The Shape of Things to Come

By Maria Pilar Clark

In 2007, foodservice operators in the $1.3 trillion restaurant industry will continue to add items to their menus that reflect interest in artisan breads, indulgent desserts, fresh ingredients and a fusion of international and even exotic flavors.

American consumers finally are making the connection between good food and good health. As a result, foodservice operators, fast-casual dining chains and even quick-service restaurants (QSRs) are re-shaping the way we eat by whittling portions down to snackable sizes and incorporating the use of fresh and sometimes organic ingredients.
Perhaps more importantly, the restaurant industry is discovering new ways to make dining out an enjoyable, yet affordable, experience, as opposed to concentrating on less-than-memorable cookie-cutter items that are whisked from warming light to waiting customer in two seconds flat.
Words such as “handcrafted,” “old-fashioned,” “artisan,” “premium,” “homemade” and “fresh” all are becoming standard foodservice vernacular, peppering both menu boards and product packaging throughout the nation. This movement has led foodservice experts to believe that consumers want more options, including fruit, sandwiches made with fresh vegetables and lean meats on warm bread, and sweet treats to top it all off.
Whether it’s a panini, po’boy, melt or muffaletta, portable items created a resurgent market worth more than $121 billion in 2005, according to “Sandwiches in the U.S.: Foodservice and Retail Market and Trends,” the latest market research from Packaged Facts, a division of
Sales at quick-service restaurant chains such as Wendy’s and Burger King accounted for 45% of the sandwich market. However, Packaged Facts projects that the market will continue to grow exponentially, due in part to the overwhelming success experienced by upscale sandwich chains.
For example, Deerfield, Ill.-based Cosi Inc. has a menu that offers more than 50 “customizable” items, including specialty flatbread sandwiches, melts, pizzas and bagel breakfast sandwiches.
The quick-casual chain uses unique artisan flatbread as the menu’s foundation, which is then enhanced by a global taste profile that includes everything from Italian to Asian-inspired flavors such as tandoori spices, pickled ginger, sesame soy glaze and wasabi mayonnaise.
The gourmet operator is trying to create points of differentiation to what the major QSR chains have to offer. For instance, Cosi’s Vegi Muffaletta combines grilled eggplant, chopped green olives, banana peppers, green onions, olive oil, provolone, parmesan cheese and shredded romaine. With table service, menu customization and an average check of $8, Cosi is attempting to bridge the gap between traditional QSRs and full-service dining concepts.
Similarly, Einstein Bros. Bagels — a registered trademark of Einstein and Noah Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of New World Restaurant Group of Golden, Colo. — is livening up consumers’ dining choices. No longer just a traditional bagel chain. Einstein Bros. Bagels provides consumers with a choice of customizable breakfast and lunch sandwiches that set out “to prove that even if your morning is short on leisure, it can be long on taste,” according to the company.
The hot Santa Fe Omelet bagel sandwich, for instance, is piled high with turkey sausage, rancho lime salsa, jalapeño cream cheese and Pepper Jack cheese. Another popular choice is the grilled Steak & Egg Ranchero panini omelet sandwich, made with a light, fluffy egg omelet on grilled ciabatta bread, with shaved sirloin, roasted green chilies and Pepper Jack cheese.
Get a New Look
In addition to freshness and variety, consumers want sandwich alternatives that are perceived as healthful and create an image where quality meets value.
“When you look at the foodservice/casual dining/banqueting and catering segments, chefs and foodservice managers are increasingly looking for new ways to offer quality, fresh or fresh-like ingredients and menu items, and unique flavor combinations that cut down on prep time and don’t break the bank,” notes Bill Buckingham, vice president of sales and marketing for Cleveland, Ohio-based Athens Foods, a producer of fillo dough and shells.
“Many of our products — such as the Athens Mini Fillo Shells — combine a light, flaky, fresh-like texture with a delicious taste, and they have no cholesterol and no trans fat,” he adds. “Since they come already pre-baked and shaped into shells, chefs and foodservice managers save on all the time it would’ve taken them to use regular fillo dough sheets, yet they still can be incorporated into high-end items.”
With these advances, chefs and foodservice managers can prepare what Buckingham calls “lighter, flakier, crunchier, tastier, faster, fancier appetizers, main dishes and desserts with no prep time, since they’re fully baked. So you’ve just accomplished a lot with that one product.”
Consumer demand for exotic flavors and ethnic ingredients also has driven Athens’ Chef Advisory Board to create recipes that will tempt taste buds and impact the company’s bottom line.
“The demand for exotic flavors and ethnic ingredients is an offshoot of the Mediterranean, South/Central American and Asian food trends that are en vogue,” Buckingham says. “At Athens, we’ve even extended our product line to accommodate these trends in foodservice. For example, we offer a black bean shell that works in many South American and Asian recipes, a corn shell for Southwestern [or] South American recipes and two varieties of shells — Spinach and Tomato — that are perfect for many Mediterranean dishes.”
The idea of premium value is not an oxymoron. Rather, it has long defined Athens’ market. Since its fillo’s delicate layers, taste and texture can make any filling ingredient upscale, “consumers end up satisfied with a sophisticated menu item, and the foodservice operation makes a good margin on a relatively inexpensive and easy-to-prepare dish,” Buckingham explains.
A Major League Response
The major players in the foodservice industry are responding to the competitive environment with innovative menu options of their own.
