Flavor exploration slowed down a bit in 2020, as operators streamlined menus and focused on bestsellers and customer favorites. Items such as burgers, bowls and pizza were relatively easy to execute with limited staff and traveled well for takeout and delivery.

But within these categories and others, chefs and menu developers did introduce some new and unique flavors. To-go formats saw a lot of action, as did comfort foods, beverages and portable treats such as cookies and donuts. Global condiments and sauces jazzed up burgers and bowls, plant-forward ingredients topped pizzas and exotic fruits infused drinks. Technomic, the sister company of FoodService Director and Restaurant Business, mined its Ignite Menu platform to highlight the flavor, ingredient and format trends on the rise.

By Patricia Cobe

To-go offerings

Every foodservice segment offered items to go last year, a trend that continues. Similar to restaurants, many college campuses had to quickly pivot to carryout or delivery. K-12 schools sent meals to housebound students, and dining teams in senior living dropped off dinners room-service style. Even hospitals adapted service to grab-and-go for frontline workers. Culinary innovation accelerated in this category, but certain foods rose to the top.

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More on To-Go Innovation


Operators are taking advantage of the portability and versatility of bowls to create new combinations. Plant-forward ingredients adapt especially well to the bowl treatment, inspiring menu developers to go in a healthy direction. And many global cuisines already focus on food in bowls, making it natural to menu Asian, Mexican and Mediterranean flavors in this format.

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Pizza concepts saw a huge uptick in business during the last year. Naturally delivery-friendly, pizza experienced strong demand from families stuck at home, as well as college students, frontline workers and displaced employees working from home offices. To keep up with the times, more unique toppings began to trend and value continues to be a purchase driver.

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Get on-trend pizza recipes


Consumers continue to seek familiar foods with universal appeal and good value, and burgers fit the bill. While classic ground-beef versions are still a mainstay, other proteins and ingredients are increasingly finding their way between the buns. And operators are tapping new flavors to differentiate their burgers from the competition.

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More on the burger boom

Comfort foods

While, burgers, pizza and breakfast platters certainly qualify as comfort foods, operators tried to shake up the category out of its comfort zone. Soups and stews with global flavors, braised meats and gussied-up fries are rising on menus and luring meat-and-potato customers.

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Condiments & sauces

The most convenient way to give familiar favorites a flavor twist is by adding a sauce or condiment. Fried chicken sandwiches, wings and burgers are the perfect carriers, and some of the trending ingredients below jazzed up those items. More specialized sauces and condiments added flair to barbecue, global dishes, cheese and charcuterie boards, and desserts.

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Cookies & donuts

In sync with the comfort-food trend, sweet treats rose in popularity during the pandemic and operators offered a broader range of flavors and formats. Restaurants and other foodservice venues are making it easy to tack cookies, doughnuts, cupcakes, cake slices and even ice cream onto delivery and digital orders—either as a freebie or as an affordable extra. Customers are also ordering these sweets on their own, as a way to treat themselves any time of day.

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Get craveable cookie recipes


Beverages with benefits are seeing the most action on menus. Smoothies, teas and juices with functional ingredients that promote wellness, reduce stress or boast other health-promoting characteristics are in demand. And plant-based milks continue to be added as options for coffee and tea drinks, with oat, walnut and hemp showing the most growth.

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More on plant-based beverages


The operator base for these growth numbers is comprised of 6,997 U.S. commercial operators. Growth is determined by the change in item incidence/menu mentions from Q3 2019 to Q3 2020.