2010 Menu Development survey: In menus, diversity rules

Chefs and operators are becoming more adventurous with their menus but there are still limits to what they can achieve.

The results of the 2010 Menu Development Study, conducted annually by Foodservice Director, are in, and the survey says Asian is “in,” Mediterranean has staying power, and Thai, Caribbean and Cuban will be making their way onto more non-commercial menus in the months to come.

The results are summarized in a sidebar below, and in four charts scattered throughout the article. But raw data doesn’t often tell us the why—or why not. So, we asked 30 chefs and operators to tell us what’s popular in their operations and why, as well as what is holding them back from expanding their menus even further.

The most frequent response to the open-ended question, “what is the most popular ethnic cuisine?” is Asian and that is true in most segments.

“I think the reason why students like it so much,” suggests Craig Mombert, executive chef at Davidson College in North Carolina, “is because most people are familiar with Chinese food. It is not a stretch for many to give other types of cuisine, such as Thai or Korean, a shot. And they get to experience flavors that are not found traditionally in European and other Western cuisines.”

Another reason, says Shawn Hoch, executive chef at Washington State University, is that a large number of customers are Asian.

2010 Menu Development Survey Types of Chart“Our largest minority population on campus is Asian,” Hoch says. “Chinese is most popular, but we also follow Japanese and Thai, and recently added Vietnamese pho to the menu, which has been well received. We also have been adding to our sushi concept and added dim sum to the menu.”

Vaughn Vargus, executive chef at the University of California at San Diego, says, “At the top of the list would be our sushi/soba menu items. Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese are all very popular.” Then, travel across the country to upstate New York, and Steven Miller, executive chef at Cornell University, will tell you: “Thai food is a very hot concept. Low food cost and big flavors help get this concept rolling.” Miller worked with Chef Chai Siriyarn to open a Thai concept last fall, and he also brought in Indian chef and restaurateur Suvir Saran to bring Indian flavors to American foods such as macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and meatloaf.

Even universities in the “meat-and-potatoes” stronghold of America’s Heartland see Asian items as popular. Few, however, have gotten as exotic as the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

“We recently served some Nepali dishes with positive feedback,” says Executive Chef Janna Traver. “I believe this is due to the use of curries that provide a known ingredient. This allows us to incorporate some exotic flavors such as fenugreek, Szechuan peppercorns and cardamom.”

But it is not only in higher education that the survey found that Asian is popular. In the Hillsborough County (Fla.) School District, Foodservice Director Mary Kate Harrison says it tops her menus “by far.”

“Our Asian bowls with orange chicken or teriyaki beef are very popular, not only with students but also adults as well,” she explains. “We have added sushi as an à la carte item, and it sells well in higher-income schools. Veg­etarian and chicken egg rolls as main line entrées are very popular but not as wildly as the Asian bowls.”

2010 Menu Develpment Survey Chart cooking methodsDebbie Mobley, foodservice director for the Clarksville Montgomery County (Md.) Schools, says orange chicken and rice is a particular favorite among her customers. “I think because it reminds them of chicken nuggets that are sauced.”

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