Taco Bell Corp. — based in Irvine, Calif., and a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, Inc. — urges consumers to “think outside the bun” and has created “the fourth meal” eating occasion, which it identified as the time between dinner and breakfast.
The nation’s leading Mexican-style QSR chain serves tacos, burritos, quesadillas, Grilled Stuft Burritos, nachos and other specialty items such as its Crunchwrap Supreme. Serving more than 2 billion consumers each year in more than 5,800 restaurants in the United States, Taco Bell is generating sales of $1.8 billion.
On the other hand, Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s USA is focusing more on promoting the nutritious, wholesome ingredients and variety of its menu.
“Consumers want real nutrition, real food that is fresh, safe and of the highest quality,” says Dan Coudreaut, director of culinary innovation, McDonald’s USA. “They want bold flavors that are comforting, but also challenge and excite the palates of today’s consumers. Additionally, they’re looking for convenient, on-the-go food solutions, and all of the above at a great value.”
However, McDonald’s USA has taken steps beyond just offering its customers nutrition information on its Web site by contracting world-class consultants, such as Bob Greene, Oprah Winfrey’s personal trainer, as a part of its “Go Active! American Challenge” educational initiative. Dr. Dean Ornish, and founder of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Calif., also consults for McDonald’s and offers consumers tips for heart health and managing a diet when eating at the quick-serve giant.
“The world is getting smaller, and our guests are becoming more familiar with different world flavors,” Coudreaut explains. “What was exotic five years ago is mainstream today, and the challenge is not to push our guests too fast, but to stay ahead of the curve of the flavor trends.
“We at McDonald’s also help set the trends, and a good example would be the edamame in our newest Premium Salad, the Asian Salad,” he adds.
Choice and variety are of utmost importance to QSR diners, and McDonald’s keeps ahead of the curve by offerings its guests superior quality products at a value price across its entire menu.
“We are customer-focused,” Coudreaut notes. “If it doesn’t resonate with our guests, we will not pursue it. We will always reenergize the QSR segment with innovative new products, great operational execution, great marketing and advertising, an assured supply and superior customer service. We are most successful when we are hitting on all cylinders.”
McDonald’s serves an average of 25 million customers every day in the United States and keeps them lining up under the Golden Arches with a menu that is constant, yet fresh, and by offering its patrons consistent value options and a premium taste that can’t be beat, the company says.
It’s these kinds of advances in fast-food fare that are further boosting restaurant industry sales, which, according to the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) “2007 Restaurant Industry Forecast,” are expected to reach a record $537 billion in 2007 — that translates to a 5% increase over 2006 sales.
The report further notes that “the industry is heading into 2007 as an economic powerhouse and an essential part of Americans’ lifestyle, with Americans spending 47.9% of their food budget in restaurants.”
“Restaurants touch millions of lives every day by serving quality meals, providing abundant career and employment opportunities for individuals of all backgrounds, and being a driving force in the U.S. economy and local communities nationwide,” says Steven C. Anderson, the NRA’s president and chief executive officer. “The restaurant industry will enter its 16th consecutive year of real growth in 2007 and will have a total economic impact that will exceed $1.3 trillion.”
Sweet News for Bakers
In addition to economic and workforce growth, the “2007 Restaurant Industry Forecast” also points to a sweet-tooth trend. An NRA survey of more than 1,000 chefs concluded that bite-sized desserts are “in,” leading pastry chefs such as Jean-Yves Charon, founder of Richmond, Calif.-based Galaxy Desserts to add more innovative flavors to his company’s product profile.
The purveyor of croissants, biscuits, and flash-frozen gourmet handcrafted desserts is focusing on what he calls the keys to success.
“Consumers want to see small portions, fresh, healthy, flavorful, innovative cuisine on their dessert plates, with more exotic flavors or ethnic ingredients such as chipotle peppers and curry,” Charon notes.
Additionally, small portions that can be easily customized by hoteliers and restaurants are in demand. Asian flavors also are hot, which led Charon to create a new collection of Asian Duo Mousses, including Black Sesame Crème Brulee, Mango Crème Brulee, Lemon Ginger Crème Brulee and Green Tea Crème Brulee.
“Creative inspiration and market awareness fueled the creation of the Asian Duo Mousses, with the only challenge being the overwhelming excitement and desire for our product by our customers, who keep wiping us out of all the product we have on hand,” Charon says.
In the end, he adds, that’s “a good problem to have.”
What’s HOT
The National Restaurant Association’s “2007 Restaurant Industry Forecast” reveals the latest in consumer and menu trends, including bite-sized desserts, locally grown and organic produce, flatbread and bottled water. Other “hot” items include pomegranates; figs; grass-fed and free-range meat; fresh herbs and exotic mushrooms; whole-grain breads and focaccia; Mediterranean, Latin American and Pan Asian fusion cuisines; salts, aged meats and ginger; pan-seared, grilled and braised items; specialty sandwiches; and Asian appetizers.
Dashboard Dining Diminishes
Findings from the National Restaurant Association’s “2007 Restaurant Industry Forecast” show that 36% of adults are eating on–the-go less frequently now than they did two years ago. In addition, 48% say they also eat in their cars less frequently.