The past couple of years have brought about a shift in what – and when – consumers eat. While they have hurried back to restaurant dining rooms for conventional meals, they have also embraced snacking in a new way. Eating several mini meals throughout the day is just about as common as eating three squares. A recent Nation’s Restaurant News report notes the growth in small plates and shareable items on menus around the country, including savory items like deviled-egg flights to sweet items like fried cookie dough bites. As a result of consumers’ greater openness to smaller, shareable plates, the boundaries between dayparts have come down. Most any new idea can find a place on the menu. This change opens up opportunities for restaurants looking to adjust opening hours, pivot to new formats, launch inventive limited-time offers, or simply entice people to order at different times so an operator can spread the lunch and dinner rush more evenly across the day (and perhaps make do with less labor). Focusing on snacks and shareable items also helps restaurants emphasize the experience of enjoying restaurant food with others – something which, during these times of high inflation, can help entice consumers to order from a restaurant instead of preparing food at home.
In 2021, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 6.2 percent following a record year of growth in 2020, bringing the total plant-based market value to an all-time high of $7.4 billion, according to data released from the Plant-Based Foods Association, The Good Food Institute and SPINS. Compared to total retail food sales during that time frame, plant-based food retail sales grew three times as fast. Consumers have an appetite for plant-based foods and are continuing to be open to trying plant-based versions of foods traditionally prepared with meat. Consider how you might apply this approach to your menu in even the meatiest of dishes. Where might you reinvent an appetizer or entrée with plant-based ingredients in place of meat, all while keeping the flavor and texture of the dish intact?
Remember when eating pasta felt like a guilty pleasure? It doesn’t have to anymore, thanks to the plethora of options available that can suit not only guests sensitive to gluten, but also those simply looking for their pasta to pack a more nutritious punch than the conventional variety. It’s an extra benefit when those alternative options don’t feel like a big sacrifice in the taste department. Consider offering options made from beans, chickpeas or lentils, fortified with protein and fiber, or made from sprouted grain.
You’re no doubt scrutinizing your menu amid ongoing inflation and supply shortages – and animal proteins, which are among the higher-priced foods that consumers and restaurant operators alike are paying for right now, are a key target for reinvention. Consumers are buying less meat at the grocery store due to higher prices and won’t be surprised to see more expensive meat (or fewer beef options) on the menu at the moment. So what’s the best alternative course of action? In addition to pork, which should continue to be a value option, poultry is likely to be a viable choice in the coming months. According to research from BTIG, poultry is due to see substantial deflation in the first quarter of 2023, even as beef prices are poised to continue their climb. In the meantime, while plant-based proteins continue to have an important place at the center of the plate, plant-based beef sales have dipped. (At a time when restaurant meals may be harder to justify, consumers may be more inclined to splurge on the experience of a beef burger over a plant-based one.) Restaurants may benefit by being extra purposeful with the beef-based options on the menu so they feel more experiential. Feature premium cuts as specials. Get creative with less expensive cuts by using them in flavorful marinades featuring on-trend spices. Offer slow-cooked beef to elevate the melt-in-your-mouth experience that helps you make the most of the beef you’re able to buy right now.
As energy and food costs have spiked for consumers and restaurant operators alike, it’s only natural to want to rein in spending. Restaurant operators may need to offer a little something extra to incentivize guests to place an order. While this doesn’t require extravagant ingredients – operators are pinching pennies too, after all – it does require some creativity and an interest in offering something that is difficult to find elsewhere and unlikely to be prepared at home. Looking at your menu, where can you elevate the experience you offer by injecting a little comfort, nostalgia or intrigue?
Is there anything cauliflower can’t do? Nutrient-dense and high in antioxidants, cauliflower has become a pantry superstar for its ability to stand in for legumes and grains. Increasingly accepted as a stand-in for traditional pizza crust and rice, try it in place of chickpeas in hummus or flour in tortillas. Since cauliflower can so readily absorb the flavors and seasonings around it, consider giving it a more prominent place among your plant-forward menu options. Think outside of the box: The restaurant Sweet Liberty in Miami Beach, Fla. recently won accolades for its vegetarian cauliflower nachos, which are made with cheese, sauteed cauliflower, avocado crema, radishes, pickled jalapeño and pomegranate seeds.
As consumers have moved plants to the center of the plate, their embrace of flexitarian options has extended to dairy alternatives. Even if your guests can tolerate dairy in their diets, they may still be curious about dairy alternatives and looking to try them – particularly as the tastes and textures of alternatives dairy products including milk, yogurt, ice cream and cheese have improved in recent years. These more shelf-stable options can help you stretch your inventory as well. Consider non-dairy alternatives in sauces, dips and dressings as a starting point.