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Top 5 trends for a post-menu-labeling world

With menu labeling a likely reality for restaurant chains next year, the foodservice industry will be forced to “walk the fine line between open disclosure and customer satisfaction,” according to new analysis from researchers at Mintel.

The Chicago-based market research firm identified five foodservice trends for next year that will result from the attempt to balance federal menu labeling mandates for chains with more than 20 locations and the differing demands of customers in a still-challenging economy.

“Both the government and consumers want healthier menu options, but restaurant-goers are also very concerned about value and how their food tastes,” said Eric Giandelone, Mintel’s director of foodservice research. “Keeping both parties satisfied might be a challenge as we move into 2011.”

Here are the top five trend predictions in Mintel’s Menu Insights report:

1. Healthy by association

Surveys show that 62 percent of consumers say they plan to eat more healthfully in the upcoming year, but many complain that healthier food doesn’t taste as good without the added sugar, sodium and fat. As a result, restaurants will swap better-for-you ingredients into their customers’ favorite dishes to make them appear more healthful.

Mintel pointed to Taco Bell’s recent announcement that it has significantly reduced sodium across the menu in Dallas-area test stores without customers even noticing. Jason’s Deli also promotes its food as being free of high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats or pesticides.

When consumers visit restaurants that are perceived as healthy, it makes them feel good about themselves and their meal choices, even if they end up choosing a not-so-healthful limited-time offer, Mintel said.

2. Automated menus

Mintel predicts that more restaurant companies will be using electronic order takers, or automated menus, that will allow consumers to order food the way they want it. The move will allow restaurants to reduce dependence on front-of-the-house staff, as well as full-time employees. The move will also bring in younger, more mobile customers, Mintel said.

3. Transparency

Not only do consumers want to know calorie counts of menu items — surveys indicate 61 percent feel restaurants should post nutrition information — more cities will require restaurants to post letter grades indicating health department inspection scores.

4. Indigenous ingredients

The movement toward local ingredients will go a step further next year with restaurants incorporating more traditional or authentic ingredients to ethnic or globally inspired dishes. Mintel cites the example of Frontera Grill’s Panucho Yacateco, an entrée that includes a traditional Yucatan crispy tortilla filled with black beans and hard-boiled egg with shredded chicken in tangy escabeche.

The report said “local” as a menu marketing claim has grown by 15 percent from the second quarter of 2009, a trend that Mintel said will likely increase in 2011.

5. Exemptions to the rule

Because the mandate to post calorie counts will not include limited-time offers, many restaurants will offer less-than-healthy seasonal items that will allow consumers to indulge without necessarily knowing the damage. According to Mintel, 43 percent of consumers say they’re likely to change what they order when calories are posted on menus. “LTOs allow consumers the occasional opportunity to indulge in a meal out,” said the report.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].

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