The National Restaurant Association  fulfills many functions, most notably the representation it provides its operator members in Washington, D.C., and the world-class food extravaganza it puts on each May in Chicago. In addition, the association is a valuable source of industry intelligence, particularly with regard to menu trends. A piece of research completed last fall is especially useful.
Working on the principle that the best information is of the straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth variety, the NRA surveyed over 1,100 members of the American Culinary Federation. Respondents commented on the forces they view as most influential on “hot” food trends. And while their opinions were wide-ranging, three factors rose to the top of the list.
They say it’s a matter of timing. Nearly 80 percent of ACF chefs indicated that seasonal availability of foods is exerting great influence on how and what diners consume. This makes sense on a number of levels. From the patron perspective, seasonality connotes freshness, flavor and health. These are potent and marketable menu propositions. In addition, emphasis on seasonal foods speaks to a growing back-to-the-farm movement that supports a more natural growing environment.
The bad news is that corporate menu planners can be challenged by demand for freshness that is at odds with the necessity to execute a core menu of familiar favorites available year-round. The good news is that savvy chain chefs are working their way around the problem by focusing less on the center of the plate and more on what appears atop or beside it.
A recent seasonal menu at Mimi’s Cafe is a good example. Touting several dishes available for a limited time only, the menu promoted asparagus, a universal signal of springtime, which appeared with citrus-broiled shrimp, as ravioli filling and as part of a tomato-cream sauce.
They acknowledge the importance of culinary diversity. Over two-thirds of interviewees affirm that ethnic cuisines continue to have a significant impact on menu trends. This reflects both demographic and lifestyle changes.
Immigration jumped dramatically during the last half of the last century and opened the gates to Latin and Asian cookery, which in turn introduced a whole new gastronomic vocabulary of spices and techniques. At the same time, Americans ventured abroad in record numbers, partaking of native cuisines. Add to this the impact of the food media on what we eat, and the result is an acceptance by mass-market restaurant patrons of foods and flavors previously niched in ethnic enclaves.
The response by chain chefs is to lead customers into the unknown by carefully but creatively marrying the exotic with the familiar. Take T.G.I. Friday’s riff on the standard fries-and-ketchup combo in which crispy green-bean fries are accompanied by a cucumber-wasabi dip to provide a taste of Japan.
They add twists to the traditional. More than 60 percent of ACF chefs surveyed agreed that comfort foods presented in an updated format drive menu development efforts. Ever since mom traded her apron for a briefcase, restaurateurs have stepped into the breach with home-style favorites.
The trick is to give standards new life by making comfort foods contemporary, and corporate chefs have stepped up to the plate. Morton’s, The Steakhouse has jazzed up conventional meat loaf by using Kobe-style Wagyu beef. And California Pizza Kitchen  has built an empire on pizza crust by adding unexpected toppings like mango tandoori chicken.
Soups have made a roaring comeback at chains, driven largely by their prominence on bakery-cafe menus. While there are plenty of oldies to be found, there are almost as many modern options, like the Vegetarian Mushroom Trio & Roasted Tomato from Panera  Bread. Soup specialists also are on the rebound, and Hale & Hearty in New York City lives up to its name, with a chicken pot pie soup that’s a new take on tradition: convenient comfort.
Looking ahead, the chefs flag other areas of influence such as evolving nutritional and dietary needs. But they also recognize that culinary times are changing, and they point to the growing importance of celebrity chefs and culinary schools in shaping the direction of menus.