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Nancy Kruse, Bret Thorn look back at 2013 menu trends

Nancy Kruse, Bret Thorn look back at 2013 menu trends

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they break down the year’s top menu trends.

Nation’s Restaurant News senior food editor Bret Thorn revisits his menu predictions for 2013.

Nancy, 2013 has pretty much come and gone. It was a year full of artisanal bread and gluten-free items, kale and quinoa, avocados, Sriracha sauce and a lot more Korean-inspired food than I expected.

Looking back on what I predicted would happen food-trend-wise a year ago, I did pretty well, if I say so myself.

Some of my predictions were safe bets, of course. I said chicken breast would be popular, and, indeed, America’s favorite protein remained so, with chains ranging from Chick-fil-A (Grilled Market Salad, a new Cool Wrap) and KFC (Original Recipe Boneless, Original Recipe Bites) to Rock Bottom Brewery (Grilled Bruschetta Chicken) and First Watch (Summer Cherry Chicken Quinoa Bowl) adding new items.

But I was surprised to also see an uptick in dark-meat chicken, especially at independent restaurants, as customers’ growing taste for moderate adventure, combined probably with Chipotle’s use of dark meat, convinced more of them to try unfamiliar cuts of a familiar bird.

Along those lines, I noticed your observation in 2012 of the increase in skin — chicken, pork and fish — on menus. I predicted that would continue, and indeed it did. Crunchy pork rinds and chicken skin have been fairly commonplace components to dishes, at least at forward-looking independent restaurants. New York City chef Joe Dobias serves crispy chicken as snack at Joe & Missus Doe, and Kyle Zachary, chef of Topper’s at the Wauwinet in Nantucket, Mass., tops his roasted piglet with crunchy pork skin.

Avocado, too, was a prediction of mine. I said its unique status as something that’s both indulgent — in terms of fat content and price — and also good for you — because of its heart-healthy monounsaturated fats — allowed it to fit many diners’ needs. And as you’ll recall, Nancy, you declared avocadoes to be the ingredient of the year at MUFSO just this past September.

I said we’d find lesser-known seafood species on menus, and indeed Forbes magazine pointed to octopus as one of the top trends of 2013. Datassential said it was on 7.4-percent more menus than a year earlier. Oyster consumption has reportedly risen, too, and independent restaurateurs are working hard to find fish other than tilapia, grouper, salmon and the like to put on their menus. They report pretty good success in getting their customers to try new things. However, although Red Lobster executives have told me they’d entertain the idea of offering lesser-known seafood, they haven’t done it yet.

I thought we’d see more game meat than we did in 2013. Bison and wild boar seemed to be making inroads at better-burger chains such as Bareburger in New York City, and venison makes an annual appearance on Seasons 52’s menu in the fall, but I was hoping to see more elk, squab and quail on independent menus, and I didn’t. I did see a lot of duck, though. Sky-high chicken wing prices convinced some chefs to work with duck wings, and Jim Doak actually added them to the menu at Brick House Tavern + Tap. According to GuestMetrics, duck sales rose by 7 percent during the first half of the year, when overall sales at the independent restaurants it monitors increased just 1.8 percent.

I expected more restaurants to carry their own custom beer, and we’ve seen that. I also predicted the Sriracha sauce boom.

I’m not going to take credit for potatoes, though. I thought the weak U.S. corn crop last year and the bumper potato harvest would lower potato prices and we’d see the starch sweep the nation more than it already has.

We did see the potato-themed restaurant Potatopia open its second location, and we saw experimentation with new fries at Sonic and Burger King, but I don’t think I’d call 2013 the Year of the Potato.

I predicted we’d see more tropical fruits, and we did see a fair amount of mango in sorbets and smoothies, as well as in dishes like P.F. Chang’s Summer Vegetable Quinoa “Fried Rice.” Passion fruit found its way into more teas and smoothies. I’ll take that one.

I was dead wrong about Bush Tucka — native Australian foods — but I thought I might be. You have to throw in a wildcard now and then to keep things interesting. I thought maybe the aboriginal Australian items, with their compelling stories and only moderate strangeness, might find a following. Instead, it seemed like that type of creative energy went into sea buckthorn and various former weeds from Scandinavia as New Nordic cuisine became an important influence in the avant-garde dining world.

