Over the past year, a majority of operators streamlined their menus to manage through the pandemic. In fact, the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Industry Report showed that 63% of fine dining and half of casual and family dining restaurants now offer fewer items.
In today’s hypercompetitive market, operators must ensure that the dishes remaining on their menu will successfully draw customers. Knowing which attributes and ingredients consumers want the items they order to contain can help chefs develop offerings that are both rich in those things and likely to sell.
Recent research indicates consumers are looking for the following when they order or dine out:
Support for a Healthy Lifestyle
Although today’s consumers have been craving rich, indulgent foods during the pandemic, they’re not ready to go all in. Many of them are also interested in “a healthier approach to things,” says Dietician and Chef Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN, who develops recipes for operators and other clients. (She’s also worked as a chef in the restaurant industry and for a global restaurant group’s consulting arm.) “It doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other,” Gellman stresses.
Indeed, half of consumers surveyed by ADM say they have a preference for foods and beverages that naturally contain beneficial ingredients.
The dairy category is full of options that can satisfy demands for both indulgence and functional benefits, says Nikki Trzeciak, executive chef and senior manager, culinary and sensory for Saputo Dairy USA. Consider, for example, cheese, yogurt, buttermilk and milk, which are appealing to consumers not only for their taste but also because they’re excellent sources of protein and can contribute to bone and heart health.
Gellman agrees, noting that buttermilk and yogurt are especially tasty, protein-packed additions to baked goods, waffles, and salad dressings. “A chef could use cream or sour cream for a dip or a cream-based soup but could also use yogurt to make it [lower fat] and also taste rich,” she explains.
Digestive and Immunity Enhancement
According to a 2020 global survey by Euromonitor International, roughly a quarter of consumers have digestive health issues, and half of them feel it has a moderate to severe impact on their overall health. Some are turning to foods that contain probiotics—a category 42% of consumers surveyed by Datassential said they’d be willing to pay more for.
Cottage cheese is an excellent source of probiotics and an increasingly popular ingredient on restaurant menus. According to Datassential’s 2020 Cheese and Dairy SNAP! Keynote Report, 46% of operators consider cottage cheese a menu mainstay, and another 16% use it on a seasonal basis or for specials. Roughly one-quarter of operators also report that guests are ordering cottage cheese more often than they did a year ago.
Judy Whisler, vice president, knowledge and insights for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) expects the focus on dairy and other items that boost gut health and immunity to last well beyond the pandemic. “We will see a continued uptick in interest,” she says. “Gut health, which ties to brain health, is one of the biggest areas” consumers are looking to support through their food and beverage choices.
Bite-Size Ordering Options
According to Datassential research from 2019, snacks are nearly universal on menus, with 97% of operators offering them and 68% considering them profitable to their overall operation. Consumers, meanwhile, say they purchase snacks from either fast food, family-style sit-down, fine dining or other restaurants anywhere from once a week to once a month; nearly a third (31%) believe healthful snacks can be just as craveable as indulgent snacks.
Cheese is a popular snacking choice. In fact, cheese-forward appetizers like curds and balls are among the fastest growing, with menu penetration up 68% and 56%, respectively, since 2016.
Restaurants are also offering dairy-based dips and other appetizers. Papa John’s, for instance, introduced Jalapeño Popper Rolls stuffed with cream cheese and served with a side of ranch in early 2020. And fast casual chain Taziki’s Mediterranean Café offers a whipped feta spread drizzled with honey and served with pita.
“Some people might consider ricotta savory in pasta dishes, but you can also whip it with honey or maple syrup and it becomes a sweet item—as a garnish or filling, or on its own,” Gellman says. “Add chocolate chips to it or fruit, and you have a little snack-size indulgence or dessert.”
ADM research shows that 44% of U.S. consumers now identify as flexitarian; more than half (56%) of consumers worldwide are trying to eat more plant-based foods and beverages, including dairy alternatives such as plant-based yogurt.
“We’re seeing more and more flexitarians emerge,” Trzeciak acknowledges. “People are starting to understand the effects their choices are having on the planet and our food system.”
However, because acid and fat levels in milk derived from cows are different from those in plant-based dairy, it can be challenging to cook with these alternatives, Gellman cautions. “You can see the difference; it’s apparent,” she says. “It’s not going to be a one-for-one swap in most cases, but you can try to finesse it. Maybe boil down the almond milk until it’s thicker to try to use it as a replacement for heavy cream, for example.”
Getting the Word Out
Having menu items that support health, are produced sustainability and have other positive attributes can help attract customers—but only if they know the items exist.
Many operators promote these attributes via their in-house and online menus. To let customers know you serve dishes that contain protein-packed or other healthful ingredients, Trzeciak recommends using symbols or icons in menu item callouts. “You can often find a callout in the menu item description—something like ‘Niman Ranch chicken’ or ‘Sheila’s greens,’ referencing the farm or ranch where the product comes from,” she explains.
If you’re going to include food production process information on your website, Gellman suggests keeping it brief. “To some people, it may be important that it’s local; others might be more concerned about the farm’s practices,” she says. “If you carry products from a farm, give its website or the location. If customers are so inclined, [they’ll] do the research to find out more.”
Operators also may benefit from including a number of dairy-based items on their menu—particularly if they use social media to educate consumers about the advantages dairy can provide, Whisler adds.
“Where dairy is concerned, being connected to key influencers and opinion leaders and having it linked back to why it’s good for you is really important,” she says. “That’s the nice thing about dairy: It can be used across a variety of menu items from an indulgence standpoint, but also for health and wellness. The more [items] that incorporate dairy—or things that are going to make a difference with dairy—the better.”
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