheld, being easily shareable is the top attribute consumers look for when selecting an appetizer,” Conaghan says, citing Datassential's MenuTrends Keynotes on Appetizers.
Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, the family sports pub chain, has been expanding its appetizer menu over the past two years by adding new items like Hand Breaded Chicken Tenders, Buffalo Chicken Dip and BBQ Chicken Flatbread. The chain also features Whole Lotta Nachos, which offers chicken as an optional add-on.
“One of the things we discovered was that we had a shareable appetizer on the menu, and it was the most expensive appetizer, but it was the one we sold the most,” says chief executive Chris Elliott. “Our environment is primarily family and sports oriented so a few people come in by themselves, but mostly it’s large parties of people which makes appetizers a much easier sell.”
Consumers like shareable appetizers, Elliott says, because they don't have to pay the cost of the appetizer alone. Beef ‘O’ Brady’s also offers Wings & Things, which is a smaller order of wings paired with ribs or fried pickle chips. “That’s been an extremely popular appetizer,” he says.
Appetizers also are changing because people like to dine in different ways now, says Thomas Boemer, chef and co-owner of Revival and Corner Table restaurants in Minneapolis. Instead of ordering a more conventional appetizer-entrée-dessert combination, consumers are seeking tasting menus and shared courses. “You have to design your appetizer menu with these different options,” he says. “We are seeing a growing entertainment experience with people going out as a group for a social occasion.”
Revival operates three locations in Minneapolis, including one in U.S. Bank Stadium. Boemer says some of his most popular appetizers have featured barbecued pork jowl with grits and pickled watermelon rind, finished with a North Carolina-based barbecue sauce. Another popular appetizer is the smoked pork belly with butter beans and sorghum syrup. “The important thing is to match the cut with a technique that gives it complex flavor,” he says.
Appetizers are also popular in college and university dining venues because students like to try several dishes in one meal. At Rollins College in Winter Park, near Orlando, Florida, students can choose appetizers at different stations. “Our most popular stations are dim sum and the croquette bar,” says Gustavo Vasconez, general manager of Sodexo Campus Services, the school’s dining service. Both are available in varieties which are filled with chicken, pork or other proteins, and there are also vegetable-filled varieties. For students who choose to double up on protein, such items as chicken pot pie with quinoa are also available.
Pork is especially popular now in appetizers and in other stations, Vasconez says, adding that much of that trend derives from students’ interest in Asian foods.
Retro flavors with a twist are also trending, Vasconez notes. In catering, one popular item is deviled eggs filled with chicken, pork, lobster, grains, avocado, beans or other ingredients. “It’s not mayo with paprika on top anymore,” he says. “The good oldies are coming back, and they are going to stay for a long time.”