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Luxury Items, Flavor Mashups Dominate Menu Trends

caviar on toast

Luxury items such as caviar, detailed descriptors signaling ingredient quality, and innovative flavor combinations are among the hottest menu trends to watch this year, according to research firm Technomic.

The company’s 2024 State of the Menu report looked at limited-time offers from the top 500 restaurant chains and top 40 convenience stores, and polled consumers about their reactions to these items. It also looked at overall menu trends across foodservice segments and dayparts.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the report was the growth in plant-based items on menus. This included a 131.2 percent increase in plant-based pork alternatives on limited-service lunch and dinner menus, and a 75 percent increase in imitation meat sandwiches on limited-service lunch and dinner menus.

“[Plant-based] is really growing in the limited-service space, and really expanding beyond burgers,” said Lizzy Freier, director of menu research and insights at Technomic.

In addition, oat milk was up 50 percent on limited-service breakfast menus, and cashew milk was up 26.1 percent.

The term “plant-based” was also the fastest-growing health claim on menus and was the leading health claim on limited-service breakfast menus in 2023.

Premium Ingredients See Menu Growth

As consumers became more cautious about their spending in 2023, and many cut back on restaurant visits, they still sought to make the most of those visits by exploring high-end ingredients such as caviar, truffles, and Wagyu beef. Caviar was up 56.2 percent on full-service lunch and dinner menus, while truffles and Wagyu beef were up 44.4 percent and 19 percent, respectively, on limited-service lunch and dinner menus.

“We know that consumers are going out less often today, but when they do, they are willing to spend more for a premium experience, which is why we are seeing a lot of luxury ingredients and preparations on menus,” said Freier.

Restaurants also leaned heavily into flavor experimentation in 2023, seeking to attract adventurous consumers. Limited-service restaurants, in addition to adding truffles to their lunch and dinner menus, also added roasted garlic (up 21 percent) and horseradish (up 20 percent), while at breakfast the term “spicy” shot up 48.3 percent.

Complex flavors, such as sweet heat, are also continuing to see growth on menus, and are expanding to include combinations such as sweet-umami, sour-spicy, and spicy-herbal. Examples include fermented honey at Here’s Looking at You in Los Angeles, and sweet-tangy-spicy chraimeh sauce at Acre Kitchen and Bar in Oakland, California.

Menus also continue to become more granular, with callouts for specific varieties of ingredients and specific regions of origin. This includes identifying the specific type of apple used, for example, such as the Honeycrisp apple butter in the Cheshire Pork Belly dish at The Monroe in Orlando, Florida. Other examples include identifying countries of origin, such as Haitian Honey or Senegalese-style chicken.

“This in-depth menu detail is really pushing quality, and certainly transparency,” said Freier,  “These are things that all consumers, especially younger ones, are really asking for more and more.”

 Tomatoes are Hot (and Cold)

The report also singled out the tomato as an ingredient to watch in 2024, citing its healthfulness, its broad appeal, and its increasing use in a variety of food and beverage applications in restaurants.

Tomatoes have been showing up in nontraditional ways on independent restaurant menus, including being featured in desserts and as a meat replacement, said Freier. Other nontraditional preparations include tomato jam, fermented and pickled tomato, frozen tomato appearing in dishes such as granitas, and tomato water. Tomatoes are also appearing in more cocktails, such as caprese-inspired vodka drinks.

Tomatoes are also featured in many global sauces, such as Japanese yum yum sauce, West African mafe stew, and others.

LTO Trends Include Beef, Comfort Foods, Spicy Dishes

Emerging foodservice trends were also evident in consumer attitudes toward the LTOs that restaurants offered in 2023.

For example, beef was prevalent in the top 10 LTOs ranked by consumers’ purchase intent. These included the Philly Cheesesteak at Ruby Tuesday, which was the top LTO by purchase intent, as well as burgers from Checkers and two bone-in ribeye steak dishes. The word “classic” also popped up frequently in the top 10 list of LTOs by purchase intent.

“When it comes to purchase intent, a lot of these items are familiar favorites,” said Mary Clare Metherd, senior research analyst at Technomic. “They are things people know and love, and sometimes they feature just a slight twist.”

The research also ranked the top 10 LTOs according to their uniqueness, which showed a surprising focus on better-for-you ingredients, as well as spicy preparations, said Metherd.

Topping the list was Crab-Topped Bang Fries at Bonefish Grill, followed by Blazin’ Knockout Sauce at Buffalo Wild Wings.

“We know that younger consumers are especially craving heat, and we know that heat combined with other flavor variations like sweet or citrus is very appealing to consumers,” said Metherd.

Among the health-focused items on the list were Greens and Grains from Modern Market Eatery, and Brussels Sprouts and Lentils from Silver Diner, while exotic flavors such as Umami Chili Yuzu Sauce from Gyu-Kaku, and a Petrossian Royal Caviar Double Baked Potato from Eddie V’s Prime Seafood also made the list.

The top 10 LTOs based on draw—the ability to attract incremental traffic—included some comfort foods and some flavor mashups as well. Topping the list were Peanut Butter and Banana Bacon Pancakes from Snooze, and A.M. Eatery, followed by Hot Honey Pepperoni Pizza from Donatos Pizza, and Buffalo Stampede Chicken Pasta from BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse.

Surf-and-turf combinations dominated the top 10 list of LTOs ranked by craveability. These include the Bacon Wrapped Hokkaido Scallop from Gyu-Kaku, the Scallop and Shrimp Filet Mignon at Bonefish Grill, and the Filet Mignon and Maine Lobster Tail at Seasons 52.

The report concluded with some recommendations, including:

• Look for menu extensions to cross-utilize existing SKUs, such as with mashups;

• Use precise, transparent descriptors of menu items, including specific cuts of meat and exact portion sizes;

• Lean into LTOs as a way to drive excitement, experiment with new items, such as a new sauce or glaze, and build expectation among customers who expect seasonal items year after year, and

• Look for ways to incorporate luxury or premium items, even as add-ons to more basic items, such as the caviar-topped baked potato from Eddie V’s.

“You can always iterate by leaning into premium additions, whatever that may mean to your brand,” said Freier.