A. Elizabeth Sloan

Start your day with sunnyside-up eggs with crab cakes or fried clams? Veggie burgers and buffalo chili on burger-chain menus? Southern ravioli stuffed with barbecued pork, pureed blackeyed peas, or catfish? Or Mexican egg rolls? You bet.

With American tastes staying closer to home, creative chefs are mixing foods long tied to traditional day parts and courses, using more exotic and/or regional varieties of familiar ingredients, or simply making surprise substitutions to add pizzazz to flavorful favorites and traditional foods.

It used to be that some foods were primarily served at a specific day part or even as a particular course, but today anything goes and chefs are taking advantage of mixing and matching foods, flavors, and forms. Among the most significant trends is the migration of nontraditional protein foods into the breakfast arena. Chick-fil-A is breaking new ground serving chicken and biscuit sandwiches at breakfast time. Atlanta Bread Co. recently added panini and hot breakfast sandwiches to its menu, including hearty flavors such as char-grilled chicken pesto and Cuban pork loin, while other eateries are serving seafood or fish  alongside traditional morning fare.

In contrast, sweet dessert-like flavors are also infiltrating early morning fare. Copeland’s now offers Stuffed French Toast Bananas Foster, Sonic sells breakfast fruit taquitos, and others feature strawberry shortcake waffles or chocolate éclair/chip combinations. At the same time, clever chefs have taken dipping—once a dining behavior limited to appetizers and French dips—into the dessert category. Savor Shakey’s Bakeys—cookies served with sweet dipping sauce; On the Border’s Apple & Strawberry Chimichangas; or New York City’s Happy Ending Bar & Café’s steamed banana dumplings with milk chocolate  fondue. Conversely, miniature versions of classic main dishes such as Beef Wellington, stuffed mini-rolled chicken breasts, and poppable pot pies are now being menued as appetizers and snacks. And the sandwich category is following suit, turning entrees such as Quizno’s Chicken Carbonara into sandwich-like, heartier portable fare.

Other chefs have learned that sometimes just switching a few ingredients—witness the success of fish tacos—is simply enough to grab customer attention. According to the Chain Account Menu Survey, turkey, chicken, buffalo, ostrich, and tuna are increasingly appearing on menus and using the burger descriptor. For example, Country Kitchen’s Bird ’n Bacon Burger features a turkey patty topped with homemade ranch dressing and peppered bacon. Odboda has introduced a Mexican egg roll and Buffalo chili. Chevy’s quesadillas offer a novel twist—its Tucson ’Dilla is filled with tomato, basil, and mozzarella cheese, while its Taste of Napa Valley ’Dilla features chicken, apple, and brie. Bennigan’s Spinach, Chicken, and Artichoke Quesadilla combination offers some of America’s newest flavors in an unexpected way. Hardee’s is switch hitting with a Philly Roast Beef Sandwich, as is the Roadhouse Grill with its Spicy Thai Slaw, featuring not only slivered veggies but peanuts, crunchy capellini, and sweet ’n spicy dressing, too. Others find substituting unanticipated flavors can also be a hit, witness beer-battered fish and chips, jalapeño cheese grits, or Roadhouse’s Mesquite Grilled Corn-on-the-Cob and Blue Curaçao Lemonade.

And, when it comes to health, alternative soyfoods have rewritten the book. Driven primarily by increasing sales of soymilk, energy bars, meat alternatives, and cold cereal products, soyfood sales in the United States reached $3.2 billion in 2001 (up 16.8% in retail sales), according to Soyatech/SPINS. Sales of soy-based foods were up 26.8% in mainstream supermarkets, compared to 11.8% in natural-product supermarkets and 5.5% all other natural food stores. In mainstream supermarkets, soymilk sales grew 45.8% in 2001 to $550 million and are projected to reach $1 billion in the next 3–5 years. Meat alternatives increased 14.5% to $440.3 million.

Not surprisingly, key marketers are following suit. Burger King launched its BK Veggie Burger, the first veggie burger offered nationally at a limited-service restaurant chain. McDonald’s units in Canada debuted a “Lighter Choices” menu with seven items, including a McVeggie Burger soy patty on a whole-wheat bun, a roasted vegetable salad with chicken, and its Mandarin California Greens salad, with field greens, mandarin oranges, cashews, almonds, sunflower kernels, coconut, raisins, pumpkin seeds, candied papaya, and a fat-free raspberry vinaigrette.

As today’s chefs continue to meet the challenges of being more creative and “careful” in a more culinary sphere, they will combine new tastes, trends, and forms built on simple ingredients, simple substitutions, and the simply unexpected flavor pairings of common and regional fare.

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