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Familiarity breeds content as customers seek comfort, value from menus

Familiarity breeds content as customers seek comfort, value from menus

When it comes to food and drink, familiarity is the name of the menu game, say a group of culinary trend trackers asked about what items are luring today’s consumers to eat out.

After being buffeted by the economy, patrons are craving burgers, French fries, pizza and sandwiches both for their comfort and their comparatively lower price points. In the same vein, “easy ethnics,” a phrase used to describe ethnic dishes most people already know and adore, such as Italian, Mexican and Chinese, are hot. 

When it comes to portion size, however, consumers are all over the map, wanting both big value-oriented piles of fare and smaller options for their more healthful glow. Along the same lines, organic, sustainable and local foods are spurring sales with their eco-friendly halos. 

Another lesser trend involves pork, which is now showing up more frequently in mass-market places like Burger King, which offered a bone-in ribs limited-time offer, and Taco Bell, which recently unveiled pork carnitas. Both pork dishes are well known, ethnic and inexpensive, so they appeal to consumers for many reasons.

In an interesting twist, the innovation that used to trickle down from fine-dining operations to fast food is now flowing the other direction, with more fine-dining chefs offering burgers and casual foods — and offering up plans to open multi-unit fast-casual concepts.

Most important, novelty counts, said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice president of Chicago-based The NPD Group. New items are only new for a short time, so even stylish foods need updated twists.

Make it recognizable

“I don’t like the term comfort food,” Balzer said, noting it implies uncomfortable foods were once a hit. Instead, he said, restaurateurs “are doing new things with foods we already love.” He noted that better burgers and flavored fries exemplify the trend. 

The recent and rapid-fire growth of Five Guys, which is expected to reach 775 units by the end of this year, touts the appeal of better burgers. Rosemary-flavored fries draw crowds to Smashburger, the Denver-based quick-service operation that now has more than 75 locations.

“New spins on old favorites are succeeding because they are familiar, reassuring and just plain taste good,” said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Company, a menu trends consulting firm based in Atlanta. “For some consumers they may represent a simpler, happier period.” 

She cited the popularity of oatmeal as an example, noting that Starbucks is a leader in the hot-cereal arena.

Speaking of familiar, Gaz Regan, a partner in Ardent Spirits, noted a “return to basics” when it comes to beverages. After a half decade of creative cocktails luring bargoers in trendy lounges, there’s been a return to simplicity at the bar, he said.

“Bartenders need a firm grasp on the classics before they can be creative in a meaningful way,” Regan said. 

Make it portable

Today sandwiches are the No. 1 food people consume, said Balzer, who noted that vegetables currently are No. 2.

The popularity of sandwiches reflects a change in eating preferences to more hand-held foods, which not only speak to convenience but to consumers’ need to multitask. A sandwich can be held in one hand while people drive, text or play computer games, “and now fewer people are making sandwiches at home,” Balzer noted. 

“Sandwiches are hotter than ever” in restaurants, Kruse agreed, “partly because they’re convenient, partly because R&D chefs have done such a wonderful job of reinventing them and reconsidering all of the elements of the sandwich — including the bread, condiments and produce. The breakout sandwich of the year is the melt. It ties back to the demand for comfort, and the cheese makes it absolutely irresistible.”

Melts with broad appeal include Red Robin’s classic patty melt and La Madeleine’s seasonal turkey cranberry melt, she said.

I want to travel at home

Foods that come from familiar cultures have won favor during the past few years of the recession, especially those from Italy. 

No need to look any further than the latest list of hot new restaurants in New York City to see that Italian food is a favorite, noted Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America. Just last month, chef Mario Batali opened Eataly, featuring an Italian food market, eating “pods” and a sit-down restaurant. A week later Jonathan Benno launched Lincoln at Lincoln Center with an Italian menu. Earlier this year Union Square Hospitality Group debuted its first Italian restaurant, Maialino.

Diners love “big Italian flavors and the comforting flavors of Italy” in particular, Ryan said. “People seek refuge in the food we eat,” especially during difficult times. And like Italian, Mexican and Asian, familiar yet bold flavors have also “become a part of the mainstream,” he said.

Feed my sense of value

Size often connotes value, and many R&D chefs are working to deliver both.

A large dish “suggests value for certain people, and it attracts the young males because they tend to have big appetites,” Kruse added. “And it’s the contrarian’s point of view, which is we’re going to eat this because no one can tell us what’s good and not good to eat. I think it’s almost like thumbing your nose at the food police.”

“There’s a huge interest in value,” Ryan agreed. “We’re seeing increased casualization of America. In an economic time like this, it really comes to the forefront.”

Help me stay healthy

Increased nutrition awareness “is impacting menu development in all segments, from high-end chains like Morton’s with a whole new bar menu that features mini sandwiches, to casual dining like The Cheesecake Factory’s small plates, and fast food with McDonald’s Angus Snack Wraps,” Kruse said. 

“As the population ages, we are more conscious of our health and diet,” Ryan said. “The constant information we get from the media about nutrition ratchets up the concern, so that has been on our radar screen.” 

He noted that New York City, through its scrutiny of trans fats, menu labeling and sodium, is doing a good job addressing health concerns. They also hired a CIA grad to “reform the school lunch program,” he said. 

Contact Pamela Parseghian at [email protected].

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