A. Elizabeth Sloan

Americans have never before been so obsessed with, or lived so vicariously through, food. In fact, food is now America’s favorite topic of conversation. Cited by 75% of consumers, it’s followed by travel 71%, restaurants 64%, and movies 61%, according to Bon Appetit’s 2002 How America Eats survey. Not surprisingly, the nation’s 78 million aging Baby Boomer “foodies”—the most culinary literate, most food-active, and highest-disposable-income generation in history—have created a powerful market for more provocative, flavorful, fun, and sometimes even functional fare. Nowhere is the increasing level of food sophistication and diversity more evident than in the trend-setting restaurant segment, and smart consumer product marketers will follow suit.

According to Restaurants & Institutions’ 2001 Menu Census, conducted every other year among more than 7,700 commercial and noncommercial restaurant operators, American diners are showing an appetite for a startling combination of culinary cutting-edge and homespun Americana and ethnic foods. Seafood showed the most significant increases in menu frequency and sales since 1999. Of the top five greatest gains in on-menu status, four are seafood—salmon tartare (No. 1, up 208%), tilapia (No. 2, 54%), sea bass (No. 4, 31%), and mahi mahi (No. 9); salmon tartare is still found almost exclusively at some fine-dining and hotel operations. Restaurants and noncommercial operations serving artisan or specialty bread also rose 30%—panini sandwiches ranked No. 7 on the menu-gainer list and flatbreads No. 15—while chai tea (No. 6) grew 27%.

When it comes to menu’s gainers, “flavored but familiar” remains an important theme. R&I reports that the presence of cheese fries on menus increased 33% since 1999; barbecued beef/brisket placed No. 11, steak salad No. 12, and sirloin/top butt steak No. 14. With a greater presence of more slow-roasted meat options flagging a demand for savory, it isn’t out of character that hot & sour soup placed No. 9 and over-indulgent crème brulee No. 10. Mexican, Northern Italian, Cajun/Creole, Tex-Mex, and Chinese are the ethnic cuisines most often represented currently, while Caribbean cuisine emerged as the style of fare that respondents are most interested in adding to the menu.

It’s clear that America’s love affair with meat is far from over. Flavor-intensive meats continue their resurgence, with big increases in “good seller” ratings since 1999—barbecue beef 138%, pulled pork 59%, and barbecued-beef sandwiches 81%. With the growing influence of rodizios (skewered-steak houses) from Latin America and the increasing popularity of Far Eastern and Indian cuisine, satay/skewers grabbed the fifth slot of food showing the greatest increases in sales, and beef kebabs (65%, No. 9). In the area of starches, polenta’s standing as a good seller rose, surpassing ubiquitous macaroni and cheese. Foods making marked increases in “good seller” status since the 1999 R&I Menu Census include éclairs and cream puffs (also known as profiteroles), Asian noodle bowls, ice-cream cake, and carpaccio (thinly sliced raw beef).

There is no doubt that when it comes to setting long-term, mainstream culinary trends, the white-tablecloth/fine-dining segment generally sets the pace. Smoked salmon ranks near the top of foods increasing in sales, and foie gras is a leader among foods that high-end restaurants say they are most likely to add to menus. These operators also point to bruschetta, carpaccio, and antipasto—ways to offer interesting flavor profiles—as leading possibilities to join the menu.

The menu survey results support two ongoing trends that are perhaps most prevalent in the fine-dining segment. Customers are open to new tastes when food is familiar in some way, and they view dining out as an opportunity to explore new tastes. For example, while 77% of fine-dining operators responding to the survey offer classic Caesar salad, 55% also offer a Caesar salad with chicken and 39% a version with shrimp. Likewise, while a tomato-based red sauce is the most common pasta accompaniment in other foodservice segments, fine-dining operators are most likely to offer pasta topped with shrimp or chicken.

Leading sellers among ethnic cuisines in fine-dining restaurants since 1999 include pasta with shrimp for Italian, quesadillas for Mexican, and vegetable stir-fry for Asian. Fine-dining operators give equal nods to Latin American and Caribbean foods as the cuisines they are most interested in adding to menus, followed closely by Japanese. Beverages show the greatest leap among menu categories increasing in sales, with wine and champagne, cappuccino, espresso, and bottled still water displaying the largest gains.

When a significant number of major casual-dining and family restaurant chains embrace a cuisine or menu item, the time is right for consumer food product marketers to follow suit.

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.