Long relegated to side dishes and light options for the calorie conscious, vegetables are getting comfortable in the center of the plate as entrées, presented as filling and complete on their own. A GrubHub report found that its customers ordered vegan food 19 percent more in the first half of 2017 than in the same period a year earlier. Sports icons are also lending their star power to the plant-based trend — Shaquille O’Neal and more than a dozen other top athletes recently invested in the vegan Beyond Meat to promote the performance-enhancing benefits of plant-based diets. Menu trends analyst Nancy Kruse told Nation’s Restaurant News that vegetables are standing out on menus in three key categories. One dish doesn’t necessarily work for every restaurant, however, so if you understand who your guests are and what they crave, you can add subtle nuance to your vegetable-based dishes in ways that boost sales. First, veg-focused foods feature vegetables in place of grains and meats in dishes such as the potato lo mein (with potato strands standing in for noodles) at Philadelphia’s Vedge. Veg-forward options promote the craveability and health of vegetables, with well-sourced animal proteins playing a supporting role as condiments or a condensed choice of entrées. At DC’s Beefsteak, for example, the BEETSteak burger features marinated beets and condiments like pickled onion, lettuce, sprouts and vegan chipotle mayo. Finally, veg-friendly options vie for the attention of carnivores, flexitarians and vegetarians alike. Operators have to get creative here to stand out. Kruse says Park City, Utah’s Twisted Fern succeeds with dishes such as a root-veg cassoulet with stewed white beans and herbs, then adding roasted root vegetables in place of animal protein. If you need help with plant-based menu and ingredient development, new options are appearing on the horizon all the time. (One example is Fieldcraft, the Austin-based startup that is rapidly developing a large B2B marketplace for plant-based ingredients.)
As consumers are demanding their favorite foods whenever and wherever they like, an important trend has taken shape that may be here to stay: The barriers between meal times are becoming more fluid. NPD Group expects that afternoon and evening snacking will continue to grow in popularity, and industry analysts are looking at the trend as a reason for operators to offer all-day menus and extend their hours to make better use of their real estate. Skift Table reports that Taco Bell has made a push to claim lucrative late-night business, McDonald’s has won over customers with its all-day breakfast, and Starbucks has even shifted its employees’ administrative tasks to closing time so they have more opportunity to engage with guests in the afternoon and give stores a more homey feel that encourages snacking.
Does your restaurant have creative ways of sharing what you do best — whether it be inventing new dishes or surprising guests with unexpected pairings or presentations? For years, operators have used Restaurant Week offers to bring guests in during slow periods, attract people who wouldn’t normally visit and test new menu ideas — but the event needs some reinvention. While it can be profitable for operators, many say that Restaurant Week turns off regular clientele, can be costly to manage and has grown to include so many restaurants that it is difficult to stand out in the crowd. In place of Restaurant Week, operators are coming up with more experimental concepts. Upserve reports that “Off Menu Week,” a joint effort between Resy and Capital One, is taking off in six food-focused cities ranging from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York. Participating restaurants will serve dishes that may appear on a future restaurant menu, off-menu items, or one-hit wonders that didn’t make it to the menu. Bloomberg reports that participating restaurants could offer such experiences as having guests try a dish with a selection of wines designed to draw out different flavors, or demonstrating different approaches to making sushi. The goal isn’t about showcasing signature dishes or trying to attract guests looking for a good deal — it’s about providing a behind-the-scenes experience visitors will remember.
At a time when many operators are looking to scale down their restaurant footprints to accommodate service model changes and stay profitable, every square inch of food preparation space counts. At the recent NAFEM, the show hosted by the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers of Chicago, the theme was about helping operators do more with less, using tools ranging from multifunctional prep stations on wheels to compact, high-efficiency ovens to electric bakers with interchangeable molds for accommodating a wide range of snack foods. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that a highlight of the show was a collaboration between the equipment company Vulcan and the quick-service seafood restaurant Captain D’s. The restaurant had challenged Vulcan to devise a more efficient fryer, and the result was a smaller fryer that can be mounted on a freezer base and allows a worker to complete a task while standing in place. In stores currently using the fryers, fry times decreased 30 percent and the stores saved $10,000 annually. Where is there an opportunity to increase the efficiency of your kitchen?
Delivery has long been more about convenience than taste — it’s hard to make a delivered meal tastier than one served right out of the kitchen, right? Well, that may be changing as operators think more scientifically about food preparation and delivery. The Spoon reports that the fast-casual brand Dig Inn just piloted a delivery-only virtual kitchen called Room Service that rethinks food preparation for delivered foods. In a restaurant, for example, Dig Inn cooks salmon to medium-rare at 115˚F and then serves it immediately. Salmon ordered for delivery via Room Service, however, is plated rare at 105˚F, then paired with a hot potato puree that travels well. Along the route, the puree warms the salmon so the transit time improves the quality of the item when served. It’s food for thought for restaurant operators offering delivery. As ghost kitchens become more prevalent and improve upon the methods long used for delivery, how well do your food preparation plan and food safety program adapt?
Americans currently eat half of their weekly meals on the go, according to Statista research. If you haven’t yet taken steps to accommodate the convenience-driven consumer looking to satisfy a craving, you stand to lose market share to not only restaurant competitors but also to grocery and convenience stores offering prepared food. A QSR Magazine report suggests operators looking for a greater share of grab-and-go business ensure their menu effectively promotes the brand. While grab-and-go food is becoming ubiquitous, it can fall short when it’s too generic, with the expected mix of yogurt parfaits, fruit cups and pre-packaged sandwiches. If you have a dish or even a condiment that is a signature item, find a way to translate it to your grab-and-go menu. The report also advises operators tap into the millennial mindset when selecting and packaging grab-and go menu items. Think locally sourced, plant-based foods and “ugly” produce, along with environmentally friendly packaging that demonstrates your commitment to cutting back on waste. Consider using packaging that not only showcases your food effectively but can be returned and reused (in exchange for a discount on a future order, perhaps). Layered salads or smoothies served up in glass mason jars are just two examples. Finally, don’t forget to weave in on-trend flavors. A report from The Caterer suggests Japanese-inspired dishes like gyoza dumplings or yakisoba noodles can add interest and health to a grab-and-go menu, along with fruit-and-herb infused beverages.