Menu Analysis Shows New Twist On Old Favorites

By Maeve Webster, Senior Director, Datassential

There’s no question produce is playing a larger role in foodservice. Driven by several macro trends including the continued, and expanding, the presence of better-for-you behavior, increased focus on local sourcing, ongoing price pressures with multiple proteins, and improved availability of a wide range of varietals, both operators and consumers are placing a greater emphasis on produce.

But, with an endless bounty of produce options available, chefs and other foodservice operators are looking to existing menu trends to gauge consumer interest and to ease customers into more innovative, adventurous produce options.

New Versions Of Old Favorites

The top-menued produce has stayed fairly consistent over the past few decades — onions (92%), tomatoes (86%), peppers (85%), and mushrooms (80%) have become basic, essential ingredients on the menu. As menu innovation both impacts and response to consumer demand for new food experiences, operators are introducing new varietals and unique new options to increase interest, create new flavors, and leverage on-trend world cuisines.

But how does an operator keep the menu fresh and evolving without losing the appeal of those long-standing customer favorites? The answer is to find new and unique varietals of those very same customer favorites, giving the consumer a familiar, enjoyable ingredient while adding interest with new flavors, textures, and visual appeal.

Take mushrooms, for example. The vast majority of restaurants menu at least one item featuring mushrooms. As consumers became more comfortable with mushrooms, operators branched out, adding Portobellos (18%), Criminis (3%), and wild mushrooms (9%). Now, some of the fastest growing mushroom types are even more exotic — varieties like Black Trumpet, Hen of the Wood, and Oyster mushrooms.

Last year’s intense focus on kale (5%) can be traced back to the growth in menuing and appeal of spinach. As spinach (59%) saturated the market, operators looked for another dark green vegetable with an equally healthy perception that could be used in a wide variety of applications. Enter the year of kale and its rapid proliferation on the menu.

You can see this same type of menu evolution occurring with a wide variety of produce. Tomatoes transitioned from standard, often unnamed varieties to quality-driven, brand name varieties like San Marzano. Operators are also leveraging a rainbow of heritage varietals as well as countless hybrids featuring names as colorful as the fruit itself: Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, and Bull’s Heart.

Looking Abroad For Inspiration

While restaurants and other operators have an ever-expanding selection of domestically-grown fruits and vegetables available to them, the growth of world cuisines in the U.S. is providing, even more, produce inspiration — and more options. Americans are increasingly exposed to “new” cuisines such as Peruvian, Korean, Scandinavian and Filipino and, in turn, discovering new types of produce that were previously unknown and unavailable.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the growing array of peppers, hot and sweet, available on today’s menu. Operators are experimenting with new varieties from Central and South America, like Aji (<1%), Cascabel (<1%), Arbol (1%), and Guajillo (1%), while Ghost peppers (<1%) are delivering incredible heat from India. Meanwhile, Spain’s milder Piquillo (1%) adds a sweet heat to dishes as does the Shishito pepper (<1%) from Japan.

Fruit is not immune to this trend, with chefs scouring the globe for new, more adventurous options. Restaurants have introduced unique citrus varieties including Yuzu and Buddha’s Hand from Asia. As operators continue to experiment with sweet and savory combinations, the use of berries in savory applications is likely to increase — think berries from Scandinavia, such as Lingonberry and Cloudberries, adding a sweet and tart component to heritage or wild meats.

Digging Into The Archives

While much inspiration comes from abroad, some creativeness is driven by history, as on-trend chefs seek inspiration from recipes and ingredients that were popular decades, even a century, ago. Now everything old is new again. Items such as pickled vegetables and hand-foraged herbs, or “retro” dishes using deviled eggs — even Prohibition-era cocktails and speakeasies are back.

Which means, of course, that produce follows suit, with “classic” produce items used to create an authentically and accurate dish — vegetables like sorrel, salsify, watercress, and leeks, or fruits like kumquats, persimmons, and quinces. And as these ingredients find their way into operators’ kitchens, chefs are getting more adventurous with them; rhubarb, for example, can be found in everything from an old-fashioned strawberry rhubarb pie to innovative savory and beverage applications.

Key Takeaway

Inspiration can come from anywhere. It’s important to look at macro trends to understand how chefs are leveraging particular ingredients. Though produce certainly helps to elevate the perceived healthfulness of a dish, the ever-expanding selection of fruits and vegetables available to restaurants provide an even more expansive palate from which to experiment and create.

Produce creates outstanding visual appeal, an endless array of textures, and a rainbow of colors. Whether drawing inspiration from heirloom varieties or looking abroad for authentic touches, produce can be a solid base for innovation.

Note: All percentages are penetration or percent of operators’ menuing from the annual Chains & Independents MenuTrends database, which covers just under 5,000 unique menus, from the largest national chains to small independent restaurants.