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California Pizza Kitchen spicy buffalo cauliflower Courtesy of California Pizza Kitchen
Chefs can't get enough of cauliflower, such as this spicy buffalo cauliflower from California Pizza Kitchen.

Kruse: Throw out the old menu rules and play with your food

As competition grows, menu expert says restaurant operators must own innovation

This is part of Nation’s Restaurant News' special coverage of the 2017 MUFSO conference, taking place Oct. 1-3 at the Hyatt Regency at Reunion Tower in Dallas. Follow coverage of the event on and tweet with us using #MUFSO. Stay connected on the go by downloading the MUFSO app.

For restaurants, the old rules of the game are being upended.

“There are new realities reflecting major shifts,” menu-trend expert Nancy Kruse told attendees in her State of the Plate address at the 58th annual MUFSO conference in Dallas on Sunday.

Grocery stores are upping their prepared-foods game and opening full-service restaurants. Meal-kits threaten to cut into restaurant occasions. Digital entertainment sources like Netflix have “made it sexy to stay home,” said Kruse, who is president of The Kruse Company.

In the face of growing competition, Kruse said that restaurant operators must respond by leveraging their ace in the hole: owning menu innovation.

The old rule was to put more and more restaurants out there, said Kruse. But the new reality is that the industry is showing signs of unit rationalization, or store closures, as operators try to bring supply in line with consumer demand. Restaurant unit counts fell 2 percent in September 2016, year over year, with former rapid-growers like Subway, for example, shuttering 359 units in 2016.

But operators need to remember restaurants remain the preferred point of entry for new foods, she said.

“Competition is everywhere, taking a little bite here and a little bite there,” said Kruse. “But when the going gets tough, it seems to me the tough really crank up their menu R&D.” 

Keeping it clean

The consumer demand for “cleaner food” remains one of the biggest trends of the past decade, said Kruse. But while the old rules allowed a higher authority — dietitians or the Food and Drug Administration — to define what is healthful, the new reality is “do-it-yourself wellness.”

Whether it’s cage-free eggs, sustainable coffee, meat raised without antibiotics, or the removal of artificial additives, “this is no longer an elitist phenomenon,” said Kruse. “This is for all the people all of the time.”

The next move toward “clean, free-from and animal-friendly” will likely include smaller chickens, said Kruse. “They take 25 percent longer to grow and they cost 30 percent more to feed than conventional factory-raised chickens, but they’re happier, healthier and supposedly their meat is all the more tastier.” 

Courtesy of Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A's superfood salad


The new rules

While the old rule may have been “beef or chicken,” Kruse said the new reality is “beets or carrots,” noting the uptick in plant-based dishes, particularly at the center of the plate.

Chefs can’t get enough of cauliflower, which is appearing at chains such as PizzaRev as a pizza topping, as a Korean dish at The Cheesecake Factory, and riced and topped with tzatziki, Israeli skhug, feta, cucumbers, fresh dill and salmon at Zoe’s Kitchen.

Where the old rule was there are three big ethnic cuisines — Italian, Mexican and Chinese — the new reality is a vast global pantry, said Kruse. Indian cuisine is emerging, but so are Japanese ramen and udon noodles, as well as pho from Southeast Asian.

Kruse predicts menus will show more katsu, Japan’s version of schnitzel, for example, as well as meats such as pork belly and cinghaiale, or wild boar.

Lamb is also getting more play. And Kruse said she’s waiting for rabbit to be adopted as a cheap, versatile protein that is widely used in other countries but still largely absent in the U.S.

Side dishes are also moving front and center, with trendy options showing double-digit growth on restaurant menus, including quinoa, tater tots, hand-cut fries, kale, roasted vegetables, cauliflower and asparagus.

Kruse cited dishes like Chick-fil-A’s superfood salad with kale, broccolini, roasted nuts, dried sour cherries and maple vinaigrette, for example, and the fried asparagus spears dusted with Parmesan at Houlihan’s. Lentils and ratatouille are another opportunity, she said.

While the old rule was “eat your food,” the new reality is “play with it,” said Kruse.

Examples included Burger King’s line of shakes made with breakfast cereals like Froot Loops and Lucky Charms; a hand-held doughnut sundae at Datz Doughnuts with a scoop of ice cream on top; the macaroni-and-cheese doughnut at Glam Doll Donuts in Minneapolis called The Bellybomb; and the new cookie-butter cinnamon rolls at Cinnabon.

“More over-the-topness is expected,” said Kruse. What consumers want now is food that is “memorable, creative, global, healthful-ish, comforting and fun.”

If there’s one rule for menu development today, it’s that there is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach to R&D, Kruse said.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

The MUFSO Premier sponsor is The Coca Cola Company

Presenting sponsors are: Blount Fine Foods, The Coca Cola Company, UNiDAYS

Kitchen Hero Cook-Off is presented by Texas Pete/TW Garner Food Company

The Hot Concepts Reception is sponsored by Rock & Brews

The Industry Awards Gala is sponsored by Tyson Foods, Daiya Foods, Natural brands

Pillar sponsors are: Alchemy Systems, Bloom Intelligence, Boylan Bottling, Cardlytics, Mainstreet, Inc., Nudge Rewards, S&D Coffee, Smithfield Farmland Foodservice, Sweet Street, Weston Foods, Zenput

The MUFSO app sponsor is Steritech

Refreshment breaks are sponsored by Blount Fine Foods, Boylan Bottling, Royal Cup Coffee, Smithfield Farmland Foodservice, Sweet Street, Ventura Foods, and Weston Foods

The Supplier Exchange Luncheon is sponsored by Hale & Hearty, Bruce Cost Ginger Ale and Copper Moon Coffee

The Lanyard & Welcome package is sponsored by Hospitality Mints

MUFSO Breakfast sponsors are Moore’s Food Resources, Community Coffee and Natural Brands

VIP Dinner sponsored by Moment Feed, Pan Pacific Plastics and Rotella’s Bakery

The official music sponsor is Rockbot

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