2017 was a year of menu exploration, but in many instances, a simple approach was the key. For some operators, innovation meant tapping a different cuisine for new ingredients or flavors. For others, it was a matter of putting a spin on proven favorites. The menu trends that rose to the top most closely aligned with today’s consumer demands; however, those needs often teetered between polarizing forces: health versus indulgence or classic versus cutting-edge. Read on to see the top eight menu shapers of the past year.
1. Burgers go beyond beef
Operators have taken advantage of burgers’ immense popularity by playing with their traditional protein. Some restaurants swapped out beef for nontraditional meats, such as smoked eel at Shake Shack or elk (and returning venison) at Arby’s. But plant-based burgers saw a significant growth spurt in 2017. Restaurants from The Counter, Umami Burger and Hopdoddy Burger Bar to TGI Fridays, BurgerFi and Epic Burger launched or tested plant-based burgers or meat patties blended with vegetables such as mushrooms.
2. Cheesy sides take center stage
Not only did cheesy sides find momentum as side dishes, but they also showed up as toppings on entrees. Limited-service spots such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Chipotle found gold in queso, both as a side and a topping on fries and burgers. And mozzarella sticks were served in myriad ways: getting fancy at The Cheesecake Factory, going global at Buffalo Wings & Rings, topping a choice of protein at Applebee’s and crowning a burger at P.J. Whelihan’s. Mac and cheese and beer cheese also found nontraditional applications at top chains.
3. The new local
Restaurants took local sourcing to the next level by highlighting local and regional dishes on the menu. Preparations such as Alabama white barbecue sauce showed up as a burger topping at The Brass Tap, while Wisconsin cheese curds appeared on several steakhouse menus. Chefs are also digging deeper into regional global cuisines and calling out those descriptions on the menu. Instead of a dish being broadly categorized as Middle Eastern, for example, it will now be labeled as Israeli, Yemenite or Persian. Each of these moves relates to the broader trends of transparency and authenticity.
4. Snack boxes to go
For the last few years, snacking has become increasingly fixed in consumers’ daily behavior. Consumption is still on the rise, partially due to the rising notion that snacks are part of a healthful diet, according to Technomic’s Snacking Consumer Trend Report, powered by Ignite. So it’s no surprise that chains with healthful bents have started to roll out snack boxes. Zoes Kitchen developed its line of Snack Boxes, Au Bon Pain introduced Bon To Go boxes that are available all day, and Just Salad extended its menu beyond its namesake offering with three toast boxes.
This was the year that Instagram became a driving force in menu development—especially in the beverage and dessert categories. Starbucks created a lot of buzz with its colorful Unicorn Frappuccino and Ombre Pink Drink, but Tim Hortons was close behind with its Buffalo Latte. On the dessert side, Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer has become a destination for towering milkshakes stacked high with billows of cotton candy, slices of layer cake and assorted candies. For these concepts, camera-friendly items not only swell their ranks of social media followers, but they also bump up traffic and sales.
6. Naturally sweet
Consumers love their sweets, but with increasing awareness around real and natural health cues, operators have adapted with natural sweeteners such as honey, maple, agave and molasses. Honey and chicken has been the hottest couple of 2017, with chains including Dairy Queen, Panda Express, KFC and more spotlighting the pair. Toward the end of the year, spicy honey was gaining steam, featured in items such as Taco Bell’s Chicken & Biscuits, which came with jalapeno honey in a recent test. In addition, maple’s been tapped beyond breakfast, showing up in both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, as well as on nontraditional dishes such as seafood. Moreover, some operators are looking to reverse diminishing soft drink sales with housemade fruit-infused waters.
7. Low- and no-alcohol drinks
The craft cocktail movement, which continues to be a force at the bar, is now impacting lower-proof and nonalcoholic drinks. Bartenders are giving these booze-free beverages the same culinary attention, using fresh, premium ingredients and putting flavor first. Spritzes are taking off, such as the signature served at Belcampo in Santa Monica, Calif., made with sparkling wine, vermouth, elderflower liqueur, sherry and seltzer. Sake, shochu, beer and still wines are serving as the base for lower-alcohol drinks—adaptable to fast casuals and other restaurants that operate with a beer and wine license only. And mocktails are getting more numerous and more on-trend, such as the Magic Buyer served at 312 Chicago; it’s shaken with housemade honeydew-basil-white balsamic syrup, pineapple juice and club soda, then garnished with a basil flower.
8. The chicken and the egg
Operators are reimagining standard breakfast fare, invigorating the morning (or all-day) menu with different preps and configurations. But chicken and eggs—both classic and refigured—are getting the most attention in the morning. Chicken surged as a breakfast protein in the past year, making more appearances in sandwiches and platters, such as Arooga’s Chicken & Waffles and Peet’s Maple Waffle & Gouda Chicken Breakfast Sandwich. And eggs are being featured in nontraditional and global preps. Taco Bell’s Naked Breakfast Taco LTO used a fried egg as a “shell” to hold diced potatoes, cheese and bacon or sausage. And in keeping with its Asian theme, Wagamama debuted breakfast ramen, featuring a soft-cooked egg and smoked bacon on top of the traditional bowl of noodles and broth.