How to revive the menu with current trends

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As labor and supply issues continue to push operators to streamline menus, limited-time offers remain a platform to showcase innovation.

Over the past five years, LTOs have increased by 31% on chain menus, according to a Technomic study presented at last week’s MenuDirections conference at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Although LTOs peaked in 2021 during the pandemic, the number remained robust throughout mid-2022, and Technomic predicts numbers will exceed pre-pandemic levels this year.

But not all limited-time offers are created equal, Technomic menu experts Lizzy Freier and Katie Belflower told operators and chefs in the audience. When consumers rate OLTs based on the likelihood of purchasing that menu item, certain ingredients, flavors and cooking styles come out on top.

Apple desserts, for example. Among those limited-time offers that recently landed in the top 10 for high purchase intent, apple desserts took three spots. Denny’s Caramel Apple Pie Crisp and O’Charley’s Apple Cobbler appealed to 64% and 62% of those polled, respectively.

Consumers categorize OLTs by menu name and description only; they never see or taste the food. But apple is the most appealing flavor for pies and cobblers.

Bacon also scores high in savory dishes, with respondents finding the bacon sliders and BLT chicken very appealing. And steak was singled out in three menu main courses: a tenderloin steak sandwich at Habit Burger Grill, a Porterhouse Choice 14-ounce steak dinner at Black Bear Diner, and a Philly Steak and Cheese sandwich at Shoney’s. Presenters noted that 56% of consumers eat steak at least once every two weeks.

Technomic also measures an LTO for its circulation (which can translate into additional traffic) and its demand (which translates into additional sales).

Seafood gets a high score for the draw. Consumers are turning to seafood dishes from restaurants because they are hesitant to cook them at home, and 36% order seafood once a week or more from restaurants. Seafood also crosses the meal occasions – crab eggs Benedict, lobster Thermidor and a crab and cheddar quiche were all favorites.

Satisfying a craving is the top “need” for choosing a restaurant, with more than a third of consumers saying it was their top reason in a recent Technomic survey.

So which LTOs did they find the most searched for? The foods with the highest scores were generally comfort and indulgent foods. Perkins Chocolate Peanut Butter Drop (76%), First Watch Shrimp and Grits (75%), New York Steak with Hard Rock Café Marinated Mushrooms (74%) and Fried Rice PF Chang’s short ribs (73%) were in the top 10.

Target your consumer

Freier and Belflower also pointed out that trends vary by generation and gender.

Gen Z, for example, opts for Tex-Mex items, high-carb foods like fries and mac and cheese, and dessert-breakfast mashups. Forty-eight percent gave high marks to Silver Diner’s Apple Pie Stuffed French Toast (there’s that apple dessert again!)

Millennials, meanwhile, are steak eaters, choosing a New York steak flight from Perry’s and an oversized porterhouse steak at Black Bear Diner. This age group has a higher disposable income than Gen Z and seems to like heartier items. They also ranked the breakfast platters and chicken and bacon sandwiches on top.

While Gen X also opts for generous portions (earth dishes and large sandwiches, for example), they also prefer vegetarian dishes like fried mushrooms and street corn. And baby boomers are opting for dishes that focus on seafood, fruit and sweeter flavors.

It’s no surprise that the male diners are meat eaters. Items with the words “bacon”, “steak” and “meat” in their names or descriptions were particularly appealing. And pairing bacon with cheese can boost scores even further.

Operators who think women are all about salads and healthy options, think again. According to Technomic, PJ Whelihan’s chocolate chip cookie riffs caught the attention of 65% of female consumers and 63% ranked Denny’s Signature Pancookie up there.

Berry breakfasts and twists on chicken salad also performed well. The latter included Paris Baguette chicken fajita salad, which was popular with 62% of women surveyed.

A taste of the future

Looking ahead, Freier and Belflower used Technomic’s predictive analytics program to predict future trends. One of the most interesting results: 28% of consumers are more open to experimentation since the start of the pandemic.

Over the next two years, operators can expect these trends to continue or grow, according to the data:

• Plant-based alternatives (cheese, pork, beef, oat milk, cauliflower rice, almond milk, poultry, in that order)

• Hot and spicy (habanero marinade, hot Nashville, hot honey, chamoy, peri-peri sauce, mango-habanero sauce)

• Sauces, condiments and spices from around the world (garlic, pil-pil, tapenade, urfa biber, lemongrass marinade, Asian ginger sauce, adobo sauce and cilantro-lime aioli, as well as several in the hot and spicy above)

When experimenting with these trends, keep in mind that 42% of consumers are more likely to try a new or unique flavor at a restaurant than when cooking at home, Technomic found.

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