Menus are changing

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The latest Menurama survey reveals some exciting foodservice trends, writes Peter Backman.

Foodservice consultancy Horizons’ menu tracking survey Menurama reveals more than just new dishes. It also demonstrates how and when consumers are buying food for eating outside the home, and how adventurous they are when it comes to trying new things…

At Horizons, one of our most important pieces of research is that of tracking the changing nature of menus in foodservice outlets. We’ve been undertaking our Menurama research for several years now and through the feedback we have from tracking more than 116 high street food chains, we’ve gained a fascinating insight into how businesses have adapted to the consumer’s changing needs and how today’s eating out patterns have changed as a result.

The research is undertaken every six months to take account of seasonal changes. It looks at pub restaurants, restaurants, quick service outlets and hotels, closely analysing new dishes on menus, prices and trends in the ingredients used.

Burgers and hot dogs: Traditional dishes fall, gourmet rises

While menus are constantly being innovated, one thing is clear: the most enduring dishes are fairly constant and alongside new dishes, it’s important to hang on to the old favourites. The beefburger is still the most frequently listed dish, followed by pizza, chicken burger, fish and chips, and rump steak. 

But our latest Menurama results – summer 2014 – show an interesting movement. While the top five dishes haven’t changed, the popularity of beefburgers seems to have peaked, with a year-on-year decline on menus of around 17%. Changes to best-selling dishes are slow to emerge, so this is a trend we’ll be following closely to see if it’s more than a seasonal blip.  

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Five top menu trends
  1. Better bread: Burgers are commonly being served on brioches rather than plain rolls.
  2. Pulled meats: KFC has a pulled chicken range, showing pulled meat is mainstream.
  3. Different, cheaper cuts: ‘Flat iron steaks’ were non-existent on Horizons’ survey last summer, but now appear as a key ingredient in 17 dishes.
  4. Turning Japanese: Katsu dishes (breadcrumbed and fried meat) have increased by more than 300% since summer 2010.
  5. Turning even more Japanese: Wasabi (the hot Japanese horseradish, pictured) features in four times as many dishes as it did a year ago.

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Hand-in-hand with burgers’ apparent decline is outlets starting to jazz up their burgers, perhaps in a bid to maintain sales or in response to the upmarket burger chains that are opening on every high street. At Byron, consumers can find the Miami Slice, a 6oz hamburger with potatoes, salami, cheese and paprika ketchup in a sourdough bun. Pub chain Fayre & Square sells a pizza burger – a cheeseburger wrapped in pizza bread. Burgers are also commonly being served on brioche rather than plain rolls.

And while burgers seem to have declined somewhat in this round of research, the popularity of hot dogs and pork ribs has been something of a surprise. There are now 31% more hot dog dishes on menus than there were this time last year, and with gourmet twists to them, too – Giraffe features a Chimi-Chow-Chow Hot Dog, while Garfunkels has a Hickory Red Hot Dog and pub chain Fayre & Square has Mini Corn Dogs.

The popularity of hot dogs owes something to customer familiarity, relative cheapness and the fact they are easy to eat. For operators, they are quick to prepare and easy to dress up, offering good margins with few overheads. 

But while hot dogs are being rediscovered, pulled meat has been very much the story of the past two years. News that KFC has added a pulled chicken range to its long-standing menu and has hailed 2014 ‘the year of the pulled chicken’ means pulled meat has really become mainstream. Arguably somewhat behind last year’s trend, KFC has launched a pulled barbecue chicken range served in burger buns and wraps.  

Pulled meat is slow-cooked so it becomes tender and can be pulled apart with a fork. Pork and beef are traditionally the meats cooked in this way so it remains to be seen how popular KFC’s new range will become, as purists argue chicken is too lean to be slow-cooked.

American  style: Mains, on the side and cheaper cuts

Another trend we’ve observed through the Menurama research is the continual American­isation of foodservice menus, with the inclusion of particular ingredients and side dishes that we’ve long seen on US menus. Frankie & Benny’s menu has Chicken Louisiana Skins and New Yorker Crunchy Salad, Pret a Manger sells a New Yorker On Rye and Best Western has Slow Roasted Pulled Pork Denver Fries.

Flavoured coleslaw (or ‘slaw’) is another US-inspired trend. Blue Cheese Slaw With Chopped Jalapeño can be found at Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Asian Slaw at TGI Friday’s and Spicy Slaw at Brewer’s Fayre.

Menurama has also revealed the re-emergence of macaroni cheese – but with interesting toppings. Pitcher & Piano sells Crayfish Mac ’n’ Cheese, while Revolution is serving Fennel Sausage Mac ’n’ Cheese.

While the UK’s foodservice sector is starting to emerge from the downturn, with the frequency of eating out rising for the first time this year, operators are improving their margins by adding value to cheaper ingredients. A good example of this is the flat iron steak, an American name for a steak from the shoulder of the animal cut with the grain, producing a tasty steak from a slightly tougher piece of meat. Flat iron steaks were non-existent on our surveyed menus last summer, but it now appears as a key ingredient in 17 dishes. Beefeater, for example, is selling a 6oz Flat Iron Steak, as is Scream, owned by the Stonegate Pub Company, with more than 30 outlets.

Morning and evening: Healthier and sharing options

New dishes on menus provide a useful insight into the changing ways in which we live and eat, none more so than the emergence of the concept of eating breakfast outside the home. During the downturn, when consumers were really watching their spend, this emerged as a growing trend, as consumers looked to treat themselves without spending huge amounts of money.

Eating breakfast outside the home is now fairly well established and menus are incorporating healthier alternatives to traditional cooked breakfasts and/or pastries. The rolled oats-based Bircher Muesli appears on 67% more menus than it did last summer, including those of Starbucks and Eat. Breakfast pots-to-go have also taken off, with Eat selling a Breakfast Hot Pot of ham hock, eggs and beans. 

And when consumers do eat out more substantially, they want the option of sharing, choosing lighter options or half-plates. Horizons has been discussing the concept of sharing plates for some time now – a concept that really took off during the recession as consumers looked for value-conscious ways to share food with friends. Dishes such as sliders have become popular features of casual dining menus and are still growing, with the number of sliders on menus having risen 64% since summer 2013. 

For the first time in our Menurama research, we also saw the strong emergence of another theme – dishes from less mainstream cuisines have moved from being offered only by specialist pan-Asian brands to mainstream pub and restaurant chains as well. Katsu dishes (breadcrumbed and fried meat) have increased by more than 300% since summer 2010, with wasabi featuring in four times as many dishes as it did a year ago. 

Ideas for serving dishes are also becoming less traditional, with operators taking their cues from street food and serving some dishes on trash cans or planks.

Menurama also tracks food labelling on menus. The popularity of knowing where your food has come from seems to rise and fall, but the interest in gluten-free and general ‘free-from’ food is clearly increasing, particularly as the industry approaches the launch of the allergen regulations in December.

The number of ‘free-from’ dishes tracked by Menurama this summer has risen 9% year-on-year, with mainstream operators such as Pitcher & Piano selling a flourless chocolate brownie, and Café Zest selling wheat-free crêpes.

What’s clear is the continual importance of innovation in dishes, ingredients, cuisines and the way the food is served. Constant innovation is how foodservice operators survived the downturn and they are now well-placed to make the most of the foodservice economy as it continues to improve. 

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Peter Backman is the managing director of Horizons, the analyst and specialist information consultant for the foodservice and hospitality sector.

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