Meals in bowls — customizable, portable, photogenic, and free of many of the carbohydrates that encumber other entrées — are becoming an increasingly important part of many menus.
They’re already available at just under a quarter of restaurants nationwide, according to menu research firm Datassential, and their presence is growing.
“Our bowls now represent 50% of all of our entrées,” said Paul Altero, cofounder of 103-unit Bubbakoo’s Burritos, based in Wall, N.J.
Like many burrito concepts, Bubbakoo’s offers its food in many shapes: burritos, tacos, quesadillas, nachos, and salads, plus a unique presentation called the Chiwawa, which is panko breadcrumb-crusted fried rice balls topped with guests’ choices of ingredients.
Photo: Bowls now represent 50% of all entrées at Bubbakoo’s.
“Chiwawas, which only come in a bowl form, pull up as 10% of our entrées, making bowls 60% [of all entrées],” Altero said. “Bowls are easy to customize, plus they can be made lower carb, and a lighter option than a burrito.”
To that end, Bubbakoo’s has a line of Lifestyle Bowls, intended to suit vegans and vegetarians, as well as those following the keto diet. To make that clear, those bowls are, in fact, called the Vegetarian, Vegan, and Keto Bowl. There’s also a Whole Food Plant Bowl made with whole grains and vegetables and without meat, dairy, or eggs.
That kind of curated bowl targeting specific popular diets is becoming increasingly commonplace. Chipotle Mexican Grill launched a whole line of them at the beginning of the year. The bowls have diet-related names like Balance Macros (black beans, chicken, fajita vegetables, fresh tomato salsa, guacamole, extra romaine lettuce and a light portion of white rice), Grain Freedom (baby kale, baby spinach, and romaine lettuce topped with chicken, tomatillo-red chile salsa, fresh tomato salsa, sour cream, and cheese), and High Protein (white rice, black beans, a double portion of chicken, tomato-red chile salsa, shredded cheddar cheese, and romaine lettuce).
“We created seven new Lifestyle Bowls that embrace Gen Z and millennials’ modern interpretation of wellbeing … offering balanced meals with real ingredients that you feel good eating,” Chipotle chief marketing officer Chris Brandt said in a press release at the time.
Health and nutrition were much of what Chris Gannon had in mind when he cofounded Bolay Fresh Bold Kitchen in Wellington, Fla., in 2016 with his father, Outback Steakhouse cofounder (and inventor of the Bloomin’ Onion) Tim Gannon.
An athlete, Chris Gannon said he wanted to eat meals that weren’t contingent on a starchy delivery system such as sandwiches and pizza.
“I don’t enjoy eating a sandwich,” he said, because of all the carbohydrates involved.
“Basically what bowls are doing these days is allowing you to mix a lot of different, really neat flavors and not having a carbohydrate to hold it all together.”
Photo: Chris Gannon founded Bolay Fresh Bold Kitchen with health and nutrition in mind.
Customers start with one of 10 bases, including rice, riced cauliflower, beans, two salad options, vegetables such as sweet chile Brussels sprouts, maple sweet potatoes, and ginger broccoli, plus pesto noodles and Asian sweet potato noodles. Gannon said that last option, which is a type of glass noodle, is particularly popular.
Guests can pick up to three of those, and then they can add protein, choosing from among two chicken options, steak au jus, mojo pulled pork, miso glazed tofu, and a new roasted salmon with shawarma spices. Other toppings include avocado, chimichurri tomatoes, and a big new hit: pickled red onion.
The bowls (spelled “bols” at the chain’s 28 restaurants in Florida, Georgia, and Virginia) can be rounded out by an assortment of spicy and tangy sauces.
There are also curated Chef Inspired Bols, “which are what we believe are the best combinations,” Gannon said. Those include the Miso Tofu Bol with Sweet Potato, which is kale salad, pesto noodles, maple sweet potatoes, miso glazed tofu, and peso sauce, and the Steak Au Jus Bol with jasmine rice, pesto noodles, sweet chile Brussels sprouts, steak au jus, Parmesan cheese, and creamy garlic-herb sauce.
Gannon said those curated bowls are mostly eaten by first-time visitors, who on subsequent visits either tweak them or, even more often, start building their bowls from scratch.
Gannon intentionally made the whole menu gluten-free, and most of the toppings, except for the meats and cheeses, are vegan. The bols start at $9.99.
Another important aspect of bowls’ popularity is their visual appeal.
“We are very instagrammable,” Gannon said, adding that he learned early on the importance of making sure the bowls are colorful, hence the new pickled onions, along with orange sauces and seasonal items such as yellow street corn.
“You have this array and rainbow of colors,” he said.
The 24.5% of menus that already have bowls are adding more of them, according to Datassential. Its research indicates that menus with bowls offered on average 4.1 of them in 2021. At the end of 2022, that number had grown to 5.3.
Because they’re so customizable, they seem to be enjoyed in particular by people on special diets. Fast-growing terms associated with bowls, according to Datassential, include “meatless,” which is up by 267% over the past four years, and “Paleo,” which is up by 215%. “Cauliflower Rice” is now mentioned with bowls 477% more often than it was at the end of 2018.
But robust and hearty flavors are also an important part of bowls’ appeal. Lemon vinaigrette is now mentioned 845% more often than it was four years ago, and roast pork mentions are up by 491%.
Savory bowls are clearly growing in popularity, but so are fruitier ones, like the açaí bowls that Juice it Up!, an 86-unit chain based in Newport Beach, Calif., has been offering since 2001.
Açaí is a berry from South American rainforests lauded for its high concentration of antioxidants, and it has become particularly popular as a base for bowls often eaten at breakfast.
Juice It Up! guests have a choice of seven bases, including all-fruit ones, but also some mixed with peanut butter, soy milk, and yogurt, or lemonade, spirulina, and collagen.
Then they can top the base with other items.
“The most popular toppings for our bowls are always fresh fruits such as banana, strawberry, and blueberry, along with our Hemp Granola, which gives a healthy crunch to the bowl,” said Juice It Up’s director of food science Noah Burgess, adding that visual appeal is also “super important.”
“We all eat with our eyes and our guests love to share their photogenic, handcrafted Juice It Up! bowls on social media, which attracts both new and existing customers,” he said.
The chain’s CEO Susan Taylor said guests are looking for bowls that both taste good and are good for them. She said Burgess makes sure the bowls “keep equal parts flavor and function as the deliverable when crafting new menu items and limited-time offerings.”
Taylor added that the bowls are one of the fastest growing categories at the chain, along with its specialty smoothies.
“The bowl category continues to grow year over year,” she said. “Over the past seven years, we have witnessed our bowl category increasing in market share as more guests have incorporated superfruit bowls as a regular meal or healthy snack into their daily lives. The spectrum of bowl consumers is broad, as those that were first introduced to bowls at Juice It Up! 22 years ago are still a core customer as well as the addition of new and younger guests that order from the category regularly, too.”
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]