How about you, Nancy? What did you see as the menu trend highlights of 2013?

Vegetables, upscale breads lead year's trends

(Continued from page 1)

The following is Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s take on 2013 in food.

Happy holidays, Bret, and thanks so much for the most thoughtful gift. As you know, end-of-year predictions tend to bring out my inner Grinch. With every writer and consultant worth his or her salt feverishly issuing culinary prognostications, I always feel so inadequate. Like, what’s left for me to say? So your interest in a menu highlight reel, a glance backward rather than a look forward, is a Grinch-dispensing, relief-inducing gift of the first order.

And 2013 is a very good year to look back on, especially if you’re a vegetable lover. Circumstances combined to create the perfect storm for increased produce consumption: Meat prices remained volatile, consumer health concerns grew, the gluten-free craze devolved into craziness, and chefs innovated like mad.

Who would have forecast that overlooked and underutilized cruciferous vegetables would take chain menus by storm this year? Yet they were everywhere. P.F. Chang’s added Brussels sprouts to its Harvest Vegetable Quinoa “Fried Rice,” LongHorn Steakhouse hit the jackpot with Brussels Sprouts au Gratin, and Mendocino Farms in Los Angeles added cauliflower to its Curried Couscous Salad. The latter chain also offers Marinated Red Beet Salad with citrus vinaigrette, a possible harbinger of greater use of underappreciated root vegetables. Indeed, reliable menu bellwether The Cheesecake Factory has already embraced the beet, as with the Beets with Goat Cheese and the Santorini Farro Salad with beets and feta cheese that appear on the SkinnyLicious bill of fare.

While you might not dub 2013 the Year of the Potato, I’d contend that the category was pretty darned interesting, with a raft of new items and applications that added value and decommoditized the side of the plate.

You point out that Burger King launched Satisfries, with 30-percent less fat and 20-percent fewer calories. I would point to the other end of the spectrum as well, where Top Round Roast Beef, a new chef-driven, fast-casual sandwich operation in Los Angeles, reintroduced beef tallow as a frying agent, a cheeky move that elevated the finished product into a crave-worthy treat. Mimi’s Cafe, in the midst of a concept repositioning and menu overhaul, promises to put a little more joie in your vivre and delivers with revitalized classics like the potatoes Provençal that accompany the Sole Meunière and the mushroom-infused au gratin potatoes alongside the Bistro Bavette Steak. By the way, Mimi’s also serves lovely Grilled Salmon & French Lentils. French lentils, Bret. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see more of them on menus in the future?

It’s counterintuitive, considering the explosion of gluten-free, but 2013 will also go down as the Year of Beautiful Breads. Gluten-avoiders notwithstanding, chains unleashed their inner bakers with a plethora of specialty breads.

Wendy’s, a prime mover behind the better-bun bonanza, hit a home run with the popular Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger on a pretzel bun, then moved on at year’s end to the Bacon Portabella Melt on brioche.  And everywhere you went, you ran into flatbreads. A lighter pizza that delivers hefty margins, flatbreads became a go-to item on casual-dining menus. Chili’s — which touts its line as bold, new and freshly baked — offers the classic Margherita with a southwestern twist of roasted garlic aïoli and cilantro-ranch pesto. Ruby Tuesday’s Crispy Flatbreads include Four Cheese Bianca with a blend of Italian cheeses. And Maggiano’s has expanded their appetizer flatbreads to five, including Chicken and Roasted Pepper. Bread was flat at leading burgermeisters, too. Wendy’s promoted a pair of Flatbread Grilled Chicken Sandwiches as a limited-time offer, while McDonald’s added McWraps, grilled or crispy chicken with fresh veggies in a flour tortilla, to the permanent menu.

Finally, I think this has been another banner year for corporate chefs, many of whom find themselves caught in the crossfire of customer demands, management expectations and economic challenges. But despite it all, they perform with wonderful creativity and style. So here’s to them, Bret, and here’s to you, too. I look forward to a 2014 filled with more of our monthly exchanges. And no, that’s not a prediction, but a fond hope and happy expectation. Cheers!

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected].

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