Consumer behaviors are constantly evolving, especially when it comes to our eating habits. A critical part of a restaurant’s menu strategy is to pay attention to the ebbs and flows of consumer trends and cravings. Being attentive and nimble, restaurateurs can succeed in attracting new clientele, satisfying the latest demands of current diners, or even reestablishing relationships with customers who may have lost their affinity for your menu.

With “the customer is always right” mantra in mind, the challenge for operators lies in knowing what is worthy of a reaction. While there’s reward in being fresh and trendy, there’s also the risk of investing time and money into a fleeting fad. Now a separate menu strategy itself, limited time offers (LTOs) are a wise way for restaurants to tap into trends, keep menus fresh and drum up excitement and demand. Customers will appreciate new menu offerings, while operations have time to evaluate performance and demand before committing. Just as consumer trends inevitably evolve, so should restaurants and their menus. Below is a round up four consumer trends that are having an impact on restaurant strategies, along with chain operators who are successfully keeping a pulse on the latest and greatest:

  1. Rise of the Flexitarian – Ranked the #3 best diet, flexitarians are all about…you guessed it, eating flexibly. Reap the health benefits of vegetarianism by enjoying plant-based meals most of the time, while still having the freedom to enjoy a juicy burger when the craving strikes. Today, 31% of Americans practice meat-free days throughout the week.
Impossible Burger

Mirroring the growth of flexitarian diners, the meat substitutes market is expected to reach $6.4 billion by 2023 – a 50% increase in six years. Game changers, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, are changing consumers’ perspectives on faux meat – forget the former flavorless veggie burger, the modern-day version smells, sizzles, bleeds and tastes magnificently meaty.

Embracing the trend, industry meat leaders, such as Cargill and Tyson, are strategically investing in startups who specialize not only in plant-based meat, but also insect protein and lab-grown meats.

The increase in delicious, quality options, along with consumer demand, has fueled one of 2018’s top food trends: plant-based burgers. This year alone, several national chain restaurants have added plant-based burgers to menus:

  • White Castle Veggie Slider – Chock-full of carrots, string beans, zucchini, peas, broccoli and spinach.
  • Red Robin Veggie Burger – Ancient-grain-and-quinoa veggie patty piled high with Swiss cheese, lightly fried, Parmesan-sprinkled mushrooms, tomato bruschetta salsa, fresh avocado slices, sun-dried tomato spread and shredded romaine on a whole grain bun.
  • TGI Fridays The Beyond Meat Cheeseburger – Made from plant-based ingredients, the patty is seasoned and grilled with white cheddar, lettuce, red onion, pickles and Friday’s sauce.
  • Sonic Signature Slinger– A blended burger consisting of 75 percent beef and 25 percent cooked mushrooms topped with lettuce, tomato, diced onions, crinkle-cut dill chips, mayo and melted American cheese.
  1. Allergy-Friendly Menus – Cutting out major food groups, such as gluten and dairy, have long been part of the fad diet bandwagon, hello Whole30 and Keto. Regardless of the diet de jour, diners voicing an allergy or intolerance should be heard loud and clear. Today, 11.7 million Americans live with food allergies or intolerances. Even further, it’s estimated that anaphylaxis to food allergies results in 30,000 emergency room visits every year in the U.S.

For a restaurant, the severity of allergies should not be taken lightly. Cross-contamination back-of-house or uninformed staff front-of-house could lead to a serious, life-threatening situation. When considering all the major food allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, nuts, wheat and soy), a chef must be diligent – looking at a recipe at face value isn’t enough. Operators must also consider the processing and handling of each ingredient prior to arriving in their kitchen. Chocolate syrup may not contain nuts, but it very well could be processed in a factory that also processes nuts. Knowing your ingredients is crucial to ensure each menu item is labeled correctly so diners can feel confident in their food choices.

This year, Nation’s Restaurant News voted these national chains as the top 3 allergy-friendly restaurants based on customer feedback:

  1. Maggiano’s Little Italy
  2. Chipotle
  3. Bertucci’s
Bertucci’s Cauliflower Pizza on Instagram

3. The World Traveler Taster – Today’s diners are traveling by means of their palate. In fact, 66% of consumers are eating a wider variety of ethnic cuisines now than five years ago.

Authentic ethnic cuisines and global flavor fusions are proving to be a great opportunity for operators to differentiate their menu and please adventurous patrons who are looking for new flavor experiences. While Italian, Mexican and Chinese are the top three cuisines in terms of familiarity, trial and frequency, the global flavors of Filipino, Greek, Middle Eastern, African, Native American and Peruvian are gaining mainstream exposure on menus.

For operators with a menu strategy as American as apple pie, there’s still room for experimentation. In fact, 75% of consumers say they like it when restaurants with mainstream menus also serve ethnic cuisine. Thus, chefs and restaurateurs have the opportunity to explore creatively with new ingredients, cooking techniques and unique flavor fusions despite their restaurants’ current menu focus.

Take McDonald’s as an example. While Big Macs, McNuggets and French Fries are standard, the fast food giant took their menu for a spin when it opened a ‘global-inspired restaurant’ on the ground floor of Chicago corporate headquarters. Rotating regularly, the menu features items from McDonald locations around the world: Canada’s Mighty Angus Burger, Australia’s Cheese & Bacon Loaded Fries, Hong Kong’s McSpicy Chicken Sandwich, Italy’s Mozza Salad, Brazil’s McFlurry Prestígio.

McDonald’s Italian Mozza Salad
  1. The Go, Go, GO Diner – With grocery and drug store chains jumping into the mix, the meal kit sector is predicted to grow 25-30% over the next six years. For restaurants, meal kits can provide their customers with a similar dining experience that they seek in the restaurant, only in the comfort of their home.

According to the NRA Culinary Forecast, meal kits are the #3 trend for Restaurant Concepts this year. And while competition is fierce, nearly half of consumers say they’d buy a meal kit from their favorite restaurant if it were offered. Targeting these diners who are seeking fresh, convenient fare at a step above takeout could prove lucrative for restaurants. By leveraging an established, and perhaps brand-loyal, customer base with no long-term commitment, restaurants can set themselves apart from other meal kit competitors with subscription services.

Capitalizing on this trend, Chick-fil-A just announced the release of its own line of fresh prepared meals for diners on the go. As the first major U.S. fast food chain venturing into takeout meal kits, Chick-fil-A will test the meal kits at 150 restaurants in the Atlanta area starting late August until mid-November. To differentiate the kits from standard takeout, Chick-fil-A is offering five new recipes that aren’t available on-premise: chicken parmesan, chicken enchiladas, dijon chicken, pan roasted chicken and chicken flatbread. Priced at $15.89 for two servings, each kit contains pre-measured ingredients to ensure a prep time of 30-minutes or less.

Whether the goal is to tap into a trend, increase the average ticket size or garner publicity, the fast food chain is delivering on ease, convenience and affordability during a time when diners are demanding it. Only time will tell if Chick-fil-A considers the meal kits a permanent offering.

Chick-fil-A Meal Kit

As consumer trends and cravings continue to evolve, menus will inevitably ride the tide of the time. In your opinion, what consumer trends do you foresee having an impact on menus in the future?

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